Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

In an overgrown valley about 12 miles west of Indiana and one mile from West Lebanon lies the site of a mysterious R&P (Rochester and Pittsburgh) coal town known as Whiskey Run. For over fifty years, the community of Whiskey Run has been synonymous with violence, secrecy and unsolved murder.

Even the source of the town’s name is uncertain, with several versions vying for authenticity. Most old-timers say that at one time there was a post office station called Reed at the eventual site of Whiskey Run. There, in addition to farming, local residents also harbored a thriving but untaxed liquor business. One day word reached Reed that certain officials, commonly known as revenuers, were on the way. When the band of entrepreneurs heard of this impending visit, they quickly disposed of all liquid evidence by regretfully dumping it into the little stream that ran through the area. With danger thus averted, locals began calling the valley Whiskey Run.

A more probable explanation for the naming of Whiskey Run refers to the need for a constant supply of cold, running water for the whiskey-making process. As Reed Station’s winding brook fulfilled this requirement to perfection, the stream and the immediate area surrounding it may have become known as Whiskey Run. While both stories concerning the name of Whiskey Run predate its inception as a coal town in 1906, subsequent events proved the appropriate character of the name.

At the time of its founding, Whiskey Run seemed little different from its parent town of Iselin, five miles away. Whiskey Run came into existence when Iselin mines #1 and #2 expanded due to the great demand for the area’s Pittsburgh seam coal, used by railroads for producing steam. Mine #3 was opened, the coal company hurriedly constructed a few “shanties” and the town of Whiskey Run was born.

Rapid development of the mine at Whiskey Run required many new miners, and the word traveled as far as New York, where part of a group of Italian immigrants secured tickets on the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway for Indiana. Upon arrival in Whiskey Run, men quickly learned the techniques of coal mining, while their wives and children struggled to make the adjustment to a new life. Once they began to receive regular wages, the new miners wrote home to southern Italy and Sicily, where social and economic pressures were forcing huge numbers of contadini, or small farmers, to forsake their native land and sail to America. In this way, Whiskey Run became an exclusively Italian community. Recalls one second-generation Italian-American born just outside Whiskey Run: “They’d go to where they knew somebody. That’s how Whiskey Run developed.”

From the first, Whiskey Run attracted attention with its own brand of lawlessness. In an age accustomed to small-town crimes and Saturday-night fist-fights, this community soon became a byword for violence. Beginning with a 1907 headline reading “Two Men Fall in a Pistol Duel,” Whiskey Run’s sinister reputation grew as steadily as the area’s mines, until by 1926 an estimated twenty-one unsolved murders had taken place within its confines.

While the 1907 pistol duel resulted in no fatalities, the case reveals the loyalty to friends and family groups intrinsic to the social organization of Whiskey Run. Two rival groups sprang up almost instantly around the wounded man, and displayed “an animosity so marked” that, although carried aboard the same train, the patients, one with a bullet in his neck and the other with a bullet in his abdomen, had to be taken to separate Jefferson County hospitals to preserve what remained of the peace.

The next reported Whiskey Run outbreak occurred two years later, resulted in a fatality and further entrenched the impression of secrecy among community residents. On January 19, 1909, “Mike” Buttaro, during a quarrel following a drinking session in house #232, attacked Peter Spera with a “blunt instrument.” Several days had passed, the Indiana Evening Gazette noted, before word of the assault and subsequent death reached “outsiders,” as Spera was cared for by friends. Once notified of the crime, County Detective Josiah Neal acted. In hot pursuit behind the fleeing Buttaro, Neal easily identified the criminal by the two missing fingers on his left hand and arrested him aboard a train bound for Pittsburgh. Within six days after his capture, Buttaro was safely behind bars in the Western Pennsylvania Penitentiary to begin a four-year term for manslaughter.

Several long-time residents of the West Lebanon area who can recall the Whiskey Run shootings agree that often “the killings involved women,” and details of one death in 1910 support that theory. Early shortage of both housing and ready cash in the community created the necessity for boarding houses. A situation consisting of a dozen or more lonely men living in the same house with a young married woman contributed to the sensational case of the Commonwealth vs. Mrs. Virginia Mancanelli. Shortly before Thanksgiving, 1910, a miner named Moiden Nune was taken to the Adrian Hospital in Punxsutawney. Paralyzed from the waist down, Nune’s back, near the spine, was found to contain a bullet from “a five barrel, .38 caliber revolver.” Acting on an accusation made by the semi-conscious Nune, County Detective Neal arrested Mrs. Mancanelli and confined her, with her young infant, to the women’s section of the Indiana County jail.

