The Great Escapes: Infamous getaway stories from Pittsburgh’s Northside
There’s a reason Hollywood loves it here.
By Lucia Shen
Photo: The former Western Pennsylvania Penitentiary, circa 1890-1891, where Alexander Berkman served his sentence for the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick. Gift of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Public Domain
Humans love a good heist.
Studies have found that people often process the events they read on a page or watch on a screen similarly to how they experience events firsthand. When you’re taking in that daring escape on the page or the big screen, you can sometimes feel like you’re in the story as well.
Imagine it: Suspense builds as a guard walks inches past the story’s protagonist, who is hanging from the ceiling or plastered to a nook in the wall à la Ocean’s Eleven. The guard passes, the escapee makes a break for it, and the chase is on.
In real life, though, things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes, the protagonist isn’t even human. Sometimes it’s a horse—or five of them. Other times, it’s a sea eagle inadvertently blasted to national fame.
This past January in Pittsburgh’s Northside, five police horses broke free from their stables on Grand Avenue; and back in September of 2021, the National Aviary made news nationwide when their sea eagle, Kodiak, escaped from his enclosure.
Maybe it’s life imitating art, but a number of movies and TV shows filmed in the Northside have centered around the thrill of the chase; the break from the status quo. Be it fiction or reality, the Northside is home to stories of people—and animals—breaking free.
A Bit of Foreshadowing: Don’s Diner
Tucked under a bridge, an unassuming diner has seen more than its fair share of excitement. Located at the other end of the neighborhood from the stables where the horses escaped, it has been the set of more than a few movies and TV productions, including the Netflix original, “Mindhunter” and more recently, Showtime’s “American Rust,” which debuted in September of last year.
Bill and Holden get into a car crash in front of Don’s Diner in an episode of Mindhunter. In a stroke of literary foreshadowing, the diner was also where Russell Crowe sat down for a meal in the movie “The Next Three Days,” a film about Crowe’s character helping his wife escape prison.
Just a one-minute drive from Don’s Diner are the old walls of the former Western Penitentiary, most recently known as State Correctional Institution (SCI)-Pittsburgh. The home of many real attempted escapes, the former penitentiary has since turned into a set for fictional ones.
An Attempted Assassination Interlude: The Homestead Strike and Alexander Berkman
The “Gilded Age” was an era of political machines and rising tension between labor and capital. A battle between steelworkers and hired Pinkerton security guards and the subsequent Homestead Steel Strike in Pittsburgh culminated in the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, American industrialist and chairman of Carnegie Steel.
On July 23, 1892, Alexander Berkman strolled into Frick’s office and raised his revolver.
He fired his first two shots, striking Frick in the shoulder and then the neck.
Chaos ensued. Berkman was tackled to the ground by Frick’s associates who finally realized their boss was being attacked, and a third shot from Berkman’s gun fired wayward into Frick’s office ceiling. But Berkman wasn’t done. He pulled out a dagger, and struck Frick’s legs with it from the ground.
“He hit Frick two times,” said John Canning, vice president of the Allegheny City Society (ACS).
“But Frick, well, he must’ve had an unbelievable constitution, because while Berkman was captured, Frick got some people to deal with his [own] wounds, and then he went home and recuperated [there] in Point Breeze.”
Frick survived, and Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
“He was placed in the Western Penitentiary, where he was probably put in a sort of solitary confinement, where he had very few privileges, and a very limited diet,” Canning said. “He really was treated with quite severity.”
Time to Face the Music?
Eight years after Frick’s attempted assassination, a woman moved into 28 Doerr St, right next door to the penitentiary.
According to a 1937 Pittsburgh Press article, neighbors remembered her as “peculiar” and someone who kept to herself. They frequently heard her playing piano. Some of them remembered an eclectic assortment of supplies being delivered to her house: lumber, pipes, tools.
They probably thought she was renovating.
Certainly, she could not have been aiding and abetting the construction of a tunnel from her basement to the outhouse of the Western Penitentiary to break out a 30-year-old anarchist, right?
But in fact, she—a “disciple,” like Berkman, of international anarchist Emma Goldman—was doing just that.
“Emma Goldman, [Berkman]’s friend, his very close friend—they were both friends and colleagues and compatriots—she had some people rent a house across [from] the penitentiary, and they began digging a tunnel from the street to go into the Penitentiary, and she [was] raising funds to help pay for this,” Canning said.
“They almost got through.”
The peculiar woman was Vella Kinsella, who had moved into the house with the man Emma Goldman had appointed to lead the operation: Eric B. Morton, another anarchist associate. They introduced themselves to the neighborhood as Mrs. and Mr. Thomas Brown. As for the music heard by the neighbors, the team was concerned that sounds of digging would raise suspicion, so Kinsella played piano and sang as the crew worked.
The neighbors had no idea who The Browns really were, nor did they catch wind of the grand plot to break Berkman out of jail before his sentence was slated to end. The police and wardens didn’t either, until the day he tried to use the tunnel to escape.
On July 30, 1900, he found his way to the prison outhouse, pried up the wooden floorboards, and began to crawl towards freedom. But two days before, a wagon had dropped a load of stone and brick over the tunnel; the route was impassable.
Since his way out was blocked, he was forced to return to his cell. He ended up serving the rest of his sentence, later writing a memoir called “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist,” where he details his side of the story.
“People doubted whether he did it or not,” Canning said of the event. “He wrote in his memoir that of course he did it.
