THE HOUSE ON RIDGE AVENUE
THE HISTORY, HAUNTINGS -- AND HOAX -- OF THE CONGOLIER MANSION, THE ORIGINAL "MOST HAUNTED HOUSE IN AMERICA"
For many years, stories circulated about what was called the "most haunted house in America." To look at the place, where it was located on the north side of Pittsburgh, they said, one might never suspect what dark secrets lingered inside. There were tales of bizarre murder, human experimentation and gruesome death told about the house and visits to the residence inspired horror stories and even a great inventor’s fascination with death and the afterworld. If any building deserved the reputation for being America’s most haunted house, it was this one!
Or so it seemed anyway… In truth, the “House on Ridge Avenue” was not one of America’s greatest haunts, but one of its greatest paranormal hoaxes. Despite a few others that have taken credit for the debunking of this story, I originally printed this exposé back in 2004. The story posted here is merely a slight update of some of the true facts in the case.
The story of the infamous "House on Ridge Avenue" has always been one of my favorite tales of ghosts, horror and the supernatural. I ran across this story for the first time back in 1979 and never forgot it. It chilled me to the bone and perhaps because I was at such an impressionable age then, I never doubted that the story was true. In the years that followed, my interest in the story never faded and as time passed, I should have realized that something was not quite right about it, but I never did. Or perhaps I never wanted to realize it or to doubt that the tale was not an authentic one. I refused to see that the story of the "Original Most Haunted House in America" seemed almost too good to be true. It seemed too good to be true - simply because it was.
I can't help but be embarrassed now as I look back and wonder how I didn't miss the signs in the first place. The story of the House on Ridge Avenue had appeared in at least one of my books on ghosts and I had even wrote a couple of magazine articles about it. By late 2003, my faith in the story had wavered and I became determined to try and track down the details of the story. It can sometimes be difficult to trace a story that occurred quite some distance away from you (which is my only excuse for being hoodwinked by the story for as long as I was) but I decided not to let the miles between Illinois and Pittsburgh stand in the way. If someone knew the facts behind this story, I wanted to find them.
As I began contacting people who should have been aware of the salient facts behind the story of the Ridge Avenue house, I realized that those who claimed knowledge were simply repeating back to me the same account that I had already heard. They cited the same sources and as far as I can tell, this "local legend" first appeared in the book Haunted Houses by Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn. As this had long been one of my favorite books, I was dismayed when I discovered that Mr. Winer was as fooled by the story as the rest of us were. I have been unable to discover where the authors may have first heard the story themselves.
As I continued my search, I found the same story regurgitated back to me over and over again. People who claimed to recall the details behind the events suddenly forgot them and witnesses who stated that they had information that went beyond the standard accounts became bewildered when the story did not match the historical details of the case.
All that I can say is that I hope you enjoy the recounting - and the debunking - of the legend that follows. This was not a story that I wanted to tell but we can't be afraid of the truth. If stories that are show to be fraudulent are reported as real, then how can we expect the real stories to be taken seriously?
THE LEGEND: PART 1
According to the stories, the House on Ridge Avenue was located in a quiet residential neighborhood in Manchester, on the north edge of Pittsburgh. A man named Charles Wright Congelier built it in the 1860s. He had made a fortune for himself in Texas following the Civil War and such men were commonly referred to in the south as "Carpetbaggers." They made a lot of money preying on the broken economy in the former Confederacy. Congelier left Texas by river steamer, taking with him his Mexican wife, Lyda, and a servant girl named Essie. When the steamer docked in Pittsburgh for coal, Congelier decided that the Pennsylvania town looked like a good place to settle. The three of them left the ship and Congelier purchased a lot and began construction of the house.
A few months later, the new brick and mortar mansion was completed. It was located at 1129 Ridge Avenue and was considered one of the finest houses in the area. From the expansive lawn, Congelier could look out and see where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers met to form the Ohio, offering a breathtaking view. The former Carpetbagger soon became a respected member of the local business community and his new home became a frequent site for parties and social gatherings. Then, during the winter of 1871, an event took place that would bloody the location for decades to come.
