At the turn of the 20th century, Pittsburgh played host to a story of crime, murder, passion, and escape. The tale of the Biddle brothers made front page news across the country and was even later adapted into a movie starring Mel Gibson. Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer sat down with Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Heinz History Center, to hear the tale of this legendary prison escape.
The Biddle brothers were two infamous criminals in the early 1900s. Although they were native to Canada, Ed and Jack Biddle made Pittsburgh their home to carry out their many crimes. Known as the “Chloroform Gang,” the two would knock out their victims with chloroform soaked rags before stealing their belongings.
However, the two could not evade justice for forever. After a shoot out on the Northside where one man was killed, Detective Patty Fitzgerald eventually caught the two. Fitzgerald arrested them and they were sentenced to hang for murder.
While held in the Allegheny County Jail, the two were visited by Kate Soffel, the wife of the prison warden. She was delivering Bibles to the prisoners, hoping to set them on the right path. Instead, Mrs. Soffel found herself slowly falling in love with the charming Ed Biddle.
Deciding she could not allow the two to die, especially her beloved Ed, Mrs. Soffel smuggles two revolvers into the jail house. The brothers then staged a daring escape, during which they shoot one guard, knock out several others, and lock three inside of a jail cell.
The trio then sneaks out of the jail, taking a trolley to Westview, and stealing a one horse sleigh to make a run up North. However, along the way, they stopped at a hotel, during which time Ed Biddle and Mrs. Soffel decided to consummate their new relationship for four hours.
These hours proved to be their undoing. Back in Pittsburgh, the police had discovered the escape and rounded up a posse to hunt down the criminals. Tracking them to the hotel, another fire fight erupted, and this time the police were out for blood.
“The posse didn’t let up,” Masich said. “Ed Biddle was shot 17 times, which coincidentally for you crime and violence buffs, is exactly the number of times that Clyde Barrow was shot when he was killed.” The Clyde of which Masich refers was half of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo.
Jack Biddle was similarly riddled with bullets. Mrs. Soffel, thinking her lover had died, begged her husband to kill her. The warden responded by shooting her in the chest.
Despite their injuries, none of the three died that day. While the Biddle brothers’ wounds would prove to be fatal, Mrs. Soffel survived, going on to serve a prison sentence of two years. She was eventually released only to die in poverty.
While many Pittsburghers may not remember the events of the Biddle brothers’ escape, the very sleigh they made their final stand in can be found at the Heinz History Center, still filled with bullet holes.
“The lurid details are titillating today as they were then,” Masich said. “This was front page news in Pittsburgh and beyond.”
More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.