The scariest stories are the ones that really happened.
Here are a few true crime stories from the Post-Gazette’s vaults to send a shiver down your spine this Halloween season.
The “Pittsburgh Poisoner”
Kindly, gentle Martha Grinder liked to help her family and neighbors when she could, especially in times of illness. Curiously, people often seemed to sicken, even die under her ministrations. But then so many people died young in the 1800s. Up to a half of all children never lived to age 5. The average lifespan was about 40.
Martha, 50, was “a woman of refinement and respectability,” according to The Pittsburgh Daily Post. “She was of slight figure, a rather pleasing countenance and her leading characteristic would seem to a stranger to be gentle amiability.”
She lived with her husband, George, in Allegheny City, now the North Side. On the warm, clear evening of June 27, 1865, Martha invited her neighbor, newlywed Mary Caroline Caruthers, over for tea and served some peaches and cream. After Mary got home, she felt sick, according to her husband James Caruthers’ testimony quoted in the Daily Post. She spent a miserable night with vomiting and diarrhea. The next day, she felt a little better and told her husband she would like some rice soup — which he prepared with water Martha had already boiled. Three hours later, Martha came to the store to tell him his wife was very sick again. He hurried home. A doctor was called, and he said Mary had been poisoned. But the ailing woman continued to eat coffee, toast and crackers from her neighbor, and continued to be ill.
The Caruthers’ doctor by now was suspicious. He told James not to eat anything from Martha, and for them to go away, according to the Daily Post. The couple took his advice.
The next month, James heard Martha’s child had died. According to the Daily Post, he went to visit the Grinders and agreed to attend the funeral in Leechburg. His wife came back in town, and the couple accepted food and drink prepared by Martha, and got sick again. On Aug. 1, Mary became more and more ill until “after suffering unimaginable tortures, she died in terrible agony,” her husband said, as quoted in the Daily Post.
On James’ suspicions, Martha was arrested and charged with larceny, according to The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial. She took her small child with her to prison.
When police searched her home, they found packets of powders, at least one of which was a poison. Martha was charged with murdering Mary. “A Borgia!” trumpeted the Daily Commercial on its front page on Aug. 26. “Horror upon horror! Wholesale poisoning in Allegheny / Men, women and children victims / Mysterious death of six persons.”
Martha also was found to have poisoned to death her Irish servant — variously called Mary, Jane or Jennie Buchanan — and one of George’s brothers She was suspected of killing another of George’s brothers and her own 1-month-old baby.
Awaiting her execution in prison, she somehow obtained poison and twice tried to poison herself, according to the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times.
The day before her execution by hanging, Martha signed a confession that she had poisoned Mary and the servant girl, but vigorously denied killing anyone else. She never offered a reason for her murders, but she seemed to have taken money and belongings from her victims. There might have been more, though: She slowly poisoned each of her victims to death, hovering nearby and watching their suffering.
She is buried in Union Dale Cemetery in Perry South.
Pittsburgh always had a taste for booze. “Speakeasies” — illegal bars — had flourished in Pittsburgh since 1887, when the city passed a law making liquor licenses prohibitively expensive. So when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution became law in 1919, criminalizing the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages, authorities were not inclined to enforce it. Millworkers drank, immigrants drank, even the police drank, and none of them was disposed to stop because some abstemious Protestant powerbrokers wanted a dry country.
Corruption flourished as law enforcers took bribes to ignore vice. Police officers weren’t above nipping into an illegal bar for a beer before returning to their beats.
Pittsburgh in the 1920s and ’30s was cramped, dirty and dangerous. Immigrants clustered near the city’s core, especially the Hill District and the north and south river shores. Some 669,000 people lived in the city in 1930, compared to 303,625 in 2016.