That winter, as cold and snow settled over the region, Congelier became embroiled in an affair with his servant girl, Essie. Whether she was a willing participant or not, Essie soon became a constant bed partner for her employer. For several months, Lyda Congelier was unaware of the affair, but when three people reside in the same house, it's only a matter of time before secrets are revealed.
One afternoon, when Essie did not respond to her call, Lyda went to the girl's room looking for her. As she came down the hallway, she could hear heavy breathing and moaning coming from behind the door. Knowing that her husband was the only man in the house, Lyda became enraged. She hurried to the kitchen and snatched up both a butcher knife and a meat cleaver. As she began climbing the stairs back to the servant's room, Lyda became screaming with rage, which naturally provoked a panic inside of Essie's bedroom. Before Congelier and the girl could dress themselves and exit the room, Lyda had already taken up a post outside. When the door opened, she brought the meat cleaver down on the head of the first person to open it. Charles Congelier fell to the floor, a cry on his lips and blood streaming from the wound on his head. As Essie reared back, bellowing in terror, Lyda proceeded to stab her husband 30 times.
Several days later, a family friend called at the house and when no one responded to his knock, he opened the door and peered inside. He called out, but there was no answer in the darkened house. However, as he entered the foyer, he could hear a faint creaking noise in the parlor. He called out again, but as there was no answer, he walked further into the house. Following the odd sound, he entered the parlor and saw Lyda Congelier rocking back and forth in front of a large bay window. The wooden chair that she rested in creaked with each backward and forward motion that she made. "Lyda? Is everything all right?" he spoke to her.
There was no reply. Lyda continued to rock back and forth in the chair. As her friend drew closer, he could hear her softly crooning a lullaby under her breath. It was a child's nursery song, he realized, and he saw a bundle that was wrapped in a blanket in Lyda's arms. She held it close, as she would hold a baby, rocking it gently. The man felt a sudden chill course through him. He knew that the Congelier's had no children.
He spoke to her once again, but there was still no answer. Lyda stared straight ahead at the snow outside, her eyes glazed and unfocused. He gently leaned over and eased the bundle out of her hands. He carefully opened the pink blanket and then recoiled with horror, dropping the bloody bundle onto the floor! It landed on the wooden floorboards with a solid thud and the contents of the blanket rolled away. The friend fell backwards on the couch as Essie's bloody head came to halt a short distance away from his feet!
For more than two decades after, the house on Ridge Avenue remained empty. Local folks considered the place "tainted" and avoided it at all costs. Few dared to even trespass on the grounds, although sometimes small children threw stones at the windows and sang about the "old battle-ax and her meat-ax.”
THE REAL STORY: PART 1
Like most legends, the story of the house is a clever blending of fact and fiction, although in this case, there is much more fancy than fact. To start with, no one named Charles Wright Congelier ever existed and neither did his wife, Lyda. There is no record of any dealings in Texas and no record of his ever living in Pittsburgh. In addition, there are no police or criminal records that state that Lyda murdered her husband and the servant girl in 1871. The use of a date here adds solidity to the story but it also makes it easier to check the validity of the tale and there is none.
Secondly, the house that is described in the story was not a mansion. There really was a house located at 1129 Ridge Avenue but it was built in the late 1880s, not in the 1860s. It was a standard Manchester row house, commonly owned by working class people of the day. It must be mentioned however that the house was later owned by members of the Congelier family, even though Charles Wright Congelier, and the murderous Lyda, was a figment of a creative imagination. This is a further blending of the truth, which will be discussed later.
THE LEGEND: PART 2
In 1892, the house was renovated into an apartment building to house railroad workers. Most refused to stay in the place for long. They constantly complained of hearing screams and the sobbing of a woman that came from empty rooms. Others spoke of the ominous sounds of a rocking chair and of a woman mumbling old nursery rhymes and lullabies. Within two years, the house was abandoned once again.
