Jack and Ed Biddle

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Brothers John E. ("Jack") Biddle (1872–1902) and Edward C. ("Ed") Biddle (1876–1902) were condemned prisoners who escaped from the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania using tools and weapons supplied them by the warden's wife, Kate Soffel (June 27, 1867 – August 30, 1909)[1] who fled with them. During the subsequent pursuit and capture all three were wounded, the brothers mortally.[2]

The incident is the basis of the 1984 film Mrs. Soffel.

Jack Biddle, c. 1901
Ed Biddle, c. 1901

Background[edit]

Jack and Ed Biddle were born (January 8, 1872 and December 27, 1876, respectively) in Anderdon Township, Essex County, Ontario (now part of Amherstburg, Ontario) to George and Mary Ann (McQuaide) Biddle.[3] Soffel was born Anna Katharina Dietrich in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[4]

The Biddles were arrested on April 12, 1901 at a house in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania as leaders of the "Chloroform Gang", which for more than a year had been overpowering victims with chloroform or ether before robbing them.[5] Tried and convicted on December 12, 1901[5] of the murder of a Mt. Washington shopkeeper, they were imprisoned in Allegheny County Jail to await `hanging.[6]

Escape[edit]

Kate Soffel, wife of warden Peter Soffel,[7] frequently came into contact with prisoners in her efforts to rehabilitate them. She developed an infatuation with Ed Biddle, and eventually agreed to help the brothers escape by smuggling saws and guns to them.[7]

The brothers sawed openings in the bars of their cells, and at 4 am on January 29, 1902 one of them called out that his brother was ill. As a guard approached, Jack Biddle lunged through the opening between the bars and, seizing the guard by the waist, threw him over a railing to the stone floor sixteen feet below.[8][9] Ed Biddle shot and wounded a second guard.

The Biddles locked the wounded guards, and the third guard on duty, in the prison "dungeon". After changing from their prison jumpsuits into the guards' street clothes, they left the prison to rendezvous with Soffel. Only at the guards' 6 am shift change was the escape discovered.[8]

Pursuit and recapture[edit]

Capture of the Biddle Brothers, January 31, 1902, showing the sleigh in which they and Soffel had attempted to escape authorities.

The three took a trolley to West View, Pennsylvania, then walked a mile to a farm on Route 19, where they stole a sleigh and a shotgun and started for Butler County.[6][10]

Meanwhile, Charles "Buck" McGovern (one of the detectives who had originally arrested the Biddles) gathered a posse, assuming the fugitives were headed for Canada[6] and would follow back roads.

McGovern stationed his men at the Graham Farm in Butler County and waited.[6] After some time the brothers approached, bringing the sleigh to a halt as they realized they were surrounded. One of the detectives recounted the story:

The Biddles were sitting on the right side of the cutter. Mrs. Soffel was on the left side. "Hold up your hands and surrender," Detective McGovern commanded. Ed Biddle jumped up from his seat and, raising a shotgun, fired it at McGovern. He aimed badly, and the shot scattered on the road alongside of McGovern. Detectives McGovern and Roach discharged their Winchesters at Ed Biddle. Both shots took effect. John Biddle raised from the seat, and discharged his revolver at the three officers. Detective Swineheart settled himself and fired with a revolver at the man. The ball took effect in Biddle's arm. Then all the detectives opened fire on the Biddles. The shots knocked them out of the sleigh. Ed fell sprawling on the snow, and John fell on him.[9]

However, this account conflicts with that of John Biddle:

When we saw the officers coming towards us on the road yesterday evening we knew it was all up. We did not fire a shot at the officers, but agreed to kill ourselves. I shot myself in the mouth. 'Ed' shot himself over the heart. and [Kate Soffel] shot herself in the breast. We knew we had no chance to get away, and we knew we would swing if taken back, and that is why we wanted to kill ourselves.[11]

The Pittsburgh Dispatch the day after Soffel's death

What precisely happened during the showdown is uncertain, but the police may have opened fire on Soffel and the Biddles when they made their attempt at suicide. Reporters later described John Biddle as "riddled with buckshot",[9] mentioning that the Biddles were armed with a shotgun, but stated that the police only carried revolvers and rifles.[6]

As detectives approached the wounded brothers, Kate Soffel lay near them; she had shot herself. The detectives believed Ed Biddle to be reaching for a pistol, and so they shot him again, with McGovern firing at the brothers until his rifle's magazine became empty.