“He finally was released and in his memoir in 1912… he described the exact plot, that it was his idea, and he divulged the story about how this was his goal to get out of that prison. But he never made it,” Canning continued.
“The people in the penitentiary discovered [the tunnel] and filled it up and the people that had built the tunnel… they just skipped town, and [Berkman] never got out [of jail early].”
As for Goldman, her own memoir, “Living My Life,” placed her in Europe at the time of the tunnel mishap. She wrote about how, after the incident, one of her friends had burst into her apartment waving the day’s paper:
“‘The tunnel. The tunnel!’ her friend whispered hoarsely. ‘It has been discovered,’” the Press reported.
“The Browns” were gone by the time police followed the tunnel back to the house’s basement.
“Guards rushed into the residence, but found it unoccupied,” the Press reported, “The musician and her friends were gone.”
Another Tunnel?: History Repeats Itself
With Berkman’s failed tunnel escape cemented into the penitentiary’s legacy, it was only a matter of time before history repeated itself.
Just 25 years ago, though, another real-life escape story took place there when six inmates orchestrated their way to freedom from underneath the penitentiary’s walls.
Succeeding where Berkman had not, they dug a tunnel reportedly 15 feet deep and 40 feet long over the course of several weeks.
On January 8, 1997—ironically, the same day the police horses broke free of their stables 25 years later—the inmates were found to be missing during a 10:30 a.m. prison head count. By that time, according to a 2005 Pittsburgh City Paper interview with Andrew Heim, one of the escapees, they had descended into the 110-degree tunnel and taken off.
In the interview, Heim recounted the day of the escape and said he was the second man to crawl into the tunnel.
“I think maybe Carmen Keller came through next, then Tommy Berkelbaugh. His glass eye had popped out down in the tunnel. He spent a few minutes down there, looking for it. It was comical,” Heim said in the interview.
Since prisoners at the Western Penitentiary could dress in civilian clothes at the time, the inmates walked out of the prison outbuilding that the tunnel ended in, into the courtyard, and out the gate. Then, they stole a car, got some help from an undisclosed Northside connection, and began to make their way west.
By the 12th day after their escape, all six were found and apprehended in Texas.
The former penitentiary was shut down in 2017. After its closure, the property became a film set for many movies and TV shows, including “Mindhunter” and “Escape from Dannemora.”
Wouldn’t you know it, though, that the Western Penitentiary’s original site was located where the National Aviary now stands. The historical marker denoting this fact is on view inside the Aviary’s eagle enclosure.
Bird on the Lam
When Allegheny City was still a separate entity from Pittsburgh, Henry Phipps gave money to both of the cities for a conservatory in each. The conservatory in Allegheny City became the National Aviary of the Northside, and the other, the Phipps Conservatory in Oakland.
Before the Aviary was even built, though, the ground it would eventually stand on was the site of the original Western Penitentiary.
According to Canning, after the Civil War, and after the Western Penitentiary was moved to Marshall-Shadeland in the late 19th century, the land was more or less “a swamp and a dump” and the City decided to turn the area into a more formal park.
“When they leveled the penitentiary that was in the commons—that area which we now call the Allegheny Commons—that was all land that was initially used as common land,” Canning said. “If people had a cow—we’re talking early days of settlement—they could take their cow out and graze it in the commons.”
Pressure began to emerge to move the penitentiary out of the park, and so, Canning explained, “the site of the old penitentiary became the site of a conservatory.”
The two conservatories were originally given by Phipps to the City with the intention of making them free to the public. But, according to Canning, the maintenance costs after World War II were too high, and the City was faced with the dilemma of how they could continue to maintain the Northside conservatory. Eventually, the result was charging people a fee to enter it.
Last fall, one of the Aviary’s birds, a Steller’s sea eagle named Kodiak, or “Kody,” captured Pittsburgh’s attention for nine stressful days as crews tried to find it after it escaped. According to a press release from the Aviary after the eagle was safely back home, Kodiak likely broke free through a gap in the wire roof of his enclosure.
From Sept. 25 to Oct. 3, Kody was a 4-foot, close to 20-pound fugitive, about as tall as a third grader, only with wings and hollow bones. While he was still at large, news stations and media outlets closely followed the developing story, and the Aviary closed to the public to focus all of their resources on the rescue operation.
“The bird was last seen heading north with a recovery team on its tail,” John Hayes from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about a week after Kody’s initial escape.
Kody made his way through the Northside, leading his concerned caretakers on a chase up to Riverview Park, North Park, and finally, to Pine Township.
The staff at the Aviary relied on Northside residents for sightings of the bird, and two days before his recapture, he was spotted roosting in a tree south of North Park. Staff camped out to keep an eye on him through the night and tried to entice him with a familiar breakfast, but he took off north the next morning.
Eventually he was found and safely recaptured, “using professional falconry techniques and equipment,” according to the Aviary’s statement.
The Aviary’s update garnered more than 1500 comments of well wishes and over 5400 shares on Facebook. With hundreds of tips, home-cooked meals for staff on the chase, and words of encouragement, the Aviary thanked the Northside and larger Pittsburgh community for their support.
It takes a village to find an eagle, after all.
“We are incredibly relieved that Kody is back,” said Molly Toth, communications director at the National Aviary, in a statement, “He’s doing well behind the scenes while we renovate his habitat.”
Kody’s recapture gives the Aviary room to celebrate their 70th anniversary. According to Toth, “What today is the Tropical Rainforest Habitat was the entire Aviary in 1952.”
As for Kody? He’s recuperating in a temporary enclosure.