It remained vacant until 1901, when Dr. Adolph C. Brunrichter purchased the house. The doctor became something of an enigma in the neighborhood. Although he had been warned of the past history of the house, he chose to purchase the place anyway and after moving in, had little to do with the nearby residents. He kept to himself and was rarely seen by those who lived close to him. Everyone in the neighborhood watched and held their breath, waiting for something terrible to happen. They didn't have to wait very long.
On August 12, 1901, the family who lived next door to the Brunrichter mansion heard a terrified scream coming from the house. When they ran outside to see what was going on, they saw a bright red flash illuminate the interior of the mansion. The windows of the house shattered and glass shot out onto the lawn. The air was filled with the smell of ozone and the earth under the neighborhood trembled, cracking the sidewalks and knocking over furniture in the surrounding homes.
By the time the police and the fire department arrived, a crowd had gathered outside of Brunrichter's house. It was assumed that the doctor was still inside as no one had seen him leave, but none of the neighbors were brave enough to go in and check. Finally, a contingent of fire fighters entered the house in search of Brunrichter. They were unable to find him, but what they did discover was enough to send even the bravest among them running for the street outside.
In one of the upstairs bedrooms, a gut-wrenching scene awaited police investigators. Lying spread-eagled on the blood-soaked bed was the decomposed, naked body of a young woman. Her head was missing and was later found in a makeshift laboratory that the doctor had set up in another room. From what the detectives could determine, Brunrichter had apparently been experimenting with severed heads. Using electrical equipment, he had been trying to keep them alive after decapitation. A fault in his equipment had evidently caused the explosion. The young girl's head was found with several others and the graves of five women were discovered in the cellar. Each of the bodies could be matched with one of the heads from the laboratory.
As for Dr. Brunrichter, there was no sign of him. He had apparently escaped during the confusion following the explosion and had vanished. A manhunt produced no clues. He had disappeared without leaving a trace.
In September 1927, an old man was arrested in New York's Bowery district. He was found wandering in a drunken stupor, living among the homeless and the street people. He was arrested and booked for public drunkenness and was taken to the local police station house. Standing in line with the other dirty and disheveled men, this particular vagrant seemed to give off what the officers would later recall as a "bad feeling." As the drunks shuffled along, the policemen entered their names into record one at a time. When the old man reached the head of the line, the officer asked him his name.
He replied in a harsh voice, slightly slurred with a foreign accent. "My name is Adolph Brunrichter," the man said. And soon, he began to tell stories to the officers at the police station and they were tales even the most hardened officers would not soon forget.
Brunrichter began by explaining to the officers that he was once an eminent doctor, a physician who worked diligently to prolong life. Unfortunately, he could only succeed with his experiments by ending the lives of certain test subjects. He told of how many years earlier, he had bought a house in Pittsburgh to which he enticed young women as guests. Anticipating romance, the women were instead beheaded and then used in experiments to keep their severed heads alive. Brunrichter told of sex orgies, torture and murder and then gave the locations of graves for other women who were not discovered in the cellar of the house. Authorities later checked the sites, but no bodies were ever found.
Brunrichter was kept behind bars for one month at Blackwell's Island. Despite newspaper stories that called him the "Pittsburgh Spook Man," the mad doctor was deemed "harmless" and was released. On the wall of his cell, scrawled in his own blood, were the words "What Satan hath wrought, let man beware." After those fateful words, nothing was ever heard from the man who claimed to be Dr. Adolph Brunrichter again.
THE REAL STORY: PART 2
The house was built in the late 1880s and while a working class home, was not used to house railroad workers. During this time, it was owned by Marie Congelier (who would go on to become the only recorded death associated with the house) and it was never purchased by anyone named Dr. Adolph Brunrichter. Like Charles and Lyda Congelier, he never actually existed. The only mention of Brunrichter that I have ever been able to find in my own extensive files and books about American crime is in connection to this house. This seemed rather odd to me since his crimes would have obviously have been gruesome and lurid enough to garner the attention of reporters and crime writers. However, there are no listings for him in any books that I could find.
