Origins of the Allegheny County Police
(Buck McGovern and the Biddle Boys)
At the turn of the century, the city of Pittsburgh was plagued by a series of burglaries and robberies committed by a group of men known as "The Chloroform Gang." The gang would gain entry to a residence or business and render the occupants unconscious by the use of chloroform or ether. During one of their robberies, on April 12, 1901 at a small grocery store in Mt. Washington, the elderly grocer struggled and was fatally shot.
It was determined by Pittsburgh Police detectives, with the help of informants, that the gang was led by Jack and Ed Biddle, two brothers who came to Pittsburgh from Canada and Ohio. A squad of detectives led by Lt. Charles "Buck" McGovern and his partner, Det. Patrick Fitzgerald, got word that the Biddles and another gang member were hiding out in a house on Fulton Street in the Manchester district of Old Allegheny. The house was surrounded by officers, and McGovern, Fitzgerald and several other detectives entered. A shoot-out occurred in a darkened room and Pat Fitzgerald was killed. The Biddles and the other gang member, Walter Dorman, were taken into custody.
The Biddle brothers were held for trial in the murder of the grocer, were convicted and sentenced to hang. Dorman testified against the Biddles and received a life sentence. It is unknown if the Biddles were ever charged in the death of Pat Fitzgerald. Jack and Ed Biddle were lodged in the Allegheny County Jail to await their execution.
Peter Soffel was the warden at the jail. His wife, Katherine, often took an interest in the prisoners and attempted to rehabilitate them. A romance flourished between Kate Soffel and Ed Biddle, and in February, 1902, with the help of a guard who was related to Kate, she smuggled a gun to Ed and an escape was planned and carried out.
During the escape a guard was shot and Jack and Ed Biddle, along with Kate Soffel, made their escape through the warden's residence and out onto Ross Street. They took a trolley to West View and then walked a mile to a farm on Route 19 where they stole a horse, a sleigh and a shotgun. They then headed north into Butler County.
Lt. McGovern was notified of the escape and the theft at the farm and he formed a posse and headed out after the Biddles. He contacted the police in Butler County and with the assistance of Butler County Sheriff Rainey Hoon, a plan was formulated to apprehend the Biddles and Kate Soffel.
Buck McGovern felt the Biddles would take the back roads to avoid being seen and would continue to head north toward Canada. McGovern and Sheriff Hoon traveled with the posse to the Graham farm and got into position for a confrontation with the Biddles. When the Biddles and Kate Soffel appeared at the farm, McGovern called for them to surrender. Jack and Ed returned the call with gunfire and the battle that ensued left the Biddles and Kate Soffel seriously wounded.
The three were then taken to the Butler County Jail where the brothers were placed in adjoining cells. Kate Soffel was placed on a table in the conference room in the jail. Jack Biddle died first and Ed died shortly afterward, but before his death he denied that either he or Jack had shot the Mt. Washington grocer or Det. Pat Fitzgerald. He did admit to having shot Kate Soffel at her request.
During the search for and capture of the Biddles, bad blood emerged between Buck McGovern's posse and Sheriff Hoon's men. Hoon's officers were instructed not to let McGovern or his men inside the Butler County Jail after the Biddles were taken in. When McGovern arrived he was met at the door by a group of Hoon's men, all armed, who told him that he and his men were not permitted inside. Buck McGovern and his posse drew their revolvers and McGovern yelled. "Like Hell we ain't, they're my prisoners" and the posse stormed into the jail. Charges and countercharges were filed by both departments but the complaints were dropped after some time had passed.
Kate Soffel and the bodies of Jack and Ed Biddle were returned to Allegheny County by train. Crowds formed during the procession from the station to the morgue, not to welcome back the triumphant police, but to bemoan the fate of the infamous Biddle brothers who, by their deeds, had become folk heroes.
Autopsies were performed on the Biddles and they were buried in a single, unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery close to the place where Det. Patrick Fitzgerald was laid to rest.
Kate Soffel recovered from her wounds and stood trial for her part in the escape. She was convicted and served several years in the same jail from which she helped the Biddles escape. When she was released, she opened a seamstress shop on Maiden Lane in the North Side. She died several years later. Her husband resigned his position as warden and took their children to live in Ohio.
Buck McGovern, a colonel in the Spanish American War, went on to become Chief of the City Detectives, a Special Agent for the State Department of Justice and Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Allegheny County. McGovern's military experience and his long and successful career in law enforcement made him a driving force in the establishment of the Allegheny County Police Department.