The North Side dressmaker who called herself Katherine Miller was carried through the doors of West Penn Hospital in August of 1909. Fever clawed at her brow.
The woman had once been well-known across Pittsburgh. She had been reviled, then pitied. But Mrs. Miller would die alone on Sept. 1, after eight days of feverish struggle. She was 42.
The next day, a crowd shuffled into a house on Southern Avenue in Mount Washington to witness her funeral. The Smithfield Street United Evangelical Protestant German Church choir filled the house with music while people gazed at Mrs. Miller’s withered body.
On the day of her burial at Smithfield Cemetery, a letter published in The Pittsburgh Press suggested something other than disease ended Mrs. Miller’s life.
“I think it safe to say that hard work killed her,” wrote a woman identified simply as “N.C., Allegheny, Pa.”
“The last time I visited her dressmaking establishment, about six weeks ago, happened to be the morning after she had worked all night on a gown for a prominent Allegheny woman. A more pitiable object than she I never saw. She was on the verge of prostration then, but she never complained, never sought the sympathy of anyone. All she knew was work, work, work.”
A headline above the letter said of Mrs. Miller, “Friends Declare She Made Up for Her One Rash Act by Unceasing Toil.”
Seven years earlier, on Feb. 1,1902, a sleigh carried Mrs. Katherine Soffel over the snow slopes of Butler County as she bled from a wound to her breast. A bullet was lodged in her back; a watchful detective sat at her side. “I am a bad woman, I am a bad woman,” Mrs. Soffel said. “I only love my children. You know there are many domestic troubles that only a woman can understand … I hope I shall die.”
Mrs. Soffel was a warden’s wife and a doting mother of four children. A few days earlier, she had told her husband she was to going to bed early. But the next morning, when the warden rushed to tell her of the astonishing events that happened in the jail during the night, Mrs. Soffel was gone.
She was known for being sympathetic to prisoners and believing that she could save and convert them. For one handsome prisoner named Ed Biddle, Mrs. Soffel furnished fruit, Bible verses and pleasantries. Then she slipped Mr. Biddle saw blades and revolvers — tools Ed and his brother Jack could employ in an escape.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 29, the brothers made their move. They sawed through jail bars, squeezed through a small opening and attacked guards. One guard was beaten and thrown over a 16-foot-high railing. Another was shot and wounded.
The brothers gathered Mrs. Soffel where she waited in the jail library and escaped through the warden’s residence. The three cut through the alleys of Downtown Pittsburgh, the brothers wearing stolen street clothes, and fled by foot and trolley to Perrysville.
There, the group bought ham sandwiches and stole a sleigh, then headed to Mt. Chestnut, five miles east from Butler. It was there, on Jan. 31, that pursuing officers caught up with the trio, fleeing in the stolen sleigh. The pursuers began to shoot when the Biddle brothers and Mrs. Soffel refused to heed commands to stop.
Both Biddle brothers were fatally wounded. Newspapers reported that Mrs. Soffel was shot just above the heart — a serious wound, but one that did not kill her.
In her short remaining years, she served time in Western Pennsylvania Penitentiary and starred as herself in a failed play called “A Desperate Chance.” The play was shut down by a Fayette County court. Her husband divorced her and remarried. She supported herself by making dresses.
Mrs. Soffel returned to her maiden name, Katherine Dietrich, sometimes going by Katherine Miller, the name many called her upon her death. Her business on Federal Street was, by at least one account, flourishing.
The letter writer N.C. knew the dressmaker’s true identity and complicated past, but kept the news to herself.
“I, too, am a working woman, one who knows only too well the awful effect of a tired brain and a sore heart,” N.C. wrote. “If there was anything to be regretted in her life, she atoned for it, and she died atoning.”
– Stephanie Strasburg