Not content to let it go at that, I also contacted several noted crime researchers and asked them to check their own files for mentions or records of Brunrichter. None of them could find anything. Another check of newspaper and library archives for New York, where papers had allegedly written of the "Pittsburgh Spook Man" also failed to reveal any listings. The same problem occurred while trying to search for reports of the crimes in Pittsburgh, as well. There is no mention of the "explosion" or the discovery of the bodies in the house in the Pittsburgh newspapers. In addition, there is not a single death record, real estate record or police record involving anyone named Brunrichter in connection with the house on Ridge Avenue. The mysterious Dr. Brunrichter vanished without a trace because he never really existed in the first place.
THE LEGEND: PART 3
After the horrific discoveries in the basement of the house, the Ridge Avenue mansion was abandoned. It stood empty again for many years, gaining an even more fearsome reputation. Those with an interest in psychic phenomena made occasional visits to the place and it came to be believed that the house was inhabited by a "fearsome presence." One medium who probed the house, Julia Murray, detected a horrible spirit there and witnesses who accompanied her to the mansion stated that "objects hurled by unseen hands barely missed striking her." Murray predicted that the entity would kill and would eventually extend out beyond the confines of the house.
In 1920, the stories about the mansion caught the attention of another man, one of the greatest inventors that America has ever known. His name was Thomas Alva Edison and in addition to creating the light bulb, he went to his grave in search of a device that would be able to communicate with the dead.
Edison was a self-taught genius who began experimenting with scientific theories as a child. Throughout his life, he maintained that it was possible to build anything if the right components were available. This would later include the already mentioned machine. Edison was not a believer in the supernatural however, nor a proponent of the popular Spiritualist movement. He had always been an agnostic and although he did not dispute the philosophies of religion, he didn't necessarily believe in their truth either. He believed that when a person died, the body decayed but the intelligence the man possessed lived on. He thought that the so-called "spirit world" was simply a limbo where disembodied intelligence waited to move on. He took these paranormal theories one step further by announcing that he intended to devise a machine that could communicate with this "limbo.” Edison's announcement appeared in newspapers after his visit to the house on Ridge Avenue. What happened during his visit to the house is unknown, but whatever it was, it certainly inspired him to go to great lengths to create the machine.
According to journals and papers, Edison began working on the apparatus. The famous magician and friend of Edison's, Joseph Dunninger, claimed that he was shown a prototype of the machine but few others ever say they saw it. Edison reportedly continued working on the machine until his death in October 1931. Did Edison's machine actually exist? And if so, would it have worked? In the years following his death, curators at both of the Edison museums in Florida and New Jersey have searched extensively for the components, the prototype or even the plans for the machine to communicate with the dead. So far, they have found nothing, making Edison's device the greatest mystery of his complex and intriguing life.
THE REAL STORY: PART 3
In the best hoaxes, fact and fiction are blended using real dates and real people to create a convincing story. In the case of the House on Ridge Avenue, the names of people like Julia Murray and Thomas Edison have been used to make the story seem more real. As everyone knows, Edison really did exist and he did express interest in creating a machine to communicate with the dead. Whether he actually did or not remains open to question.
Unfortunately, I can find no records of a spirit medium named Julia Murray. I will not state definitively that she is a fictional character but so far, I have seen nothing that says that she really existed.
Edison, on the other hand, was very real but there is absolutely no record to say that he ever set foot in the house on Ridge Avenue. If he had, he would not have found an empty "haunted" house but the home of Marie Congelier and her family would certainly have a memory of a visit by the famous inventor. According to Mrs. Congelier's descendants, no such visit ever took place.