All three were taken to the jail at Butler, where the brothers were placed in adjoining cells. There Jack denied killing the Mt. Washington shopkeeper and a detective who had been shot dead during the Biddles' arrest.[6]

Death and burial of Biddle brothers[edit]

Ed had sustained three gunshot wounds, and Jack was described as "riddled with bullets."[9][11] Jack died at 7:35 pm on February 1; and Ed, who was largely unconscious for most of the time, died at 11 pm.[11]

The brothers' bodies were returned to Pittsburgh where they were met by a large crowd: they had become local celebrities. Thousands showed up to their viewing, some believing they were innocent.[6] They were buried in the Calvary Cemetery.

Soffel's later life[edit]

After recovering from her bullet wound and possible pneumonia[11] Soffel was returned to Pittsburgh, where she confessed to aiding the Biddles' escape and received a two-year sentence at the Western Penitentiary.[12][1] Removed from his job as warden, Soffel's husband divorced his wife,[13] remarried,[14] and moved with the couple's children to Canton, Ohio.[15][16]

Kate Soffel briefly attempted to star in a drama, A Desperate Chance, but the production was, according to the New York Times, "enjoined by the Fayette County Court". Soffel later took up dressmaking, and sometimes used her maiden name of Dietrich, or called herself Katherine Miller (Miller being the name of a brother-in-law).[17] She died of typhoid fever in 1909.[1]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c "MRS. KATE SOFFEL DEAD.; She Won Notoriety by Releasing the Biddle Brothers from Jail". The New York Times. August 31, 1909. 
  2. ^ IMDB entry for 1902 Edison motion picture "Capture of the Biddle Brothers"[better source needed]
  3. ^ "Ontario Births 1869-1912" and 1881 Canada Census, as found at familysearch.com[non-primary source needed]
  4. ^ "Career of Mrs. Soffel, A Victim of Infatuation. Strange Metamorphosis Of Character Under Ed Biddle's Spell". Sunday Times. Philadelphia. February 2, 1902. p. 2. 
  5. ^ a b "The Warden's Wife: Kate Soffel & The Biddle Brothers, 1902". Historical Crime Detective. Retrieved 18 June 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Origins of the Allegheny County Police". Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Website. Retrieved February 21, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Sebak, Rick (February 21, 2014). "The Biddle Boys Stop for a Bite". Pittsburgh Magazine. 
  8. ^ a b "CONDEMNED PRISONERS BREAK OUT OF JAIL; Biddle Brothers, Sentenced to Death, Overpower Guards. Warden's Wife Aids Escape -- Charged with Furnishing Tools for Pittsburg Jail Delivery". The New York Times. January 31, 1902. 
  9. ^ a b c d "PURSUING POSSE SHOT DOWN JAIL BREAKERS; Biddle Brothers and Mrs. Soffel Captured After Desperate Fight. One Man Who Escaped from Allegheny County Jail by Woman's Aid Fatally Wounded – Woman Shoots Herself". The New York Times. February 1, 1902. 
  10. ^ McKee, James A. (1909). 20th century history of Butler and Butler County, Pa., and representative citizens. Chicago: Richmond-Arnold publishing Co. pp. 123–127. Retrieved 18 June 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c d "JAILBREAKERS DEAD IN PRISON OF WOUNDS; John Biddle First to Expire, After Making a Confession. Ed Biddle, Riddled by Bullets of Pursuing Posse, Followed in the Night – Mrs. Soffel May Survive". The New York Times. February 2, 1902. 
  12. ^ "Died of Their Wounds – Biddle Brothers Succumb to Injuries Received in Fight – Soffel Will Recover". The Daily Star (evening ed.). Fredericksburg, Virginia. February 4, 1902. 
  13. ^ "Mrs. Soffel's Husband Will Sue For Divorce. Former Warden Declares That He Never Wishes To See His Wife Again." (Philadelphia) Sunday Times, February 2, 1902, 2
  14. ^ 1910 Federal Census for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Enumeration District 541, Sheet 11, Lines 33-40
  15. ^ 1920 Federal Census for Stark County, Ohio Enumeration District 64, Sheet 9-B, Lines 60-65
  16. ^ "Biddle Nemesis Dies in Canton, Ohio," (Indiana, Pa.)Gazette, September 15, 1936, 2
  17. ^ Pittsburgh Dispatch. August 31, 1909.  Missing or empty |title= (help)