Against this backdrop, some immigrants with no fear of violence organized illegal crime rings to dominate the liquor industry. Brothels, gambling joints, bars, after-hours clubs and speakeasies proliferated, as did the murder count, as criminals vied for power. Some notable slayings, among many, included:
Luigi Lamendola, May 19, 1927: The Genoese immigrant had just closed his Hill District restaurant for the night when two men knocked on the window. They motioned him to come outside. When he stepped to the doorway, gunmen in a nearby parked car shot him down, then shot up the restaurant before speeding away, a policeman firing after them. Lamendola had a reputation for beating up adversaries and had many enemies. His killers were never found.
Steve and Sam Monastero, Aug. 6, 1929 and March 18, 1930: The mobster brothers drove their bulletproof car to St. John’s General Hospital on McClure Street, North Side, to visit a fellow gangster with appendicitis. As they walked into the hospital, gun barrels poked out of a nearby sedan with its shades drawn, and bullets began flying. Steve fell to the ground. A gunman came out and fired several rounds into his head. Sam ran into the hospital, where police arrested him. He was later released. The following March, Sam was found inside his car strangled with his own $15 hand-painted necktie. His car was stuck in the mud of Jack’s Run near West View, its engine running and its wheels spinning.
William Gregory, April 1, 1930: A decapitated body shoved neck-first into a barrel was discovered in Penn Township, the corpse’s legs and feet sticking out the barrel’s top. The head was found a mile and half away wrapped in newspaper and a potato sack. The victim turned out to be William “Stuttering Bill” Gregory, a bootleg truck driver. He had been severely beaten before decapitation. Rather than deliver a cargo of liquor, he had sold it, kept the money and told the bootlegger that the truck had been robbed. Police suspected Philip DeFazio, operator of a Bloomfield brewery, of the crime. They found lime sprinkled on the walls and floors of DeFazio’s building and what looked like blood spots and arrested DeFazio. He was acquitted.
“The Braddock Massacre,” Oct. 4, 1930: Two gunmen entered the Lobianco Brothers grocery in Braddock and shot to death Joseph Lobianco; his pregnant wife, Mary; his brother Carmen; and customer Louis Tomano. The couple’s 17-month-old baby was unhurt in the back room. A 12-year-old delivery boy hid behind shelves and also escaped unharmed. Mary survived briefly while doctors tried unsuccessfully to save her and her unborn baby. Police later discovered the store stocked nothing but sugar and yeast, necessary ingredients to make liquor.
Joseph Siragusa, Sept. 13, 1931: Mary Siragusa returned from church at St. Philomena’s in Squirrel Hill to find her husband, Joseph “The Yeast Baron,” dead on the basement stairs with five bullets in his head and body. His parrot lamented, “Poor Joe, poor Joe” for two hours afterward. Siragusa was a sugar and yeast racketeer.
Jack Palmer and Salverio Amarosa, Oct. 7 and 8, 1931: Suspected bootlegger Jack Palmer (or Palmere) was chatting with a friend in a Wylie Avenue restaurant when a gunman rushed in and shot him point blank in the head. Palmer was wearing a $2,000 diamond ring worth more than $32,000 in 2017 dollars and had thousands of dollars in large bills stuffed in his pockets. The next day a farmer discovered the body of Palmer’s partner, Salverio “Toto” Amarosa, near the banks of Turtle Creek. He had been strangled with a clothesline, stabbed, stuffed in a burlap sack, doused with gasoline and set on fire.
John, James and Arthur Volpe, July 29, 1932: The three Neapolitan gangster brothers were shot in an ambush inside a Lower Hill District coffee shop. The three attackers included a former friend and bodyguard of John’s, Giuseppi “Big Mike” Spinelli. Mortally wounded, John staggered outside to Wylie Avenue and died on the sidewalk. James dived behind a counter but was shot three times in the head. Arthur, in the back room, was shot twice in the back of the head. The Volpes politically dominated their base in Wilmerding and were muscling in on the Pittsburgh bootlegging scene. Some 7,000 mourners lined up around the block for the triple viewing and 250 cars drove in the funeral procession.
