Photo courtesy Carnegie Museum of Natural History
The McKees Rocks Mound was uncovered during the 1896 excavation by Frank Gerodette.
By Lisa Mullen
McKees Rocks has its fair share of history dating back hundreds of years. Mysterious murders, legends and even odd ghost hauntings have been rumored to have taken place in our very own backyards.
For this “myths, legends and hauntings” edition of History, Gazette 2.0 spoke with Vicky Batcha and Sandy Saban of the McKees Rocks Historical Society.
‘The Curse of the Kick’
Several local legends revolve around the McKees Rocks “Indian Mound.” Originally, it was estimated to be 16 feet tall and 85 feet across and located near the confluence of the Ohio River and Chartiers Creek in McKees Rocks. Unfortunately, most of the mound is gone, the dirt and gravel having been used for street projects.
The mound was initially excavated in 1896 by Frank Gerodette, an archaeologist employed by the Carnegie Museum. Inside the mound were a wealth of treasures including jewelry, bone hairpins, statues, and 33 skeletons belonging to the Adena Indian Tribe who were thought to reside in this area from 1000 – 200 B.C.
The mound also contained the remains of several females who had ranged in height from 6 to 7-feet – average height is thought to be only 5 foot at that time. These skeletons gave rise to the myth that a tribe of giants lived in this area.
Legend has it that none of these treasures would have been found except for a little boy playing on top of the mound back in the 1890s. The little boy found what he thought was a root sticking out of the ground and used his baseball bat to take a smack at it. Out popped a bone. He called all his friends over to check it out.
They decided to dig further and found an entire skeleton. The little boy began playing with the skull from the skeleton, tossing it back and forth as well as kicking it, but at some point, it accidentally got away from him and fell into the Ohio River never to be seen again. This became known as “The Curse of the Kick.”
Some say this incident put a curse on the boy whose name was James Westwood. Pittsburgh spiritual intuitive Jack Kaine agrees with that assessment and notes all of Westwood’s troubles could be traced back to the energies he himself had felt coming from the Indian Mound. He said the spirits associated with the bones were probably “more than a tad ticked off.”
It is hard to deny that death seemed to follow Westwood as he went through life. His daughter Clara died in 1932 from pneumonia after suffering a gunshot wound from Westwood’s revolver.
There were rumors that she died on the scene from the gunshot wound but since Westwood was a prominent politician, it was supposedly covered up. In that same year, Westwood’s in-laws were found dead in their apartment from an apparent murder-suicide. In 1934, Westwood was convicted of ballot tampering during the 1932 election to help himself win the position. In 1935, Westwood then shot his wife three times in their bedroom, killing her.
After his conviction, he was sent to Western Penitentiary where he fell to his death while working from scaffolding.
Ghost of Preteweeta
Legends of suffering go back even further. An Indian maiden named Preteweeta is said to have lived near the Chartiers Creek in 1736. Legend has it she fell in love with a private in the French Army who was in this area to fight the French and Indian War.
The man didn’t want anything to do with her, but she persisted. One day, she found him lying injured in the woods and nursed him back to health. He repaid her by leaving as soon as he was healed.
Eventually, he was captured by the British and imprisoned. Preteweeta found him in the jail where he was being kept. She said she would free him if he promised to marry her. He agreed to the marriage, so she is said to have shot the guard on duty to allow the private to escape. He kept his end of the bargain at first but eventually, he left Preteweeta to run off with another woman.
By then, Preteweeta was pregnant by the private. The story says she gave birth to their daughter and then died one week later. The child died the very next day. On the same day as the child’s death, a body washed ashore near the burial mound. It was that of the French private. To this day, sometimes Preteweeta can be heard crying as she searches for her daughter near the McKees Rocks Indian Burial Mound.
Ohio River Haunting
Another haunted place in McKees Rocks is said to be the area of the Ohio River where the McKees Rocks Bridge spans the river. Before the bridge was built, a ferry would take workers from the Pressed Steel Car Company across the river to go home for the night after working their shifts. On May 11, 1909 at 8:30 p.m., a group of men finished working for the night and arrived at the banks of the Ohio River ready to go home.
The normal ferry, The Steel Queen, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a much smaller ferry owned by John Graham and his son Albert. The men all began piling onto the ferry and the son Albert remarked that there were too many people on the boat, but his pleas were ignored.
The ferry began its trip across the Ohio River with 36 men onboard a boat that at a maximum, should have carried only 20. When the ferry reached the middle of the river, it took on water and began to sink quickly, sucking some of the men down with it. In total, 24 men drowned in the river that night.
Rumors still circulate that on a quiet night’s walk across the McKees Rocks Bridge, you can still hear the men’s cries as they are drowning in the river. The bridge was later built in response to this incident. Opening in 1931, the bridge carries the names of the men who died on the ferry etched on a stone pillar.
'The Mad Butcher'
Infamous unsolved cases with possible connection to the serial killer known by the names “The Mad Butcher” and “The Cleveland Torso Murderer” has ties to McKees Rocks as well.
The killer is thought to have murdered three people whose bodies ended up in boxcars scheduled to be demolished at the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie (P&LE) McKees Rocks rail yard.
On the morning of May 3, 1940, a worker in the McKees Rocks yard noticed an odd stench coming from some rail cars. He notified his supervisor about the smell and they went to investigate. They climbed in the first car and found a headless body cut up into seven pieces, some pieces were wrapped in burlap and other pieces placed under newspapers.
A search of other cars turned up two more headless bodies that had also been dismembered. One of the victims had the word ‘Nazi’ with a backward ‘Z’ carved into his chest. This man was eventually identified through his fingerprints as James David Nicholson, a 30-year-old burglar from Illinois.
The famous Eliot Ness, whose life was the inspiration for the Untouchables, came briefly to McKees Rocks to aid in the investigation as the dismemberment and decapitation of the corpses in the McKees Rocks boxcars was very similar to the 12 murders that had occurred in the Cleveland area as well as the dismemberment and decapitation of four bodies that were found in the swampy areas of New Castle – though these murders were attributed to the ‘Murder Swamp Killer.’
The McKees Rocks boxcar murders were never solved nor was the Cleveland Torso Murderer ever found but Eliot Ness believed Dr. Francis E. Sweeney to be the murderer.
Many feel that Dr. Sweeney was never convicted because he was the first cousin of Congressman Martin L. Sweeney who is said to have made a deal for his cousin with the investigating sheriff so he would find a different suspect.
The investigation did indeed move on and in some ways, this case was to be one that haunted Eliot Ness as he was unable to solve it.