Moved to pity, Indiana County women reacted with compassion. During the long, cold month that the woman and her baby remained in jail, daily messengers bearing nourishing food and warm clothing visited the cell and also, as the woman spoke no English, made dedicated efforts to teach her their language.

In the weeks that followed, Nune lingered between life and death in the hospital, ungallantly swearing that the pretty housewife, after her failure to persuade Nune to “run away with her”, had shot him in the back with her husband’s revolver. Finally, as the case darkened for Mrs. Mancanelli, Nune died in the Punxsutawney hospital. Fortunately, in a deathbed confession, Nune altered his story and revealed that it was he who actually precipitated the shooting by “bothering” Mrs. Mancanelli while her husband was at work. At a hearing held on February 18, 1911, the young wife was acquitted, and she and her child returned to their house at Whiskey Run.

While not alone in contributing to the long list of shootings and stabbings common in coal towns in the early 1900s, Whiskey Run is singled out for the enactment of a unique “first” – the only quadruple murder ever committed in Indiana County. On Sunday, August 13, 1911, three men were shot and killed instantly in a “duel type shooting affray”; a fourth man died the next day. The incident occurred in a Whiskey Run boarding house and centered on the affection of three men for an 18-year-old girl who also lived there. On this particular Sunday afternoon, a fourth suitor arrived from Holsopple, Pennsylvania. By evening, a heated discussion had broken out and gunfire commenced. At the sound of shots, Marie Bartino, “the innocent cause of the trouble,” peeked outside to see what was happening, and a stray bullet struck her in the leg. Due to the untimely deaths of all participants, this case was declared closed with the subsequent burial of all four young men. At the funeral, an unusual calm, often noted in Whiskey Run slayings, was remarked upon by the Gazette reporter. “The spectacle of the procession of hearses bearing the remains of the murdered men excited but little attention.”

In the next few years, reports of murder and mayhem emanated from Whiskey Run with enough regularity to firmly establish the community’s evil reputation. While other coal towns at times seemed to compete with Whiskey Run for newspaper headlines, the town’s isolation and suggestive name aided in giving it a special aura of mystery.

In 1920, a new element emerged in Whiskey Run crimes – the “revenge” type of killing for which the town has become infamous. On September 14 of that year, Gazette readers found rich material in the fatal shooting of Peter Villa and Camel Cosma at Whiskey Ran. Details acquired “under protest” indicated that Cosma, who lived in Johnstown, was a former resident of Whiskey Run. While working there in mine #3, he was injured in an accident and began receiving compensation. It was soon discovered that Cosma had made a regular practice of travelling to Whiskey Run at about the time of the semi-monthly pay and collecting sums of money for his “organization.” According to bits of testimony gathered with difficulty by local law enforcement officers, it appeared that certain residents of the community became outraged at the “bleeding” process and determined to rid themselves of both Cosma and his friend, Peter Villa.

Details of the shooting, in true Whiskey Run form, were nearly impossible to obtain. A woman, Mrs. Mary Cimano, who had seen the shooting, was taken into custody as a material witness, but refused to give any testimony that would clear up the case. At the inquest, conducted by Coroner A. H. Stewart, it was learned that Cosma’s body “had been perforated twenty-four times and that nine bullets had entered the body of Villa.”

Deterred considerably by lack of cooperation from Whiskey Run residents, efforts of officials to solve the crime tapered off into complete inaction as “those who know the particulars of the tragedy refuse to talk, evidently afraid of sharing the fate of the dead men.”

Inevitably, the Black Hand became associated with Whiskey Run violence. The belief in an organized criminal element persisted well into the 1920s, when a new series of murders occurred, some reported and some, due to Whiskey Run’s code of silence, never known to the outside world. By this time, although the town now contained more than thirty red-painted houses, had a company store, mine office and a visiting doctor, the community still retained its aura of mystery.

