Mrs. Soffel and the Biddle Boys

It was a tale that reached legendary status well within its own time. With each newspaper edition, readers devoured reports that revealed the escape, capture, and ultimate death of the two most notorious criminals in Pittsburgh lore. After more than 100 years, the many and varied protagonists of this factual melodrama live on in the records that remain.

Depiction of Ed Biddle.
Depiction of Ed Biddle in Arthur Forrest’s “The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel: the greatest tragedy and romance in history,” c. 1902.

Depicton of Jack Biddle.
Depicton of Jack Biddle in Arthur Forrest’s “The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel: the greatest tragedy and romance in history,” c. 1902.

Born in Ontario, Canada, Jack and Ed Biddle arrived in Pittsburgh having already embraced a life of crime. In April of 1901, their unlawful tendencies led them to the Mt. Washington household of a wealthy grocer. Before it was completed, the brothers’ robbery turned to manslaughter when the grocer discovered them in his home. Local detectives tracked the Biddle boys down, but not without losing one of their number, Pat Fitzgerald. Once apprehended, Jack and Ed were charged with murder, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging.

Charles "Buck" McGovern.
Charles “Buck” McGovern, 1920. Charles C. McGovern Scrapbooks, 1922-1949, MSS 988, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

In the months before their impending deaths, the Biddle brothers and other Allegheny County prisoners began to receive visits from an intriguing visitor. As the wife of the jail’s prison warden, Peter Soffel, Kate Dietrich Soffel ministered to the county’s prisoners under her husband’s authority. Throughout the course of their interactions, Kate became enamored with Ed Biddle. The extent of her affection could be best measured in the instruments she purportedly hid under petticoats to facilitate Ed’s escape.

Peter Soffel's bond of appointment to prison wardon.
Peter Soffel’s bond of appointment to prison wardon, 1900. Allegheny County Officials’ bonds, 1853-1902, MFF 56, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

On Jan. 30, 1902, the Biddle brothers, with Mrs. Soffel in tow, broke out of the county jail and headed northward via trolley towards West View. Once they reached the end of the line, Kate and the Biddle boys stole a horse and sleigh from a local farm. Armed with a pilfered gun, the escapees seemed to be pursuing solace in Canada. According to testimony recorded in Soffel’s divorce papers, the January cold prompted Kate and the Biddles to stop at the Stevenson Hotel on Butler Plank Rd. After passing approximately four hours at the hotel, the escapees took to the snow-covered road once again. The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel logged nine more miles on their escape route before Det. Charles “Buck” McGovern and his cadre of detectives caught up to the escapees, who had made a pit stop at the Graham family farm. Clashes between the two groups erupted in gunfire and this resulted in the fatal wounding of both Jack and Ed Biddle.

 

Official Inquest of Ed and Jack Biddle.
Official Inquest of Ed and Jack Biddle, 1902. Pittsburgh Police Historical Association Collection, 1880s-2000s, MSS 858, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

Upon her apprehension and return to Pittsburgh, Kate Soffel was put on trial for her crimes and sentenced to two years in prison. After serving her sentence, Soffel lived and worked as a seamstress in the North Shore neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In addition to her sewing abilties, Soffel also profited from her role in this saga. In a travelling Vaudeville era show entitled, “The Biddle Boys,” Soffel elected to play herself.

While Soffel cultivated an acting career, Buck McGovern harnessed his successful exploits as a detective to rise in the ranks of local leadership and government. Before his retirement, McGovern served as the chairman of the board of Allegheny County Commissioners.

Farm from which the Biddle boys stole a sleigh
Aerial shot of the farm from which the Biddle boys stole a horse and sleigh. Photo by Ron Freeman. Pittsburgh Police Historical Association Collection, MSS 858, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

An inquest. A sleigh. A county warden appointment. Photographs. Divorce Papers. News Clippings. All of these relics uniquely preserve glimpses into the tale that transformed the lives of the Biddles, the Soffels, and Buck McGovern. For as contentious and polarized as these individuals were over 100 years ago, what sweet irony that some of the key remnants of this narrative have found a home in the collection of the Heinz History Center.

Sleigh the Biddle boys stole to escape
The sleigh the Biddle boys stole to escape is part of the Heinz History Center's collections and is currently in the process of being preserved. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Biddle boys' capture
Copy of a photo of the Biddle Brothers’ capture on Jan. 31, 1902. Source unknown.

Sierra Green is an archivist with the Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.

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