John Bazzano, Aug. 8, 1932: Police suspected Bazzano had orchestrated the Volpes’ murders and sheltered “Big Mike” Spinelli. A newly formed group of organized crime leaders that adjudicated and meted out punishment in gangland disputes, La Cosa Nostra Commission, summoned Bazzano to New York City. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. The commission feted Bazzano for the Volpe killings. After the party, some fellow diners offered Bazzano a ride back to his hotel. Unbeknownst to him, these men were Volpe loyalists. His whereabouts were unknown until his body was found in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, N.Y. He had been stabbed up to 20 times with an ice pick, his arms and legs tied with rope and a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth. The body was then wrapped in a burlap bag and left on a trash heap.
On Dec. 15, 1933, Congress passed the 21st Amendment, annulling the 18th, and making the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages legal again. The new law swept away the easy money that Prohibition had made possible, and broad-daylight mob murders came to an end.
McKees Rocks and New Castle dismemberments
May 3, 1940, was unseasonably cool and rainy, with temperatures dipping into the high 30s. At the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad scrap yard in McKees Rocks, John Salack of Pittock was demolishing and burning obsolete wooden rail cars. On the third car from the rear of a string of 50, Salack smelled something bad. He brought over Leroy Rust of McKees Rocks and inspector Harry Gross. These two clambered into the car and soon found the source of the stench: a man’s torso and limbs wrapped in burlap or covered with paper and placed in the corners of the car.
As police detectives and morgue attendants carted off the remains, workers found a second body, dismembered in the same way, in the seventh rail car from the end of the string. A few minutes later, the men found a third body in another car, this one beheaded, burned and having the 5-inch word “NAZI” carved into its chest, with the “z” facing backward. All the victims had been dead for weeks.
Investigators said the killer was skilled with a knife and knew something of human anatomy. Only one was identified — an Illinois burglar named James David Nicholson. The killer was never found.
Then as now, people speculated whether these crimes were committed by the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run,” perpetrator of the Cleveland torso murders. Those notorious, unsolved murders took place between 1935 and 1938 in the Flats area of Cleveland. Twelve deaths are officially credited to the killer, who dismembered his victims, often drifters — sometimes while they were still alive.
From Oct. 6, 1925, to June 22, 1942, 11 dismembered bodies were found in Pittsburgh’s rivers or a swampy area near New Castle.
Oct. 6, 1925: A hunter in the swampy area between the New Castle Junction and West Pittsburg saw a human leg protruding from under a fallen tree. His discovery turned out to be the nude, headless body of a young man partly buried in the marshes. Later, authorities found the victim’s head and clothing, minus the shoes.
Oct. 17, 1925: Some boys hunting squirrels found another headless body in the swamps, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph. The body wore a working shirt and a pair of underwear, the paper stated. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette disagreed, saying a rotted pair of shoes and a penknife were the only belongings authorities could find. A long-bladed knife was found nearby. Police began combing the swamps looking for more bodies. They suspected the area was being used by gangs as a corpse dumping ground.
Oct. 19, 1925: Three men helping the searchers found the skull of a woman in the swamps. By this time, the local mood was hysteria. By Oct. 21, authorities gave up searching the swamp, according to the Tyrone Daily Herald. The area was too large and the conditions too marshy to continue.
Around July 3, 1936: Railroad car inspectors at a slag dump near the P&LE Railroad yards in New Castle found a badly decomposed body in a box car. The remains were “practically a skeleton,” according to The Pittsburgh Press. “The head had been cut off with surgical precision.” The remains had no clothing and were wrapped in newspapers dating from July 20 and 21, 1933. The victim’s identity was never learned.
Oct. 13, 1939: Three boys hunting walnuts in the New Castle swamps stumbled upon the headless, nude body of a young man hidden by 6-foot-high weeds. The boys ran one and a half miles to tell police. According to a county detective, the killer had walked the victim, age 18 or 19, about 5 feet 6 inches and 120 pounds, into the woods, killed and decapitated him. The killer then built a fire and put the body face down on top of it. The hands and fingertips were also burned to destroy any fingerprints. On Oct. 18, a railroad car inspector found the victim’s head in a P&LE railroad car near the swamp. The car had been shifted, but used to be closer to the site of the body. Authorities believed that after the murder, the killer had tossed the severed head into the rail car. The victim had long, sandy hair, and the crime location was near a “Hobo Jungle” of homeless drifters. Neither the victim nor the killer was ever identified.
