Biddle Brother’s getaway sled is the tragic highlight of the Heinz History Center
A tale of forbidden love, chloroform and bullets.
The Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh houses an odd little artifact, a wooden sled, covered in bullet holes. The story of this 19th century sleigh is full of so much intrigue that it inspired a Hollywood movie. It's a tale of forbidden love, chloroform, and bullets.
Kate Soffel was the wife of the warden of the Allegheny County Jail. As the wife of the warden, Kate Soffel made it her mission to try to rehabilitate prisoners, so she undoubtedly came into contact with them frequently. In a tale as old as time itself, she fell in love with a prisoner, five years her junior, a 30-year old convicted murderer, named Ed Biddle. Kate so desperately wanted to be with her beloved that she helped both him and his younger brother Jack (also a convicted murderer) escape in 1902, by supplying them with saws and guns.
The Biddle Brothers were the leaders of the “Chloroform Gang” and had been using chloroform and ether to incapacitate their victims in order to rob them. They were ultimately arrested and convicted in 1901 for the murder of a shopkeeper. They were awaiting execution by hanging when Kate fell madly in love with Ed, and was determined to rescue him.
At 4AM the brothers sawed through their cell doors and made a break for it. They wounded several guards, locking them in a cell and stealing their clothes. They had a 2 hour head start before the prison shift change.
It was a cold January day when the three made their daring escape down Route 19 to Perrysville, Pennsylvania. And in an unfortunate showing of hubris, one of the brothers decided to go to a nearby village inn to ask for some food, at which point the police were told where the fugitives were hiding and the chase was on, led by Charles “Buck” McGovern, who had been one of the detectives that caught the Biddles originally.
Below is a series of clips from the 1984 film: Mrs. Soffel.
The trio stole a horse and sleigh and drove towards Butler County, in the north. It was believed they were heading for Canada. The police posse followed in hot pursuit and ultimately surrounded the fugitives.
According to an eyewitness account from one of the detectives on the scene:
"The Biddles were sitting on the right side of the cutter. Mrs. Soffel was on the left side. "Hold up your hands and surrender," Detective McGovern commanded. Ed Biddle jumped up from his seat and, raising a shotgun, fired it at McGovern. He aimed badly, and the shot scattered on the road alongside of McGovern. Detectives McGovern and Roach discharged their Winchesters at Ed Biddle. Both shots took effect. John Biddle raised from the seat, and discharged his revolver at the three officers. Detective Swineheart settled himself and fired with a revolver at the man. The ball took effect in Biddle's arm. Then all the detectives opened fire on the Biddles. The shots knocked them out of the sleigh. Ed fell sprawling on the snow, and John fell on him." - New York Times
However, before John Biddle died he provided a conflicting account of the standoff:
"When we saw the officers coming towards us on the road yesterday evening we knew it was all up. We did not fire a shot at the officers, but agreed to kill ourselves. I shot myself in the mouth. 'Ed' shot himself over the heart. and [Kate Soffel] shot herself in the breast. We knew we had no chance to get away, and we knew we would swing if taken back, and that is why we wanted to kill ourselves." - New York Times
The two brothers both died from wounds in prison. Kate Soffel had shot herself, but she eventually recovered and was sent to prison. Before succumbing to his wounds, Jack Biddle denied the shooting death of both the shopkeeper, whom he was originally convicted for killing, and a detective that died during his arrest, according to "Origins of the Allegheny County Police”. The brothers had gained a sort of local celebrity following after they died. At their funeral viewing, they had attracted thousands of gawkers, some of whom believed they were innocent of their crimes. Both brothers are buried at Calvary cemetery.
For her part, Soffel served two years at the Western Penitentiary. Her husband lost his job as warden, divorced her, remarried and took her children with him and his second wife to Canton, Ohio, where they started a new life. Kate tried to make it in showbiz, but failed in that endeavor. She then became a dressmaker and died of typhoid fever in 1909, just 7 years after the harrowing events of January, 1902.
Recently featured in an episode of Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum, the sleigh has brought a fair bit of interest to the local Pittsburgh museum.
Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Heinz History Center notes that: “[The event was] something that captured the imagination of the public at the time. It was such a big story in our region. Even today, the story resonates with people. It’s truly amazing that a relic like this survived."
Clarence Polke of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes:
"While the sleigh is not part of any of the museum's current exhibits, the center is looking to open a visible storage gallery by summer for guests to view some of its prized pieces. More than 80 percent of the museum's artifact collection isn't on display, meaning there would be ample new pieces for the public, Mr. Smith said.”
The sleigh isn’t always on display but if you plan accordingly you may be able to entice the museum director to let you take a peak at the special collection.
In 1984, a major motion picture was produced titled Mrs. Soffel, based on the events, and starred Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson.
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