The Biddle Boys Stop for a Bite

Six ham sandwiches and a pint of whiskey add a footnote to the tale of the notorious brothers and Mrs. Soffel.

There may never be a juicier, more wicked and romantic tale in Pittsburgh history than the story of the dastardly and murderous (although famously handsome) Ed and Jack Biddle. In 1902, the brothers escaped from the Allegheny County Jail downtown thanks to help from the infatuated Kate Soffel, who was then the warden’s wife and who fled with the Biddle boys as they headed north.

The story is a bit Bonnie-and-Clyde-ish; it’s Madame-Bovarian; it’s Wild West dramatic, occasionally Fargo-like and comic, and oh-so-romantic with Doctor Zhivago-like scenes in Butler County. And yes, in 1984, it was made into an odd and oddly beautiful, big-time movie called Mrs. Soffel with Diane Keaton in the title role, opposite a young Mel Gibson as Ed Biddle and the oft-forgotten Matthew Modine as Jack.

The movie, proudly promoted with the words “A True Story” full-screen, used the facts loosely at times and ignored some of the nicest details that were originally reported in newspapers at the time. In the film, the Biddles seem to escape on New Year’s Eve, but actually they broke out on Jan. 29, and they got as far as the village of Perrysville in Ross Township by the next night. They hid out in a schoolhouse, Perrysville School No. 2, for several hours, and they stole a horse and sleigh from a local stable before heading on, maybe toward Canada, maybe toward New Castle.

“Their escape and Mrs. Soffel’s involvement made front-page news from Canada to California,” says Diane Holleran, who’s a Ross Township historian and writer. She’s collected many articles, photos, maps and copies of ancient newspaper headlines that prove her point. “It was just such a great and exciting story. It was a hundred-plus years ago, but people are still fascinated.”

Holleran points out that one of the places they stopped for food is still here. It’s now a light-blue apartment building (shown below) on Route 19 (Perry Highway) at Atlantic Avenue, on the left as you head north in downtown Perrysville. Records show it was built in the late-1840s, and it was called the White House Inn back in those exciting days, although some folks knew it as the Weller Hotel because it was run by Christopher R. Weller, who was tending bar on the evening of Jan. 30, 1902.

Some accounts have both Biddles and Mrs. Soffel coming to the White House Inn for something to eat, but the Pittsburg Dispatch on Feb. 1, 1902, reported it was just Ed who showed up late that evening in search of some grub. There was a church group in the hotel having a little post-sleigh-ride party, and Weller said dinner was over and all he could rustle up were ham sandwiches. Ed Biddle ordered six. And a pint of whiskey.

When the six sandwiches and the whiskey couldn’t fit into Ed’s overcoat pocket, he had to take his revolver out to make room. (This wasn’t in the movie!)

Kate Soffel and the Biddle boys may have eaten the sandwiches at the schoolhouse before setting out in their stolen one-horse open sleigh. Or maybe they ate them on the road as they traveled northward in the dark after 1 a.m.
By mid-afternoon on Jan. 31, the fugitives were confronted on the road by law-enforcement types, and the Biddles and Soffel were all three shot in a field just west of Mount Chestnut in Butler County. Ed and Jack died the next day from their wounds. Mrs. Soffel lived on for several years, until 1909, disgraced, shunned by her family and undoubtedly full of good stories.

Categories: Rick Sebak