May 25, 1941: Two men who got off a freight train in Moon Township found a man’s leg washed up on the Ohio River bank. The leg was amputated at the right hip “as though the work of a skilled surgeon,” according to the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call. A second neatly amputated leg washed up the river bank at Neville Island on May 31.
Sept. 24, 1941: Three men picking scrap iron along the Monongahela River on the South Side found another headless body. The head was about 30 feet away. Police determined the dead man was Wallace Brown, 35, an auto mechanic and known criminal.
June 22, 1942: The Coast Guard found yet another decapitated body on the Monongahela near the Brady Street Bridge. The body was nude had only two identifying features – – two vaccination scars on the left arm and a surgical scar on the abdomen. Police identified the victim the next day as Ernest Alonzo, between 25 and 30, of Donora, an unemployed zinc worker with a history of heavy drinking. The bridge has been replaced by the Birmingham Bridge.
Famous lawman Eliot Ness, who had brought down mobster Al Capone, was safety director of Cleveland during the mid to late 1930s and investigated the torso murders. Evidence indicates Ness believed the killer was surgeon Francis E. Sweeney, who had conducted many amputations during World War I. Sweeney was the first cousin of a U.S. congressman who was highly critical of Ness’ work on the investigation. Historians have speculated that this connection may have protected him from prosecution. On Aug. 25, 1938, Sweeney committed himself to a mental hospital and stayed in institutions until his death in 1965. From the hospital, someone using Sweeney’s name wrote taunting postcards to Ness until Ness’ death in 1957.
All the cases remain unsolved.
Grady ''The Lobster Man'' Stiles Jr.
Grady Stiles Jr. was born with deformities that ran in his family. He had only two extremities on each hand, shaped like claws, and foreshortened legs that ended in malformed feet. Like members of his family going back to the 1840s, he performed in circus sideshows as “The Lobster Man” or “Lobster Boy,” starting as a child.
As a man, Stiles proved abusive. He lived in a North Side rowhouse with his second wife, Mary, and some children from his first marriage. One of his children, 15-year-old Donna, who did not have the Stiles congenital condition, wanted badly to escape her home life. She began dating a teen who lived nearby, Jack Layne, 18. Stiles hated his daughter’s boyfriend.
“The kid said he was a freak,” said Stiles’ lawyer, Anthony DeCello. “Grady never forgave anybody who did that.” Donna, according to DeCello, “was embarrassed of [her father]” in addition to being frightened of him. “When he said something, she jumped. She probably had a living hell in that house.”
Stiles began to threaten Layne’s life and bought a pawn shop gun with the offhand remark that he would “use it on Jack.” His daughter ran away from home. From her boyfriend’s sister’s home, she telephoned her father.
“If you don’t get home in 5 minutes, I’m going to beat the hell out of you. Then, I’m going to kill [Layne],” Stiles told her, according to the Post-Gazette.
Donna threatened to live with Layne if Stiles didn’t agree to let them marry. The older man seemed to back down, saying he’d prefer the couple marry, and a wedding date was set. The day before the wedding, though, he repeated his threat to kill Layne. When Donna, her stepmother and Layne returned from buying a wedding dress at the former Allegheny Center Mall, Stiles pulled out his pawn shop gun and shot the teen in the chest. As Layne tried to flee, Stiles shot him again in the back. Layne stumbled outside and died in Donna’s arms.
“I told you I would kill him,” Stiles told his daughter with a smile.
The trial lasted only a few days. Witnesses included a circus fat lady and a bearded woman. Stiles’ guilt was never in question — he was convicted of third-degree murder on Feb. 22, 1979. But his punishment was more problematic. The prison did not have the resources to handle his physical limitations. The judge sentenced Stiles to 15 years’ probation.