Mrs. Christine Ruddock English, whose family lived for many years on a farm above Whiskey Run, went to work in the town’s company store in 1918. As a clerk, it was Christine’s job to come down each morning before the sun rose, open the store and post office, and set out the mail. Mrs. English remembers one double murder from her days in the the Whiskey Run store: “It happened on a Sunday, in a shanty by the mine office When I went to work the next morning, boards had been laid over where they’d been killed, to cover the blood. Oh, the police came out, but I don’t remember anyone ever being caught in these murders.” In spite of these unnerving experiences, Mrs. English maintains, “I was never afraid. These people never bothered anybody, only people they wanted to get rid of.”

Mrs. English believes that an active Black Hand society did exist in and around Whiskey Run. “I’m sure of it. They probably did something back in the old country and weren’t apprehended. They were followed over here by other people who would complete the job of getting rid of them.”

Whatever the reason for the murderers’ successful escapes, Whiskey Run was in the headlines later that year when the town barber, Charles Lecatta, was found shot to death in his own shop one November morning. Investigators did their best, but members of Lecatta’s family refused “to advance any information that might lead to the arrest of the one responsible for the deed.” West Lebanon residents who remember this particular murder agree with a reporter’s opinion at the time of the shooting: “The murder is believed to have been the result of a vendetta, a revenge for some fancied or real wrong.”

Mrs. English, who remembers most of the murders of this period, remarks on the local acceptance of these deaths: “…it got to be such a common thing; everything just went on the same after it happened, and everyone went to work the same as usual.” Although lack of communication and transportation difficulties added to an alleged lack of efforts by local police to locate Whiskey Run felons, many former residents agree with an opinion given by one man who worked in the area for thirty-one years. He states: “As long as they killed among their own people, no one paid a whole lot of attention to it. Because these people didn’t bother the way of American people. They stayed to themselves. Besides, it was always said that you could get another Italian at the New York harbor for $25.”

Tony Bertolino, whose father “Joe-John” Bertolino ran one of the general stores just outside the Whiskey Run company property, remembers hearing of several murders which never reached the ears of the authorities. In one case, “they shot a poor peddler. He used to travel all over the Whiskey Run area with a big bundle of clothes on his back. Somebody killed him. We never knew who or why.”

Tony was also told how some of the killers made their escapes, usually assisted by friends: “Sometimes, the murderers would sleep overnight at the old church outside of town, run to the West Lebanon train station next morning, catch a train, and disappear. While tales have been told of bodies being taken to Ernest or Lucerne and “dropped into a coke oven,” Tony says: “Most were taken by train to St. Bernard’s or to the cemetery at Iselin.”

In spite of a reputation “that made people shudder when you mentioned Whiskey Run,” there was another side to the community rarely brought to the attention of outsiders. Dr. Walter Patterson grew up just outside of West Lebanon. As a boy, Dr. Patterson often drove his father’s horse and wagon into Whiskey Run to sell produce from the family farm. He is emphatic in his insistence that “there is no evidence that the crime rate affected more than a few individuals. For the most part, the miners and their families were law abiding and were concerned with the future of their children.”

Mrs. Mary Wagner, who taught school at the Whiskey Run from 1923 until 1926, concurs: “I don’t believe that Whiskey Run was any worse than other coal towns; it just had the name. Those people walked to Iselin to church when they could. In the fall, carloads of grapes were brought in and they made wine, but I don’t remember an excess drinking going on.”

Mary’s father, R. W. “Wilse” George, also had a warm relationship with Whiskey Run residents. In addition to running a taxi business, Mr. George also “huckstered” to the town, which meant that he took orders to miner’s wives from the stores in West Lebanon. “Everybody out there loved my dad,” says Mrs. Wagner. “They called him George. He took a great many of the miners to town to get their citizenship papers. They needed someone to drive them into Indiana and sign for them.” Since R. W. George owned one of the first cars in the West Lebanon area, he was often called upon to perform this service.

While most Whiskey Run residents evidently went about the business of coal mining, housework and schoolwork, one individual seemed destined to keep the name of the town firmly fixed in the annals of Indiana County crime. On August 8, 1926, Clarence Frye died from gunshot wounds near Newton Armstrong’s store in Hart Town, about a mile from Whiskey Run. The next day Thomas McEwan died of wounds received in the same shooting. The incident had its roots in an argument aroused during a baseball game on the Whiskey Run field. Those who remember the shooting state that a bat had been broken, both the Hart Town and Whiskey Run teams demanded retribution, and soon the whole discussion moved to the little grocery store.

