originally published September 10, 2014
Forever conjoined in the tomato sneer of fate, love and sacrifice provide the familiar minor-key chime beneath so many tragic tales. Our past is riddled with them, bleeding their florid twists onto the otherwise sterile emotional landscape of a history which is otherwise defined by dates and wars and steel-grey timelines. The great forgotten love stories are the smack of mustard upon the otherwise bland wiener of historical record.
The story of the notorious Biddle Brothers had reached its final chapter, and was stretching its leg toward its terminus when love intervened and produced an eleventh-hour twist. Two men were given a second chance at freedom. One woman sacrificed everything. Another man met his grisly end.
These are the stories that paint pink acrylic swirls upon the serifs of the font that transcribes our past. After nearly 1000 paths of investigative prose (with the occasional dab of poetry), these are the stories that still ignite my imagination and wonder.
Jack Biddle, along with his little brother Ed and their friend Frank Dorman, became known around Pittsburgh as The Chloroform Gang. Their modus operandi was to assist their victims into slumber by using chloroform-soaked rags, then to rob them thoroughly. One morning, it all went wrong.
They were hoping to pilfer as much as they could from the residence of grocer Thomas Kahney. Someone – possibly Kahney’s wife, or perhaps one of the intruders – made some noise, and Kahney found himself face to face with the would-be thieves. One of them (and the brothers would pin it on Dorman) shot and killed the man. When the police came snooping for suspects at a nearby home where the gang was hiding out, another blast was fired, killing Detective Patrick Fitzgerald.
Dorman was invited to spend the rest of his life in prison. Despite their pleas of innocence (at least as far as the shootings were concerned), the Biddle brothers were both sentenced to swing from the gallows, after a 60-day respite in the Allegheny County Jail. That’s where the woman enters the scene.
Kate Soffel, wife of warden Peter Soffel, was known to lend comfort and compassion to doomed prisoners. But when the local priest introduced her to Ed Biddle, something clicked. Perhaps it was his unflinching claim of innocence. Maybe the melding of their chemistries simply ignited the air around them. Throughout the month of December, 1901, Kate visited the brothers often, and soon she and Ed began exchanging encrypted notes. Before long, the warden’s wife had decided to help them escape.
She slipped a couple of small saws between the bars, stashed within the contents of care packages. Her father was the head guard of the facility, so it’s not likely she was searched before or after her visits. As an added bonus, Ed Biddle’s cell was visible from Kate Soffel’s bedroom, allowing them another method of communication. As the brothers carefully wore down the structural integrity of the bars that held them, a plan began to take shape.
According to a lengthy letter found later by authorities, Ed Biddle encouraged Kate to leave town, to travel to Toronto or Montreal to avoid getting caught up in the escape, which was planned for the early morning of January 29, 1902. She was to bring a vial of morphine to act as a cyanide capsule for quick suicide in case she was captured. But Kate knew the brothers would have a better chance at escaping if she helped lead them through the door.
After applying a dose of chloroform to her husband, she awaited the brothers’ arrival. At 4:00am on that Wednesday morning, one brother called out to guard James McGeary that the other was ill. When McGeary arrived, the brothers burst through their sawed bars and wrestled with the guard, tossing him over a railing in the struggle. Jack and Ed were armed with a pair of pistols (also supplied by the warden’s wife), and another guard named Reynolds was shot dead before he could call for help.
McGeary was locked up in the prison’s deepest cellar alongside George Costello, the other guard working the overnight shift. Kate met the boys and led them to freedom through the warden’s residence.
The fugitives had a two-hour head start before the 6:00am shift change would reveal their escape. They fled to a house near the railroad tracks in Pittsburgh, where the plan was to lay low for a few days. One imagines that this was the long-awaited opportunity for Kate and Ed to consummate their illicit affair, holed up behind protective walls while the world outside exploded in a frenzy, desperately seeking their capture. As for Jack Biddle, well hopefully he got drunk or something.
By late Thursday, the trio had been recognized by some locals who then offered to stash the crooks in exchange for a heap of money. Not presently equipped with such a heap, the Biddle brothers and Kate Soffel went back on the lam. Jack later said they’d have made it to freedom if it hadn’t been for Kate. He and Ed would have swiped a pair of horses and ridden into the night. But for Kate they stole a sleigh instead – it was slower travel, and it would prove to be their downfall.
Detective Charles “Buck” McGovern, one of the original arresting officers who had taken down the Biddles the previous year, formed a posse. He knew they’d be headed through Butler County, en route to Canada via the back roads. Sure enough, that’s exactly where they met the fugitives, guns at the ready.
There are two tales that describe what went down on January 31. The official story is that the detectives ordered them to stop, and opened fire when they wouldn’t. Jack Biddle’s version – which was supported by autopsy results – is that the three of them opted to take their own lives rather than be captured. Jack shot himself in the mouth, Ed and Kate shot themselves in the chest. The detectives added a few more bullets to the mix as they approached the three bodies writhing in agony on the snowy ground.
Jack Biddle delivered an extensive confession as he lay dying over the course of the next day in a local hospital. He and his brother never shot Thomas Kahney, nor did they plug the hole in Detective Fitzgerald on the day they were arrested. They had specifically avoided gun violence until the day of their escape. He related the entire story of their escape before succumbing to his wounds at 7:35 on February 1. Ed, who had barely regained consciousness all day, expired around 11:00 that night.
As for Kate Soffel, she survived.
Kate was treated for her gunshot wound, and also for a bout of pneumonia she had picked up whilst being totally underdressed for the cold Pennsylvania winter. She was despondent over the entire affair, and heartbroken by its conclusion. Warden Peter Soffel was released from his job. He quickly divorced his wife, then took their four children and moved away to Canton, Ohio where he remarried.
Kate served two years in prison for her part in the escape, then moved away and found a living dressmaking under an assumed name. She never remarried, and died of typhoid fever in 1909 at the age of 42. Kate had sacrificed quite literally everything for her heart, and spent more than seven years living a sentence of regret and shame. If that ain’t the meat of pure history, I don’t know what is.