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Deputy warden marks anniversary of jail break

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 1, 2001) A story in Wednesday's editions gave the wrong date of the shoot-out between Pittsburgh detectives and escaped convicts Ed and Jack Biddle. The shoot-out took place Jan. 31, 1902.

If for some bizarre reason you were wandering around Downtown at 4:15 this morning, you might have seen a middle-aged man at the corner of Ross Street and Forbes Avenue.

A copy of a photo taken almost a century ago, above, shows escaped inmates Jack and Ed Biddle lying dead in the snow near Moraine State Park in Butler County after a shoot-out with three Pittsburgh detectives. The photo hangs in the office of Allegheny County Deputy Warden Ed Urban at the new county jail.

And you might have wondered why he was staring at a door of the old county jail, as if in a trance.

That was Allegheny County Deputy Warden Ed Urban, observing the 100th anniversary of the most famous jail break in Pittsburgh history.

At 4:15 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1902, condemned murderers and handsome brothers Ed and Jack Biddle escaped from the jail, fleeing out that same door with the help of the warden's wife, the not-so-comely Kate Soffel.

The story, which ended three days later with two dead Biddles, became the basis for the 1984 motion picture "Mrs. Soffel," which starred Mel Gibson as Ed and Diane Keaton as Kate.

But while the story will forever survive in celluloid, the 100th anniversary of the sensational escape only comes once, and Urban was not about to let this day pass unnoticed -- hence, his pre-dawn vigil outside the building that has been converted into the home of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court's Juvenile and Family sections.

"I'll be sitting right outside the door of the old jail, to see if I feel any vibes," Urban said yesterday.

Something of a history buff, Urban has been collecting artifacts related to the escape for the past 30 years.

On the back wall of his office at the new county jail, he displays a photo of the Biddle brothers lying dead at the snowy scene of their shoot-out with three Pittsburgh detectives. He keeps the original docket in which a clerk logged the Biddles' entry into the jail in 1901.

Urban has been urging Margaret Philbin, the county's public information officer, to do something special to honor this day.

"He's been telling me for a couple weeks that I should dress up as Mrs. Soffel," Philbin said. "I might have to go to some costume place and try to get some Victorian get-up."

Physically, Philbin bears little resemblance to Soffel, described as having a "hook nose, buck teeth and a hunchback," according to Urban.

As the story goes, Soffel fell in love with the charming Ed Biddle and smuggled hacksaws and a pistol into the jail to help the brothers escape. The brothers sawed through their bars, overcame the three guards on duty at the time and fled through the front door of the warden's residence, with Soffel in tow.

In a stolen one-horse sleigh, the trio headed north, but they made it no farther than Butler County. On Feb. 2, 1902, police intercepted them somewhere between Prospect and Mount Chestnut. A shoot-out ensued. The Biddles were riddled with bullets.

Soffel survived the encounter, then served 19 months in prison for aiding and abetting the escape. Abandoned by her husband and children, she died in 1910.

Initial accounts of the escape appeared under screaming headlines across the top of The Pittsburgh Press front page.

One story described Warden Peter Soffel as "crushed with sorrow and despair."

"The escape of the Biddle boys was enough, but the mysterious disappearance of his wife fills his cup of sorrow to the brim," the story read.

Another story carried the headline "ED HAS STRANGE POWER -- He Is Said to Exert an Influence Over All Who Come in Contact With Him."

"Excitement was intense in Pittsburgh when the news of the capture of the Biddles reached here," The Press reported after the shoot-out. "The streets were crowded with people waiting for the latest bulletins issued by the newspapers. And until long after midnight, the newsboys shouted the gruesome news."

The story has not only inspired a movie, but an opera and at least two books.

And it has inspired Urban to engage in a lonely quest to mark today's 100th anniversary.

"I'm probably one of the only people around who is interested in the story," he said.

If the ghosts of the Biddles and Mrs. Soffel relived their escape this morning, Urban was there to greet them.

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