While researching organized crime in Pittsburgh I stumbled upon a colossal haunted house story. My work documenting the history of a Pittsburgh family with two generations of bootleggers and numbers racketeers inadvertently led me to 1129 Ridge Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood. The family I am researching was associated with the family that owned 1129 Ridge Avenue for more than 30 years.
By the last decades of the twentieth century, stories attached to the property had earned 1129 Ridge Avenue the dubious title, “America’s most haunted house.” This post, which began as an article for a community newspaper, documents how a modest 1880s home became fodder for decades of contemporary legends.
A massive explosion tore apart the Equitable Gas Company’s storage tanks along the Ohio River and rocked Pittsburgh’s Northside the morning of November 14, 1927. It significantly damaged several blocks filled with homes and businesses. Twenty-eight people died in the blast, including a young mother named Mary Cancelliere.
Mary’s death was a freak accident: A window in her home’s laundry room shattered and she was struck by flying glass. Her death at age 29 was made more tragic by the five young children she left behind.
The bizarre nature of Mary’s death and her family’s shadowy and long history in Pittsburgh’s organized crime rackets spawned urban legends that by the 1970s earned the property widespread fame in haunted house literature and as a site for local legend tripping.
The stories include tales of gruesome murders and macabre medical experiments done in a dark basement, with some odd twists, including a purported visit by inventor Thomas Edison, who reportedly during the 1920s was working on a device to communicate with dead people called a “spirit phone.”
Sensational as the ghost stories are, the property’s real history is even more compelling as are the creative ways Pittsburgh residents have found to capitalize on the legends.
The 1129 Ridge Avenue stories begin with a “carpetbagger” named Charles Congelier. According to the 1979 book by Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn, Haunted Houses, where the story first appeared in print, Congelier built a “two-story brick and mortar mansion.” The Congelier house, folks said, had been built on a Native American burial ground. Congelier’s wife, according to the legends, found him engaged in an illicit affair with a domestic servant and she decapitated him as her revenge for the infidelity.
The stories continued the spooky narrative with a later resident named Dr. Brunrichter. This new owner was believed to have experimented on and killed and decapitated young girls in the home’s basement.
Diligent amateur sleuths have debunked many of the legends. Some of them, including author Stephanie Hoover and reporters for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, accurately reported on the origins of the Congelier name: It derived from the misspelled “Cancelliere” name published in newspapers after the explosion. There was no Dr. Brunrichter and there is no evidence that Edison ever visited the home.
“None of them had ever happened,” explained Troy Taylor in a recent telephone interview. He is an Illinois author who has written about 1129 Ridge Avenue in books and blog posts. “You know, the Edison stuff tossed in there was great, but again no record he’d ever visited the house.”
Taylor is one of several authors who read the stories first published in the 1979 book, Haunted Houses. “That particular one just for whatever reason just scared the heck out of me. It’s just such an eerie story,” said Taylor.
“It’s just such a great haunted house story because it has multiple layers,” Tom White, a Duquesne University archivist, told me in a telephone interview. White has written several books on Western Pennsylvania folklore. Like Taylor, White has written several book chapters and articles debunking the stories attached to 1129 Ridge Avenue.
The house that Jack bought in 1923 was hardly a mansion. It was a narrow eight-room, 21-foot-wide two-and-a-half-story brick rowhouse at the corner of Ridge Avenue and Sproat Alley. The five-house row had been completed in early 1886 by John Jacob Lawrence, a Civil War veteran and paint company founder who had bought the property in the 1880s from the Allegheny Gas Works Company. The gas company had owned it since 1859 and used it as an undeveloped part of its riverfront plant.
Up until the early 1920s, the houses were rented out. Though most of the tenants’ names have been forgotten, one family’s name has been preserved, sort of. In the 1890s, Nicholas Didier and his wife, Ida Joy, lived at 140 Ridge Avenue (renumbered 1129 Ridge Avenue after Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City in 1907). He was a foundry manager and she was a well-known portrait artist. Didier died in the house in 1895 at age 39 and local newspapers published his obituary.
Nicholas Didier funeral photo. Photo courtesy of Sarah Thorson.
The property changed hands several times over the next 25 years. In 1923, Julia T. Manning sold it to Jack Cancelliere.
The same year that Allegheny County land records show that Jack bought 1129 Ridge Avenue, Pittsburgh newspapers published the first reports of him being arrested for bootlegging. Shortly after Jack and Mary moved into 1129 Ridge Avenue, he put the title in her name, a common tactic organized crime figures used to protect their personal property against seizures by law enforcement.
The Ridge Avenue rowhouse wasn’t the first property Jack bought. In January 1927, county land records show he bought a three-story building at 106 East General Robinson Street. That property became the Rosa Villa restaurant.
Over the next 30 years, both 1129 Ridge Avenue and the Rosa Villa were prominently mentioned in newspaper articles detailing Jack’s arrests and those of his extended family (who were living in the house), mostly for bootlegging and gambling. Federal law enforcement officials maintained extensive files on the Cancellieres and the restaurant was widely known among ordinary Pittsburgh residents and law enforcement officials as a popular mob hangout.
Violence and rumors dogged multiple generations of the Cancelliere family for much of the twentieth century. After the explosion, relatives took Mary’s body to her husband’s family’s house in nearby Page Street. That home was owned by Santo Laquatra, Jack’s relative and the person who sold him the Rosa Villa property.
Five years after Mary died, dynamite damaged the Page Street home during an organized crime turf war that spawned bombings and murders throughout the city.
The Rosa Villa itself, which was demolished earlier this year (2019), was targeted in a failed 1958 bombing attempt that authorities linked to a “racket war.”