The debate quickly grew heated. According to witnesses, the two “American” men enraged the Whiskey Run miner by announcing that they could “whip any spaghetti-eating Dago we ever met.” After sending his sister out to his Chysler touring car for his overcoat, the killer pulled a .38 caliber revolver from the pocket and shot Thomas McEwan in the stomach. Then, his gun still smoking, the murderer gave chase to Frye, who fled down the road. Taking careful aim, the killer fired again and shot the running man three times in the back. Then, in true Whiskey Run fashion, the criminal dashed for his car, climbed in and made his escape.

One Whiskey Run resident who remembers the crime still voices public sentiment at the time of the shooting: “People in those days couldn’t take an insult, especially Italian people. If somebody got shot, he usually asked for it.”

County and state authorities conducted a complete investigation of the double murder, but clues were vague. The entire Indiana County area “has been aroused by the fatal shooting and the feeling is more intense that the two victims were Americans,” remarked the Gazette. At first, police believed the killer had fled in his own car, but later data showed that Wilse George, not suspecting the motive, had driven the man to the train station in Saltsburg. From there, the Whiskey Run slayer disappeared, seemingly into oblivion.

By the beginning of World War II, the town of Whiskey Run had vanished almost as completely as its last killer. The mines at the site, including those at Hart Town and nearby Nesbit Run, closed in 1932. People who lived in the town, says Tony’s brother, Liberty Bertolino, “just kept moving out one by one, until eventually it became a ghost town.” The process, he recalls, “began around 1928. Lots of people went out to Detroit. They’d just get on a train, and put their furniture right in the boxcar.” The houses, though, were not simply left to the ravages of time: “They were torn down and moved … One fellow bought a couple of Whiskey Run houses and built a barn from the materials.”

Whiskey Run, however, was not to be so easily forgotten. Just as memories of the community were beginning to dim, headlines again carried the coal town’s well-known name. On December 28, 1941, the Gazette announced: “Man Taken in Whiskey Run Murder.” In an article which captivated those familiar with the events in Hart Town fourteen years before, a reporter announced that County Detective William J. Moore and State Motor Police Sergeant Louis R. Feloni were leaving immediately for Los Angeles, California, to question a suspect in the double murder. Alerted by a telegram from Los Angeles authorities, county officials showed immediate interest in the man, who upon being fingerprinted routinely as he applied for a liquor license, was found to match the description of the Whiskey Run killer.

Within days, the suspect was returned to the Indiana County jail and charged with the murders of Frye and McEwan. By the end of January, all of Indiana and Armstrong counties waited with keen interest as the date for the trial neared. District Attorney Clark conducted a vigorous prosecution, while the defendant, “appearing calm and serious,” pleaded “not guilty” to the crime on the grounds of self-defense. Newton Armstrong was called to the stand to describe events as he remembered them, and a woman who had been Frye’s wife at the time of the shooting told of the discovery of her husband’s body with three bullet holes in it.

On March 14, the defendant took the stand aided by his sister who spoke through an interpreter. Supported by a few other witnesses, the former Whiskey Run miner maintained unflinchingly that Frye and McEwan had been drunk on the night of the fatal baseball game, had threatened him with a hammer and an iron bar, and that he had acted only in self-defense.

On March 17, 1941, Whiskey Run’s most sensational case came to an end when the Los Angeles man was convicted of second degree murder. Sentencing was pronounced as his wife’s sobs filled the courtroom – a fine of $3,000 with incarceration in the Western Penitentiary “of not less than six years or more than twelve.” After sentencing, the killer of Clarence Frye and Thomas McEwan disappeared the second and final time from Indiana County.

Thirty-nine years have passed since Whiskey Run captured the bold type in county newspapers, but many local residents upon hearing that name, pause, raise their eyebrows, and, given a few moments, can still conjure up memories. While those who can remember may not agree on the exact number of killings or on their causes, all are unanimous in the opinion that, long after other coal towns have been forgotten, Indiana countians will recall the infamous Whiskey Run – where coal dust mixed with murder.


Eileen M. Cooper works as a Research Associate in the Department of History at Indiana University of Pennsylvania under a grant from the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company. Other of her articles on coal mining life in Indiana County have appeared in past issues of Pennsylvania Heritage.