After his conviction, Stiles moved to Gibsontown, Fla., a carnival wintering town. Both he and his ex-wife Mary divorced their spouses and remarried. Soon, however, their life pattern returned, with Stiles drinking heavily and beating his wife.
In 1992, as Stiles sat watching TV, a teenage neighbor shot him in the back of the head, killing him. Investigation revealed a murder-for-hire plot, with Stiles’ wife, Mary, as the employer, the neighbor as the triggerman, and Mary’s son by a prior marriage as the middleman. All received prison sentences. Mary was released in 2000; the triggerman in 2009. Mary’s son died in prison.
On Stiles’ grave was a banner reading “From Your Loving Wife.”
The ''Kill for Thrill'' murders
Two young drifters killed four random people the week after Christmas 1979, seemingly for sheer enjoyment.
John Lesko, then 21, was the oldest of six illegitimate children fathered by five men, according to Post-Gazette reports. When he was 5, a 12-year-old tied him to a tree during a game of cowboys and Indians and set him on fire. Lesko was severely burned. At age 8, he was sent to an institution for children whose parents were unfit to raise them. He once broke a pet rabbit’s neck in front of the rabbit’s 13-year-old owner. Lesko was expelled from high school and dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps after being court martialed four times. He once told an aunt that he’d like to find out “what it’s like to kill someone.”
He met Michael Travaglia in a bar about a month before the killings. Travaglia was also 21 with a disturbing life. A University of Pittsburgh associate professor of psychiatry who examined Travaglia said he was psychotic with an IQ of 80 and had incestuous feelings for his authoritarian father. The day after Christmas 1979, he sat on the roof of his family’s home with a high-powered rifle, planning to kill his father, but found he couldn’t do it.
At 2 a.m. on Dec. 27, the pair decided to rob someone. Outside a Downtown bar, unemployed security guard Peter Lovato, 49, picked up Travaglia in his car. Travaglia, who had a gun, honked the horn to signal Lesko. The pair overpowered Lovato, tied him up and tossed him in the trunk. Then they drove Lovato’s car 35 miles to the Loyalhanna Dam in Westmoreland County, where Travaglia’s family had a summer cottage. They opened the trunk and stole Lovato’s wallet with $59 in it. Travaglia cracked Lovato over the head with the gun and pushed him screaming in the freezing Loyalhanna Creek. Their victim, though bound hand and foot, managed to get to shore. The pair hunted him down with a flashlight and found him behind a tree. One of them shot Lovato, then they dumped the body. It wasn’t found until two days later.
Between 1 and 2 a.m. New Year’s Day, Sunday school teacher, seamstress and mother of a 6-year-old boy Marlene Sue Newcomer, 26, was driving her truck back from a subdued New Year’s party. She saw Lesko and Travaglia walking along the road and offered them a ride. They got in and took over her Dodge Ramcharger, tying up Ms. Newcomer and putting her in the back seat. They drove first to Indiana, Pa., where they robbed a convenience store of $35 and tied up the clerk with electrical wire stolen from Travaglia’s father. On the drive back, Lesko climbed into the backseat and shot her to death. The two men abandoned Ms. Newcomer’s truck with her body inside at a Pittsburgh parking garage. A garage security guard found the body the next day.
The two kidnappers eventually returned to the bar, the Edison Hotel at 139 Ninth St., where they had picked up their first victim. They lured William Nicholls, 32, an organist and choir director, outside into an alley and forced their way into his Italian sports car. Nicholls had only owned the car a few hours. As they got in, Travaglia’s gun went off, grazing Nicholls’ arm. They made him start driving. Once they got onto remote roads, they forced Nicholls into the backseat, where they handcuffed him and kept him at gunpoint. When Nicholls tried to bargain for his life, Lesko beat him unconcious and robbed him of all his money — $11.
The pair drove to to the dam at Blue Spruce Lake, Indiana County, replaced the handcuffs on Nicholls with rope, tied a boulder to his chest and lowered him head first and alive into the freezing water.
