Growing up, it was common for my parents to take the family on day trips. One of the familiar trips would take us through Sugar Valley with a return homeward via Route 45 or 192. Both routes held a mystery as we passed through the mountains at the Union and Centre County line. While we would occasionally make stops at R.B. Winter State Park, it was the picnic area along Route 45 that always fascinated me.
I arrived at the “Hairy John” State Forest Picnic Area filled with the memories of journeys long past and parked at the pavilion a short distance from Route 45. Nestled in the Woodward Narrows at the edge of Centre and Union Counties, the picnic area has been the setting of numerous legends, most of which can be traced back to the writings of Henry Shoemaker. Named after a real person, “Hairy John” Voneida, the remote location is as wild and mysterious today as it was a hundred years ago.
However, it was not Henry Shoemaker that brought me here on this trip.
Just east of the picnic area, Laurel Run rises and parallels Route 45 through a gap between Bear and Stitzer Mountains known as the Seven Mile Narrows. It would be in this gap where the remains of an unidentified man would briefly capture local attention in the spring of 1927 before fading from the newspapers, leaving numerous unanswered questions.
The mystery of Seven Mile Narrows would begin on March 18, 1927 when Frank Catherman found a stiletto and revolver along the Turnpike Road in the mountain pass. The revolver was loaded with slugs, except for one which had been fired by an unknown person.
On Saturday April 30, an expensive watch and chain were discovered near the spot where Frank Catherman had discovered the weapons a couple weeks previously. These items, found by Frank Fease, who was a worker for the highway department, would bring volunteers into the narrows to search for the origin of the weapons and jewelry.
Sunday, May 1, 1927 started as any other, but would soon be anything but normal for the residents of western Union County. Horace Orwig, of Mifflinburg, joined J.C. Foster to investigate the place where the weapons and jewelry were discovered.
Orwig would discover the badly decomposed remains of an unidentified man in the Seven Mile Narrows at a spot roughly one hundred yards from the road. Orwig made his horrific discovery in a dense patch of woods, about a mile east of the Union and Centre County line. The remains were lying with his feet toward the road and his head toward Laurel Run.
The remains were taken to Hartleton, where authorities determined the man had a fractured skull, broken jaw, and what appeared to be a bullet hole in his skull – it was believed by authorities that the revolver discovered on March 18 was the weapon that killed the unidentified man. The remains of the man were badly decomposed, but it was determined he had been a short, stocky man while alive.
It was believed the man had been driven to this remote spot and his killer(s) dragged his body into the woods. Authorities were unable to determine exactly when the man was killed, but they believed the murder occurred in early March 1927, shortly before Frank Catherman discovered the weapons. Note: Despite the man’s head being fractured, signs of a severe beating, and what appeared to be a bullet hole in the skull, authorities were unable to conclude the manner of the unidentified man’s death due to his advanced state of decomposition.
The man was missing his vest and coat, but still wore dark expensive trouser and shoes. Two handkerchiefs – a man’s and a woman’s – and a pair of bloody underwear were discovered hanging from bushes nearby. The unidentified man was buried on Monday, May 2 – the day after the body was discovered – due to the decomposition of his body.
Who was the man discovered in the Seven Mile Narrows?
Near the unidentified body was a notebook with the name Stefano – or possibly Stefane – Deleo and a New York address written in it. The journal was written in Italian and local authorities turned it over to the state police in Sunbury. While most of the writing in the notebook was in Italian, it did have two addresses in Brooklyn, New York that had been written in English. Note: The May 6, 1927 edition of the Lewisburg Journal (Lewisburg, Pa) is the only one that reports a name attached to the body.
The May 3, 1927 edition of The Morning Press (Bloomsburg, Pa) gives another possible identification for the body. It reports that the body could possibly be connected to a Sunbury salesman who disappeared. A number of people who knew the missing salesman had arrived to view the body, but due to the poor state of the body they were not allowed to view it when the coroner refused to reopen the casket. It does not appear the salesman theory was investigated beyond the mention.
It was the May 13, 1927 edition of The Daily News (Mount Carmel, Pa), that reported the Pennsylvania State Police had determined the unidentified man was a foreigner who “was killed in a fight with another of his nationality” during a card game at Rebersburg, Centre County. The dead man was taken by car to the remote spot and dumped over the bank in an attempt to hide the body.
After the May 13 article, it does not appear that the unidentified body made it into the newspapers again. Many of the newspaper articles hint the state police had an idea who the man was, but if that was the case, it was not revealed in the newspapers.
Almost one hundred years have passed since the unidentified man was discovered in the mountains west of Laurelton. While the gruesome discovery grabbed the headlines for a couple weeks, it quickly faded from the newspapers, leaving a number of unanswered questions, including who was the man and why was he killed? If he was identified, why didn’t authorities reveal this to the public and why was it never revealed in the newspapers? What was the connection between the DeLeo name and the body? Was there a connection between the two?
Knowing I did not have the answers to my questions at this point – and fully realizing I may never get the answers I’m looking for – I left the picnic area and the mystery of the body in Seven Mile Narrows behind, but not to be forgotten.
A note of interest: At the beginning of June 1927, Horace Orwig would make the newspapers again. While traveling through the Seven Mile Narrows, he was held up by “a gypsy woman” brandishing a revolver. The June 8, 1927 edition of The Daily News reports that as he was driving past a caravan of gypsies, one of them leapt onto the running boards of his Franklin car. She demanded he stop and have his fortune read. When he refused, she produced a revolver and demanded he stop, but he kept driving, increasing his speed until she fell off.