THE LEGEND: PART 4
In the middle 1920s, Julia Murray's premonitions of "evil" connected to the house on Ridge Avenue remained in the back of many minds. During this period, the Equitable Gas Company, which was located just a few blocks away, was nearing the completion of a huge natural gas storage complex. To cut costs, many of the regular workers were laid off and were replaced by Italian immigrants, who would work for a much lower wage. A number of vacant buildings in the neighborhood were converted into apartments, including the house at 1129 Ridge Avenue.
The Italian workers who took up residence in the house quickly realized that something was not right in the old mansion. Their complaints and reports were met with quick explanations from the supervisors at the gas company. They told the immigrants that the strange occurrences were the work of the American workers who had been replaced. The former employees were playing tricks on the new workers, hoping they would abandon their jobs. The men soon dismissed the strange sounds and ghostly footsteps as practical jokes until an incident occurred a few months after they moved in.
One evening, fourteen men were seated around the table in the common dining room. They had just finished consuming large quantities of pasta and were now laughing and talking over glasses of homemade wine. One of the men got up and carried a stack of dirty dishes into the kitchen. He joked to his brother as he left the room, calling out a humorous insult over his shoulder with a smile. The remark was answered with laughter and his brother tossed a crust of bread at his sibling's retreating back. The conversation continued for several minutes before the remaining man realized that his brother had not returned from the kitchen. He got up and walked into the other room to find the door to the basement standing open.
Suddenly, the festive mood in the dining room was shattered by a chilling scream! Rushing into the kitchen, the men saw the basement door as it yawned open. Taking a lantern from atop the icebox, several of the men descended the steps into the cellar. Before they reached the bottom of the steps, they froze, staring at the macabre scene that was illuminated by the glow of the lantern. In the dim light, they saw the man who had left the dining room just moments earlier, now hanging from a floor beam that crossed the ceiling above.
On the floor, directly beneath his feet, was the man's brother. He was lying face down in a spreading pool of blood. A splintered board had been driven through his chest and now exited out through his back.
The leader of the group on the steps crossed himself religiously and a gasp escaped from his lips. His friends repeated the gesture before all of them found themselves slammed backward by a force that they could not see! The feeling of a cold wind pushed against them and then rushed past up the stairs. The men later said that they could hear the pounding of footsteps on the wooden treads, but could see nothing at all. The door at the top of the stairs slammed shut, startling the men in the kitchen, who didn't hear anything. However, they did report other doors mysteriously slamming throughout the house.
When the police arrived, they attributed both deaths to a bizarre accident. The first man, the detectives stated, tripped on a loose step and fell down, impaling himself on the propped-up board. The other brother's death was the result of the same loose stair step. When he fell, though, his head was somehow tangled on an electric wire that was hanging down above the staircase. Accident or not, the other men quickly moved out of the house, wanting nothing more to do with the place.
THE REAL STORY: PART 4
Once again, real-life events blend into the story to make it more compelling. In the 1920s, the nearby Equitable Gas Company did lay off many of their workers and replaced them with Italian immigrants. As many of the houses in the neighborhood were worker's homes anyway, several of them were converted into housing for the replacement employees. However, there were no records of any accidental deaths taking place at 1129 Ridge Avenue, associated with these workers. One accident did take place however, on the same day that another accident destroyed a gas storage tank nearby.
On the morning of the explosion, November 14, Marie Congelier died from a laceration caused by a piece of glass. The glass had severed her artery and she bled to death on the way to the hospital. She did not die in the house but her death came about because of it -- with nothing supernatural involved. She would become the only death that can truly be connected to the House on Ridge Avenue.
