If all the stories are to be believed, Route 44 might possibly be the most haunted road within the state. Something supernatural seems connected to every hill and hollow, and every town has at least one ghost story attached to it. Maybe it is the remoteness of the region that invites stories of the supernatural. The northern stretch of the highway roams through Pennsylvania’s Black Forest region, which remains as wild now as it was when the Europeans first explored the area.
One of the more interesting tales from this region comes from Black Forest Souvenirs, a collection of stories written by Henry Shoemaker. The story was popular enough that Robert Lyman would also write about it and place the story in his collection of Black Forest legends and lore. The story involves a screaming skull.
Screaming skulls have traditionally been a part of English folklore, with only a handful of this type of paranormal phenomenon being reported within the borders of the United States. A screaming skull is a human skull that has poltergeist activity attached to it. As long as the skull is left alone nothing happens, but when it is disturbed from its resting place, ghostly screams terrorize the area until the skull is returned to its original location.
Two of the popular English legends involving screaming skulls are “The Skull of Bettiscombe Manor” and “The Burton Agnes Hall.” The skull kept in Bettiscombe Manor is, according to legend, the skull of a slave who wanted his body returned to his homeland for burial. Although buried in consecrated ground near the manor, the estate was haunted nightly by terrifying screams until his skull was dug up and placed within the walls of the manor. Note: Scientific investigations in the 1960s believe the skull is that of a prehistoric woman, but it does not stop the skull from screaming if removed.
The “Skull of Burton Agnes Hall” involves the skull Ann Griffith. When the manor was being constructed, Ann was set upon by bandits who beat her because she refused to turn over her mother’s ring. Ann would die from the beating five days later, but on her death bed, Ann requested her head be placed within the manor. Her parents denied the request and soon after the manor was finished, strange noises were reported. Ann’s sisters, in an attempt to appease their dead sister’s request, went to the family vault and soon returned with Ann’s head. The noises may have stopped, but Ann’s spirit still roams the manor.
The Pennsylvania story of “The Screaming Skull” involves the spirit of Mark McCoy. McCoy was a highwayman who operated along the Coudersport Turnpike. McCoy, according to Shoemaker, was a regional Robin Hood who only robbed from the rich and gave the money and goods to the poor. Exactly where the highwayman came from and why he chose this remote place for his illegal activities remains a mystery – there were better locations for highwaymen to operate if they desired to get rich robbing travelers.
His first victim was a wealthy lumberman from Williamsport. As the lumberman and his servant approached an old hunter’s shack, McCoy stepped onto the highway with a pistol in each hand. McCoy relieved the man and his servant of all their valuables, including their coats and vests, before sending them back toward Jersey Shore. The wealthy man contacted the local constable who went in search of the highwayman, but failed to find McCoy.
McCoy wandered along the turnpike, avoiding the toll stations along the Jersey Shore-Coudersport Turnpike. He finally found a small cabin and approached it, looking for a place to spend the night. The cabin was owned by an elderly couple by the name of Burkheiser and their young granddaughter, Ava. Claiming he had been lost on the mountain, the family agreed to allow him to lodge with them for the night.
The next morning, McCoy once again rode to the turnpike and waited for another victim. Nobody appeared that day so he returned once more to the Burkheiser cabin. The second day, he set out and found a group of five constables, who were searching for the highwayman. He held them up and sent them back to Jersey Shore minus their valuables and weapons.
He would stay away from the turnpike for days, then returning to rob travelers over a period of three or four days. If he spotted a poor peddler traveling along the turnpike, he would give him some of the stolen money to help him along his way. McCoy may have considered himself a doer of justice, but the people traveling the turnpike saw him as a problem. Despite sending constables out to search for the highwayman, McCoy managed to avoid their searches.
McCoy’s luck was about to come to an end. One afternoon a young attorney from Smethport was traveling to Williamsport along the Jersey Shore-Coudersport Turnpike. He was carrying with him a small fortune to pay land taxes. The young lawyer was warned about the highwayman, but he laughed and said he could take care of himself.
He saddled his horse and loaded two pistols for protection. He scanned the road, ever watchful for the highwayman, but did not encounter him. The lawyer was surprised when the highwayman stepped out of a dense stand of pines and ordered the lawyer to halt.
Instead, the lawyer spurred his horse and attempted to flee. Unlike his other victims who were sent away minus their goods, McCoy aimed at the fleeing man and shot him in the back. The lawyer managed to hold onto the saddle until he arrived at the house of Horatio Nelson, where he fell from his horse. The wound was too great and the young man died soon after arriving at the Nelson homestead.
McCoy was shocked by his own actions. Never before had he fired upon his victims and he was facing the dread that he may have killed the fleeing man. In return, he rode over to the cabin of Ava and asked her to marry him..
Ava told him she could not marry him.
McCoy initially fled northward, but soon returned to the Burkheiser cabin. To his surprise, he discovered the real reason Ava would not marry him – she was in love with another. McCoy had debated killing them both, but knowing he was already a wanted man, he slipped away into the darkness. He rode southward along the turnpike until he arrived at the old hunter’s shack where he had performed his first hold-up. Distraught about the turn of events, he removed his belt, climbed a nearby pine tree, placed a noose around his neck, and letting out a loud scream, he dropped to his death.
It was here a posse found him the next morning. They cut the highwayman down and discovered two hundred dollars in gold and silver in the highwayman’s pockets. It was decided to bury him at the foot of the pine tree.
In the autumn of that year Levi Trexler, the owner of the hunter’s shack, arrived for deer season. Having heard the highwayman had been buried near his cabin, it still came as a surprise when one of his dogs brought the highwayman’s skull into the shack. For reasons known only to him, Levi hung the highwayman’s skull over the cabin door.
Levi did not get any sleep that night as every time he closed his eyes a piercing scream would echo across the mountaintop. At one point, Levi went to the door and opened it and was struck on the head by the highwayman’s skull that fell from its perch and knocked the hunter out.
Those who found Levi outside the next morning, put him in his bed and reburied the skull in the desecrated grave. The next evening, the dogs once again dug up the skull and the screams began once again, terrorizing Levi and the other two hunters who stayed the night. Early the next morning, all three men fled the camp.
That winter an unnamed man sought shelter in the hunter’s shack. While gathering branches for a fire, he discovered the skull. He picked it up and hung it from one of the pine trees. That night he was awakened by a piercing scream. Not finding a source, he stayed in his wagon that night and left soon after the sun rose.
The cabin was known by locals to be haunted and most avoided it once the sun began to set. But that did not stop people from attempting to stay the night. Most fled the cabin the moment the sun peeked over the distant mountains.
Every time someone tried to stay the night, or people visited the remote place, they would move the skull. It was hung on a pine branch. It was tossed into the woods. It was tossed into the ferns near the cabin. It was placed on the doorstep of the shack. And then – for reasons unknown – a man staying one night tossed the skull onto the roof of the cabin where it remained for most of the year.
That November, Horatio Nelson and his wife were passing the shack and noticed the skull resting on the roof. They removed the skull from the roof and reburied it in the highwayman’s grave. The two of them gathered stones which they placed over the grave to keep wild animals from digging the skull back up.
Once the skull was reburied, the paranormal activity connected with the skull came to a halt.
Exactly where the cabin with the screaming skull stood is not clear in either Lyman’s or Shoemaker’s writings. Shoemaker – like him or not – mentions that the grave was well-known memorial among those who traveled the Jersey Shore-Coudersport Turnpike, but where it is today has been lost in the midsts of time.