After waiting to make sure the body had sunk, they stole a .38-caliber handgun from Travaglia’s father’s truck and drove their new, stolen sports car back toward Pittsburgh. On the way, they stopped in Apollo to rob a convenience store and saw rookie Apollo police officer Leonard Miller, 21, in a parked patrol car nearby.
“Let’s have some fun with this cop,” Travaglia said.
To get the officer’s attention, Travaglia sped by the store three times at up to 90 mph, ran a red light, honked his horn and nearly hit Miller’s car. At last, Miller gave chase. Lesko and Travaglia drove to an isolated area and pulled over. As Miller approached the driver’s side window, he and Travaglia got into a gun battle. Miller emptied his service revolver. Travaglia wasn’t hurt. He shot Miller twice, mortally wounding him. As Miller lay on the highway, he was able to radio for help saying he’d been shot. It had been his third day on the job.
Lesko and Travaglia abandoned the sports car about six miles from Miller’s murder at a trailer sales lot.
Back in Pittsburgh, they got a hotel room at the Edison with Daniel Montgomery, a friend of Travaglia’s. Travaglia gave the handgun and bullets to Montgomery for safekeeping. “Goddamn, I shot a cop!” he remarked.
On Jan. 4, state police divers were able to pull Nicholls’ body from the lake. That day, officers on patrol spotted what they thought was Montgomery across the street from the Edison. State police had a warrant for Montgomery in connection with some robberies. They arrested him and found him carrying the loaded .38 with one spent shell. When they went to the room where Montgomery was staying, they found Lesko and Travaglia. Police arrested all three men plus a teen-age boy who was present at the Nicholls murder.
Lesko and Travaglia were convicted of the four murders and sentenced to death. They spent 30 years appealing their sentences. In 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a moratorium on executions. Travaglia died of natural causes last month at age 59. Lesko remains on death row.
Dismemberment Murders in 1988, 1992
Thomas Sestak, 60, was sifting through a Dumpster on Dec. 27, 1988. It was cold with a snow advisory, which was why he needed cardboard for bedding for his two German shepherds. The Dumpster behind Bargain World at the Great Valley Shopping Center in North Versailles had seemed like a convenient place to find some.
He spotted a good-sized box and began clearing away the trash in front of it. One plastic bag kept getting in his way. “I threw it out of the way twice,” Sestak told The Pittsburgh Press. “The third time it rolled back down, it opened just enough that I could see in it.”
What he saw was the side of someone’s face. At first, he thought it was a mannequin. “I wasn’t really sure, but it scared the hell out of me,” he said. He got in his car and drove to the shopping center’s front to alert police.
What Sestak had found was a severed head missing the jaw. The unidentified victim was young with brown hair, blue eyes and a slight mustache.
Sestak swore off searching Dumpsters.
Around 1:40 a.m. Jan. 3, a security guard at the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson works in Braddock came upon a brown paper bag in an isolated area. The bag contained a lower jaw that authorities later determined came from the same victim.
With the jaw, police were able to put together the victim’s face and broadcast a sketch of him on the local news. The next day, Jan. 3, the victim’s aunt and one of his brothers identified him as Anthony Patrick “Tony” Michalowski, 22. Toxicology tests revealed he had enough barbiturates in his system to induce a coma.
For years, police were unable to make progress on the case.
Then on May 4, 1992, a city garbage truck was compacting trash in Shadyside at Elmer Street and Culloden Way. One of the garbage bags ripped, and some human remains fell out. Further investigation revealed the dismembered body of Michael Hickmott, 30.
Police focused on an apartment building on Elmer Street near where the bags were picked up. Inside the building, they found blood in the basement. The next day, they charged renter Robert Wayne Marshall, 38, with the murder, but they could not find him. Four days after the discovery of Hickmott’s death, Marshall’s body was found inside the Armstrong Cork Factory, now The Cork Factory Lofts, in the Strip District. His wrists were slashed and notes in his clothes told police whom to alert that he was dead.
Although evidence strongly suggests Marshall was the killer in both cases, the murders remain officially unsolved.