The 1927 gas explosion and rumors about one of Pittsburgh’s best-known mid-twentieth-century racketeering families created the perfect circumstances for folks to spin wild stories about the house at 1129 Ridge Avenue. “I think it had so many elements of like the ultimate horror,” said Taylor. “It had all the elements of everything you would expect from a haunted house with this horrific backstory.”
That story didn’t just capture the imaginations of authors like Taylor and White. Over the years, 1129 Ridge Avenue has become a cottage industry for Pittsburgh entrepreneurs.
Beyond the printed pages of books and magazine and newspaper articles, the site regularly has been featured in ghost tours for which people pay guides to bring them to Ridge Avenue to hear the legends recounted.
Among the more creative uses of the story include a 2007 effort by gamer Chris Whitlatch. He created an online augmented reality game called 1129ridge.com. “It’s one of these kind of iconic stories of Pittsburgh that pops up I want to say once a decade or once every fifteen or so years,” said Whitlatch in a phone interview. “The legend really took over for some reason about that location.”
The stories also captivated Lawrenceville craft distillers Dave Harmon and Joe DeGroot. In January, they added 1129 Ridge Avenue absinthe to their product line. “Our products at Lawrenceville Distilling are named after things that are in the Pittsburgh cultural consciousness, like Parking Chair Vodka. Our gin is named Ginzer,” said Harmon in a phone interview. “We just like that actually all the ghost stories had been heaped on that one address. That was fun.”
The house at 1129 Ridge Avenue probably wasn’t haunted (if you believe in ghosts) — we’ll never know because the home was demolished in the late 1960s. It’s now a parking lot. But the story has fertilized imaginations and it is one of Pittsburgh’s most enduring legends. The catastrophic 1927 gas explosion combined with multiple generations of Cancellieres publicly associated with organized crime created the perfect conditions for creating ghost stories: A folk strategy for organizing fear and uncertainty. They also create a vehicle to deflect attention from sensitive subjects, e.g., death and crime. 1129 Ridge Avenue wasn’t America’s most haunted house by any stretch of the imagination, but the story is a good addition to contemporary legend studies. Stay tuned.
Dave Harmon, October 25, 2019.
Chris Whitlatch, November 4, 2019
Tom White, November 7, 2019
Troy Taylor, November 8, 2019.
 Kristin Tablang, “Thomas Edison, B.C. Forbes And The Mystery Of The Spirit Phone,” Blog, Forbes, October 25, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristintablang/2019/10/25/thomas-edison-bc-forbes-mystery-spirit-phone/; Natalie Zarrelli, “Dial-a-Ghost on Thomas Edison’s Least Successful Invention: The Spirit Phone,” Atlas Obscura (blog), http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/dial-a-ghost-on-thomas-edisons-least-successful-invention-the-spirit-phone; NEA Service, “Edison Says That He Thinks It’s Possible to Communicate with Dead,” The Bismarck Tribune, January 25, 1925; “Spirit Phone May Be Next,” Journal Gazette, February 10, 1921; “Edison Relies on Dead Pal to Pick Up First Message,” The Wichita Eagle, November 4, 1920.
 Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn, Haunted Houses (Toronto; London: Bantam, 1979), 109–19.
 Stephanie Hoover, “Congelier Mansion Debunked,” Clouded in Mystery (blog), 2017, http://www.cloudedinmystery.com/congelier-mansion-debunked.html; “About Those Motherless Children …,” Old Pittsburgh Photos and Stories | The Digs (blog), November 13, 2013, https://newsinteractive.post-gazette.com/thedigs/2013/11/13/about-those-motherless-children/.
 Thomas White, Legends & Lore of Western Pennsylvania (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2009); Thomas White, Forgotten Tales of Pittsburgh (Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2010); Thomas White, Ghosts of Southwestern Pennsylvania (Charleston, S.C.: Haunted America/History Press, 2010).
 “Nicholas August Didier Obituary,” The Pittsburgh Press, December 17, 1895.
 Allegheny County Deed Book, vol. 2242, page 460.
 “Eight Fined $100 Each; One Held in Dry Law Violations,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, February 12, 1923 The article noted that “John” Cancelliere had been arrested. That was one of the names Cancelliere used. The arrest occurred at 106 East General Robinson Street, a property owned by Cancelliere’s inlaws and which later became the Rosa Villa restaurant.
 Santo and Gaetana LaQuatra to Joseph and Jack Cancelliere, Allegheny County Land Records, Deed Book vol. 2324, p. 42.
 “Tots Motherless. Woman Cut by Glass in Home, Bleeds to Death,” The Pittsburgh Press, November 15, 1927.
 “Home Bombed, Racket Blamed,” The Pittsburgh Press, January 12, 1933; “Six Imperiled as Bomb Wrecks Home,” The Daily Republican, January 12, 1933; “Rewards Urged in War on Bombers,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, June 5, 1933; “Explosion Rocks Northside Area,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 12, 1933.
 Diana Nelson Jones, “Reality Spookier than Old Ghost Tales,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 30, 1997; Patricia Lowry, “Terror Trolley,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 31, 1996.
 Adrian McCoy, “North Side Haunting Moves to Online Site,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 21, 2007; MarketSpace, “1129 Ridge Scares Up Online Play Using New Marketing Tools | IdeaSpace,” July 20, 2007, http://www.marketspaceagency.com/blog/2007/07/20/1129-ridge-scares-up-online-play-using-new-marketing-tools/.
 Kristy Locklin, “Lawrenceville Distilling Selling Absinthe Named for Legendary Haunted House | TribLIVE.Com,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 17, 2019, https://triblive.com/local/pittsburgh-allegheny/lawrenceville-distilling-selling-absinthe-named-for-legendary-haunted-house/.
© 2019 D.S. Rotenstein