From our Dustbin of History files: Here's a true story of danger, seduction, betrayal, and a deadly escape.
Allegheny County Jail, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1901
Katherine Soffel -The warden's beautiful wife
Ed Biddle -Famous outlaw
Jack Biddle -Ed's accomplice and younger brother
Peter Soffel -The prison warden
Jack and Ed were "the Biddle Boys," leaders of a gang of small-time outlaws who relied more on brains than on brawn to carry out their nefarious crimes. Sometimes they used chloroform to render their potential victims unconscious; sometimes they used beautiful women as distractions. They carried guns, too ...just in case.
On April 12, 1901, the gang was robbing a house next to a grocery store in Mt. Washington, Pennsylvania. A female accomplice kept the grocer occupied while the boys searched the adjoining house, looking for a pile of cash. The distraction didn't work, though -the grocer heard a noise and went to investigate. A struggle ensued, shots were fired, and the grocer ended up dead on his living room floor. The Biddle brothers fled the scene and holed up in a safehouse, but the police soon caught up with them. After a violent shootout, the outlaws were arrested, but not before a policeman was killed. The trial was quick and the sentence severe: the Biddle Boys were to be hanged for their crimes on February 25, 1902.
SECRET LOVE AFFAIR
Peter and Katherine Soffel were in the midst of a divorce when the Biddles arrived at the Allegheny County jail. Katherine, who had previously spent time in an asylum, showed no interest in her husband. Instead, she spent most of her time visiting the prisoners, offering them spiritual advice and bringing them Bibles. For the inmates, Katherine Soffel was a welcome sight. They called her "Queen of the Jail."
She first went to see the Biddles out of curiosity; their exploits throughout the Midwest had made them somewhat notorious. Ed's charm and good looks soon won her over, though. She became infatuated and visited him more and more often, at least 25 times over the next few months, sneaking in food and books. The warden knew his wife had taken an interest in the outlaw but must not have realized just how keen an interest. He allowed her to keep visiting.
After a few months, Ed and Jack convinced Katherine that they were innocent and asked her to help them escape so they could live honest lives as coal miners in Canada. She agreed.
As luck would have it, Ed's cell could be seen from Katherine's bedroom window. The two designed a secret alphabet code with which Katherine could point to various body parts, representing different letters, and spell out messages about the warden's movements. This allowed the Biddles to devise a plan. Then they had Katherine -at great risk to herself- smuggle in two saws and a revolver.
On Wednesday night, January 29, 1902, the boys cut through their cell bars. The apprehended three guards and locked them in a cell. As they were leaving the prison, they were met by a waiting Katherine, which was not part of the plan. She was supposed to lay low and meet them in Canada a month later. But Katherine, mad with love, took a page out of the Biddle's book and chloroformed her husband, then snuck away in the night. She didn't want to be away from Ed Biddle.
The warden awoke to a nasty headache and an empty house. When he was told the Biddle boys escaped, he knew Katherine was involved and immediately put out an all-points bulletin on the three of them.
ON THE RUN
Meanwhile, Ed agreed to let Katherine come along, much to the dismay of Jack, who thought she'd slow them down. But Ed was the boss. They stole a horse and a sleigh from a nearby farm and made it to Cooperstown, 38 miles north of Pittsburgh. They planned to have a quiet breakfast there and slip away unnoticed, but news of the breakout had beat them to the town. The Pennsylvania winter was harsh, and the three fugitives didn't have any warm clothes. They were easily identified and the police were now hot on their trail. They stopped for lunch in Mount Chestnut, 54 miles from Pittsburgh, and Ed and Katherine consummated their relationship. Time, however, was running out.
With their horse and sleigh, the Biddle boys and Katherine Soffel left Mount Chestnut on the snowy afternoon of January 31, 1902. They had only traveled a few miles when a posse met them head on at the crest of a hill. Ed stopped the sleigh, handed the reins to Katherine, and he and Jack jumped off, each with gun in hand. The sheriff told them to surrender. Ed told them to go to hell and opened fire. The lawmen responded with a hail of bullets.
When the shootout was over, Ed was shot twice, Jack 15 times, and Katherine -who had grabbed a gun and joined in the fray- was shot once by Ed after pleading for him to take her life. She didn't want to live without him.
The three were taken to nearby Butler Hospital. Katherine's wound was treatable; Ed and Jack were not so lucky. As they lay on their deathbeds, they told police varying accounts of what had happened. Ed claimed he'd never loved Katherine, that he just used her to help him escape. Katherine claimed that Ed was just saying that to protect her. Love letters he wrote her while still in prison backed her up, but only Ed knew for sure. He and Jack both died on the night of February 1, 1902.
The Biddle boys' bodies were put on display at the Allegheny jail for two hours. More than 4,000 people came to see the famous bandits. Katherine served 20 months in prison and lived out the rest of her life in shame. She died a brokenhearted woman on August 30, 1909.
"We wouldn't have been captured if we hadn't stuck to the woman." -Jack Biddle
(Images are from the 1984 film based on this incident, Mrs. Soffel)
_________________________This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader.
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