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Podcaster brings Pa.’s haunted history to life

Plus, it's mourning in Philadelphia.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Tanisha Thomas

October 28, 2023
Inside this edition: Yinzerz in music, sports woes, last-minute costumes, paranormal home, and PA Oddities. Happy Halloween weekend!
🏆 HARD QUESTIONS: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Unforgiven taxes, Biden billion, House speaker, and tech tort.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

Pennsylvania can claim two U.S. presidents. Can you name them? Bonus points if you can also name the two vice presidents from here.

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One code worth scanning: A Pittsburgh-based condiment company found a clever way to introduce consumers to some of the city's local musical acts. Beano’s Deli Condiments has a QR code on their bottles that links to a curated playlist, via Pittsburgh Magazine. 

» One loss worth feeling: It might be too soon to bring up the Phillies' season-ending loss from Tuesday, but Billy Penn wrote a letter perfectly capturing the feelings of being a phan when the chips are down.

» One story worth sharing: Maybe some holiday cheer can make things better. Still looking for a Halloween costume? WNEP found the most Googled Halloween costumes in Pennsylvania this year

» One museum worth seeing: A Bucks County antiques dealer is preparing people to fight evil, not fear it, with new museum of vampire and paranormal art inside his home, The Inquirer (paywall) reports.

» One person worth highlighting: Philly journalist Ernest Owens is in Rolling Stone's November issue (paywall) discussing the way forward for the outlet following pilloried comments by its co-founder.

The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» How Pa.’s outdated Election Code could impact 2024

» Hydrogen hub details shrouded in secrecy

» Tech, staffing problems dog Pa.'s Medicaid purge

» Gov.'s office paying $295K over harassment claim

» Pa. tax credits result in ‘mixed bag’ for job creation

» Outdated rules blunt impact of Pa. tax forgiveness

» The history behind Pennsylvania’s flat income tax

» Pennsylvania Election 2023: Complete coverage, guides

» Elecciones Pa. 2023: Traducciones al Español
A thicket of trees in the woods, some fallen or leaning.
A Civil War veteran's ventriloquist act intrigued lumber workers around the state in the late 1800s in forests like the one in Cameron County pictured above. (Nicholas_T / Flickr)

Marlin Bressi has an affinity for stories of the strange-but-true variety, and he’ll tell you there’s no better place to dig for them than Pennsylvania. His latest favorite involves a Civil War veteran whose ventriloquist act intrigued and unsettled lumber workers around the state in the late 1800s: "Everybody loves this story," he told PA Local. 

Bressi, a 42-year-old Harrisburg resident, is the author of the book series Pennsylvania Oddities and its corresponding blog. He also hosts a bimonthly podcast of the same name that chronicles quirky lore about the Keystone state: unsolved mysteries, local superstitions, ghost stories, and more. Earlier this month, he spoke at the Cameron County Historical Society, where he regaled attendees with his puppeteer story and others.

Ahead of that event, he told PA Local the tale. James H. Sharp "went by the name Peter Hauntz — that's what he was more famously known as," Bressi said. "He was based in Clinton County, so he traveled through that west-central Pennsylvania region.” Sharp would visit lumber camps in the region, where he performed his act with puppets whose astounding detail raised eyebrows.

“There are just so many legends around him,” Bressi said, diving into the subject with the palpable enthusiasm he brings to his podcasts and presentations. "Like they said he carved puppets so lifelike that to this day people don't know if they were puppets or actual people. 

"He started out just after the Civil War, and bought a used horse-drawn hearse for a wagon. He went from town to town as a one-man show. And one day, he showed up with a female puppet whose name was Herodia. Everybody thought it was a puppet, but it may have been an actual human being. Rumors began to circulate that it was actually his daughter dressed up as a puppet. Then one day, Herodia disappeared — and nobody really knows what happened to her." 

Out of the hundreds of puppets Sharp carved, Bressi said, only one is still around. "A few years back, somebody found it in an antique store, up in Clinton County, I believe. It was a creepy-looking puppet. And it turned out it was an original made by Sharp. As far as anybody knows, that's the only one that is known to exist," he said, pausing for dramatic effect.

Bressi's interest in odd Pennsylvania history dates back to his childhood home, where strange events happened on a regular basis. "I think what really started it for me was growing up in a house that was pretty haunted," he said. 

The house was an old dwelling in a small mining town with "one stoplight, probably less than 1,000 people.” Almost every night in the house for about two years, he said, there was spooky activity: "TVs would turn on by themselves, doors would slam shut, the blinds would open and close by themselves. And pictures … they would literally fly off the wall." Bressi, unflappable even as a child, was more fascinated than fazed: "I just assumed everybody had a house like that!"

As he got older, he grew interested in the house’s backstory. "The more I got into the historical research, it turned out that as much as I liked the paranormal stuff, I really enjoy history in general. Especially from the 19th century and early 20th century. That's the bulk of the stories I write for my blog, and for the podcast."

Despite his trove of knowledge, Bressi says he's not the best guy to invite along on a tour of a haunted place. "To be honest, I'm a nerd when it comes to history, and when you go on these ghost tours, a lot of it is sensationalized … I can't bite my tongue when someone says something that's historically inaccurate."

He maintains Pennsylvania is the "spookiest state" when it comes to sheer volume of hair-raising lore. He suspects this has to do with the diverse blend of cultures throughout the state’s history, dating back to the original, Indigenous population and the ensuing influx of cultures in the colonial era.

"My great-grandparents came over from Italy to work in a coal mine. There were a lot of Italians, Irish, Lithuanians, Polish, people from all over the world coming to the Coal Region of Pennsylvania to look for a job. So there's all this history and all these cultures, all these different languages and backgrounds and religious beliefs. You go a little further south and you have the Amish and the Pennsylvania Dutch. And everything kind of meshes together. You can't help but have a lot of neat history."

Apparently, certain counties have a higher volume of spooky stories. "Berks and Schuylkill counties, for some reason, definitely have more legends and more ghost stories. And my theory is that these are Pennsylvania Dutch counties, settled by the Germans, and Germans do tend to be a little more superstitious."

Much of Bressi’s research is conducted in the newspaper archives of town libraries, but the increasing popularity of his podcast and books has created another avenue for story ideas. "Every day I check my email and people are like, 'You should write about this!' So that really saves me a lot of time."

As much attention as he devotes to it, though, chronicling odd Pennsylvania remains a hobby for Bressi rather than a profession. "For 23 years, I've been a hairstylist," he says. "This is just what I do to unwind."

Sara Stewart for PA Local

Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

“I’m looking forward to adding to my collection with memories of this postseason. Good or bad, I love the Phillies.”

Phillies fanatic Tom Kozieja, who transformed his New Jersey basement into a shrine full of the team's memorabilia (bats, pennants, photos, and more)

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
Black Moshannon State Park, via Jamie B. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
a group of trees reflecting in a lake
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

James Buchanan and Joe Biden.

James Buchanan, born in Franklin County, was elected to be the 15th president of the United States from 1857-1861, ABC27 reports. You can tour his former home in Lancaster County or see the 38-foot pyramid at his birthplace in the aptly named Buchanan's Birthplace State Park.

Born in Scranton, Joe Biden was elected the 46th president.

Although Biden was born in Pennsylvania, the White House says Buchanan is the only president to be elected from Pennsylvania.

The commonwealth also produced two vice presidents: Biden and George Dallas, who was President James Polk’s second-in-command.

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

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