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Boo crew scares up ghosts of city past

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Eric Heyl is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His work appears throughout the week.

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By Eric Heyl

Published: Friday, July 17, 2009

Their goal is to not only tickle your palate, but also tingle your spine.

In a spooky twist on the dinner theater concept, a nascent group meeting regularly at a South Side eatery serves up Pittsburgh's most chilling ghost stories while the waitstaff serves the Bolognese alla Belegrade.

Haunted Pittsburgh isn't the looney-driven lark you might expect. It's the result of meticulous research into the purported supernatural ties of some of the city's most famous figures and places.

"Pittsburgh has a fascinating ghostly history, and we don't think it's ever been properly told," said Michelle Smith, a Downtown attorney.

Haunted Pittsburgh ( ) is the brainchild of Smith and fellow attorney Tim Murray, founder of the Carbolic Smoke Ball Web site.

Although the Carbolic site features fake news items, none of the tales told at the Gypsy Cafe's "ghost dinners" are the creation of Murray's imagination.

"Michelle and I spent literally years collecting the great Pittsburgh ghost stories," he said.

One tale on Haunted Pittsburgh's macabre menu involves 19th century industrialist Henry Clay Frick, once dubbed "America's most hated man" by people who didn't much like him.

Frick narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 1892, when anarchist Andrew Berkman entered his office. Despite firing at near point-blank range, Berkman managed to only wound Frick by hitting him twice in the neck.

Berkman blamed sunlight streaming through windows for his poor shooting. "But the windows faced north, so there wouldn't have been any sunlight coming through them at that time of day," Smith said.

Years later, "Frick revealed that at the time of the assassination attempt, the ghost of his late 6-year-old daughter appeared to him."

Frick believed it was the apparition's luminescence that blinded Berkman and saved him.

"And Frick was known as a pretty level-headed businessman," Smith said.

The local boo crew entertains with other tales, as well:

• The ghost that supposedly haunts the 10th floor of the Downtown Macy's department store (let's hope it stays out of the changing rooms)

• The premonition of disaster one of Roberto Clemente's sons had before the late Pirates star boarded his ill-fated flight on Dec. 31, 1972

• The wraith said to watch over Fallingwater, the world-famous Fayette County home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Edgar Kaufmann family

Haunted Pittsburgh hopes soon to begin walking tours of some of South Side's ghostly spots, as well as Christmas-themed ghost dinners when the holiday approaches.

"Most other major cities have those type of tours and haunted storytelling events, so we think there's a void to be filled here," Smith said.

Maybe so, although that doesn't necessarily guarantee Haunted Pittsburgh a large turnout at the next ghost dinner July 29.

It is, after all, the dead of summer.

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