Leaving Larry Critchfield’s grave, I made my way towards the rear of the cemetery. At the rear of the cemetery, just feet from the road, was a memorial that caught my attention. Pausing on the roadway, I studied the stone and the list of names on it. All of the names were children having died in 1923 – the oldest would have been ten and the youngest less than a year. Note: More about Larry Critchfield can be found here: Larry Critchfield.
Carefully leaving the roadway, I walked around the monument to read what was on the other side of the stone that clung to the hillside. On the memorial I could see the names of parents along with the same year as their death date. Beneath it there was engraved “Home and Family Burned.” This stone is the lone memorial to a tragedy that occurred in Confluence on November 26, 1923 that claimed the lives of the Rosso family.
As I stood there, the words from the November 29, 1923 edition of The Republic (Meyersdale, Pa) echoed in my mind: “One of the saddest calamities that ever occurred in this section of Somerset County.”
Sam, age thirty-five and his wife Ruey, age twenty-eight lived on a farm on Anderson Hill, roughly a half-mile north of Confluence’s business district. According to The Republic, they had seven children: Pauline, Frank, Carl, Lee, Roger, Isabel and Ruby. Notes: Though most articles refer to her as Ruey, which is the name on the stone, in her mother’s obituary, she is referred to as Ruth. The list in the newspapers do not match up with the list on the family memorial. Isabel is not listed and there is an Alvin and Marjah listed on the stone. Regional newspapers were consistent with there being nine members of the family, so I’m not sure why there’s a difference between the lists in the newspapers and on the memorial stone.
At 1:30 on Monday morning, an engineer for the B&O Railroad pulled the train whistle, alerting the town to the fire he had spotted burning outside of town. By the time help arrived, the house was fully ablaze. There was nothing that could be done and it took until early in the afternoon until the blaze burned out. The remains of five members of the Rosso family were removed from the ruins. Coroner Kimmell did not hold an inquest to look into the deaths of the family. Instead, he declared the whole tragedy an accident and the family was buried at the rear of Ursina Cemetery.
While newspapers attempted to explain the deadly fire as an accident, they constantly asked: “Was the Rosso family murdered?” According to the local coroner, it was a tragic accident. Looking into the newspapers, it appears only local officials were convinced the fire was an accident.
Why did residents think the family was murdered? The Republic immediately announced there were only five bodies recovered and all five bodies were missing their heads. Only a jawbone, believed to have belonged to Samuel, was later recovered. It is possible that the fire did destroy the heads of the recovered bodies, but the fact none of the skulls were recovered does raise questions about the cause of their deaths.
A second piece of evidence reported in The Republic pointing to possible murder was missing money. According to Frank, Samuel’s brother, Samuel had $1400 in cash at the house that evening. Samuel had plans to travel to Somerset to pay off his mortgage.
Another unexplained event that points to a possible murder was the report of mysterious lights before the evening the house caught fire. The November 28, 1923 edition of The Record-Argus (Meadville, Pa) reported that neighbors had seen mysterious lights on the hill overlooking the house. Despite the state police looking into these lights, they were unable to determine a cause for them.
Another point brought up by neighbors was the sound of a series of unexplained small explosions coming from within the house as it burned. No definite cause of these explosions was determined.
While the majority of newspaper reports point toward murder, there is a possibility that it was an accident. If the Rosso’s were making and storing illegal alcohol within the house, it may account for why the fire burned faster and jars bursting could account for the explosions. This would make the missing money a victim of the fire. The lights are the only thing that cannot be easily explained. They could possibly have been hunters coming home across the fields, but if this was the case, why were they never reported before that night?
If the family was murdered, then what was the motive? Two theories have been presented by the newspapers of the time. The first was this was a revenge killing for the murder of William Phillippi. When a still was discovered in the barn owned by Rosso, the newspapers immediately hinted that this was a revenge killing. The men who were the prime suspects for the murder of Phillippi were from Italy and Rosso had immigrated from Italy. Note: More about the murder of William Phillippi can be found here: William Phillippi .
The second theory was a robbery gone terribly wrong. Samuel was known to have $1400 in cash on hand to pay off a mortgage. The robbers arrived to take the money and killed the family when discovered or when Rosso refused to turn over the money.
The tragic fire disappeared from the newspapers within a month of the disaster. It may have completely disappeared into the mists of time had it not been for an event that happened in January of the following year. The January 10, 1924 edition of The Republic, mentioned that Frank Rosso, Samuel’s brother, and Paul Compolona, also spelled Compola, had been arrested for check forgery. Compolona had taken a check from his father-in-law and had Frank cash it by forging the name Costanda Zelena, who was listed as having a brother Vitto. Note: Costanda Zelena is Constanzo Zeleno and Vitto is Veto, both of whom were later brought back to Somerset County and questioned about William Phillippi’s murder.
The article continued that a search of the place the two men were staying revealed furniture and other goods stolen from a house used for storage by William Anderson, who also lived on Anderson Hill. Frank blamed Samuel for the robbery, claiming Sam took it and gave it to him. Frank then hid the stolen goods in Listonburg until he thought it was safe to bring them back to the place he was staying in Confluence.
Most regional newspapers quickly point out that Frank was questioned by authorities upon his arrest for possible involvement of his brother’s death. As far as can be determined, he did not answer any of the questions about the deadly fire.
The tragedy vanishes into the mists of time. The tragic events of 1923 disappeared from the newspapers and in the following generations has been forgotten by most outside the region.
As I stood paying my respects to the family a sadness filled the air. In the silence of the morning, I knew the questions to what happened that fatal night may never be resolved. Was it a tragic accident, like officials claimed, or was it a violent murder hidden by a fire?
With unanswered questions lingering in my mind, I left the family to rest in peace in the sacred grounds of Ursina Cemetery.