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Duquesne University Archivist Digs into Ghostly Folklore

How do you interview a ghost? Thomas White, Duquesne University archivist, does it by collecting tales and legends for his new book, Ghosts of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

White, who is also an adjunct lecturer in the department of history, was formerly an archivist for the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. He has been investigating regional folklore for 10 years, and this is his third book on the subject.

“Since I am a public historian, I write these books for popular audiences,” said White, who lives in West View. “Telling ghost stories is a way that communities keep their memories—of persons or events—alive.”

For his 26 stories, White searched out the historical facts behind the legends. Several car accidents at Summit Cut Bridge in Beaver County caused fatalities, and the bridge is said to be haunted by a driver’s ghost. The tale encourages other drivers to be cautious on the perilous road.

Another story tells of a South Side steel mill worker who fell into a ladle of molten steel but continued to haunt the mill until it was demolished. White sees the tale as a warning about dangerous working conditions and a remembrance of the numerous workers who lost their lives.

Along with churches, cemeteries, hotels and colleges, Duquesne’s Fisher Hall also appears in the book, with the legend of the Fisher Café ghost. The frightened kitchen manager eventually asked Spiritan priests to bless the café, ending the phantom’s appearances.

Some tales fade after 50 to 60 years, but others come back, according to White. Cries at the Black Cross, a tale of a cemetery of influenza victims, was revived in the last few years with new flu scares.

White has become known as an authority on local legends. Besides researching newspapers, books and archives, he has interviewed many people who have had supernatural encounters.

“If they believe in the reality of ghosts or not is up to them. But if people believe a legend is true and act as if it happened, then it shapes their perceptions and their actions,” he said. “It becomes their history.”

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.