THE LEGEND: PART 5
On Monday, November 14, 1927, a crew of sixteen workers climbed to the top of the Equitable Gas Company's huge, 5,000,000-cubic-foot natural gas storage tank to find and repair a leak. At 8:43 that morning, a great sheet of flame erupted from the tank and the huge container shot impossibly upwards into the air. Steel, stone and human bodies were sent hurling into the sky. Two of the men who had been working on top of the tank were thrown against a brick building more than one hundred feet away and their silhouettes were outlined there in blood. Seconds later, another tank exploded, creating another gigantic ball of fire. Then a third tank, this one only partially full, was wrenched apart and added to the inferno. Smoke and flames were visible for miles. The force was so awesome that it blew out windows and shook buildings for a twenty-mile radius. Locomotives were knocked over and homes and structures damaged as far away as East Liberty.
Across the street, the Union Paint Company was flattened and dozens of workers were buried under the rubble of the building. Bloody men, women and children ran frantically about in the streets.
The Battalion Chief of Engine Company No. 47, Dan Jones, was part of the first fire unit to arrive on the scene. He described the holocaust saying "great waves of black smoke swept through the streets and there was a whining noise in the air." According to a book compiled by the Writer's Project of America, the destruction stunned the city. "As houses collapsed and chimneys toppled," they wrote, "brick, broken glass, twisted pieces of steel and other debris rained on the heads of the dazed and shaken residents who had rushed into the streets from their wrecked homes, believing that an earthquake had visited the city."
Even the rescue workers and fire fighters who arrived on the scene were injured and killed when weakened structures collapsed on top of them. Entire neighborhoods were flooded by broken water mains while huge sections of the city lay in ruins. Sections of the giant gas storage tanks were later found more than a thousand feet away. Rough estimates from the following day listed at least twenty-eight killed and more than six hundred people injured from the explosion. Rescue crews dynamited the ruins in a search for the bodies of the dozens of others who were still missing. Thousands were left homeless by the destruction.
Mounds of rubble and debris marked the spots where buildings had once stood. At one place though, not even bricks and stone remained. At 1129 Ridge Avenue, just two blocks away from the blast site, there was nothing but a smoldering crater. Although homes on both sides, and across the street, from where the Congelier mansion had stood were heavily damaged, they were still standing. Yet where the "most haunted house in America' had stood, and where Julia Murray's proclaimed "evil presence" had lingered, there was nothing. A hole that nearly eighty-five feet deep was all that remained. It was the only house in the vicinity of which no trace could be found.
Today, the Carnegie Science Center occupies the site of the Equitable Gas Company tanks and the terrible explosion is only a faint memory from the past. The house on Ridge Avenue is all but forgotten. Its location is the present-day site of the Route 65 and Interstate 279 interchange. Nothing from the days of Dr. Brunrichter, the Congelier's, or the luckless Italian immigrants still lingers, or does it? If it is possible for the spirits of the past to still wander restlessly along a busy highway, then it would be at this place where such spirits would dwell -- the place where one of the most evil houses in the country could be found.
THE REAL STORY: PART 5
Spooky ending, huh?
Unfortunately, it's not accurate either. The gas storage tank at the Equitable Gas Company did explode on November 14, 1927, and killed twenty-four people in the surrounding area. The concussion and subsequent fire did wreak havoc in this part of the city and it destroyed many houses and buildings, leaving hundreds of people homeless. The details of the destruction that are recounted in the legend of the house are true and accurate - for the most part.
Where things veer off course is in regards to the house at 1129 Ridge Avenue. In every version of the story, the house is destroyed by the blast, leaving only an ominous crater behind - as if it was sucked down into the very pit of hell. While this makes a fitting ending to the dramatic tale of America's "original most haunted house," it's not the away that it happened in real life. In truth, the house only suffered minor damage from the explosion. A number of windows were broken but that was about all. According to a family member, Robert Frederick Congelier, the house stood for several years after the disaster and was only torn down to make way for the freeway and the redevelopment of the area.
There is an old saying that goes that "truth is stranger than fiction" and in many ways, I would say that this is the case. However, not with every story. In the tale of the House on Ridge Avenue, fiction was really much stranger than fact ever could be, and truth proved to be the undoing of the haunting of "America's original most haunted house."