31 December 2020

Unsolved Pittsburgh Mysteries: He'll Be a Dead One Tonight

In 1920 the widowed Ann Hoffstot lived with her two adult sons, Carl and Miller, on Susquehanna Street in Homewood. They lived in a modest house about a block south below the train tracks from Solitude, the late George Westinghouse's estate. Ann was the former Ann Rachel Shipley, widowed for at least 11 years. Her son, 33 year old Carl S. Hoffstot was known locally as an oil broker. His younger brother Miller Joseph Hoffstot was an accountant.
Ann answered a call at home on 21 February 1920 from an unidentified woman who asked to speak to one of the Hoffstot men, specifically the "one with the machine." 
Ann responded that both of her sons had cars, so the caller clarified that she wanted the one with the Ford. 
That would be Carl, Ann confirmed. 
The caller responded "Well he'll be a dead one by tonight."
And then she hung up.
Ann Hoffstot was alarmed. 
She called Carl, who wasn't available. So she called Miller, who reached Carl.
Carl didn't want to be a dead one, so he called the police. 
The coppers were able to confirm that the call had been placed locally, but that was the extent of phone line tracing in 1920. 
Carl informed the police that just in case, he was going to get a permit to carry a revolver. 
Now maybe Carl started packing heat from then on. Maybe he didn't. But he definitely placed an ad the next day in the Sunday edition of the Pittsburgh Press, offering a $1000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the mysterious person who threatened his life.
Reward notice placed by Carl S. Hoffstot in Sundays Pittsburgh Press, 22 February 1920

 That's what got this story on the front pages of the Pittsburg Press and the Pittsburgh Sunday Post.

Pittsburgh Press 22 Feb 1920.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, 22 Feb 1920

The story was even picked up in the Philadelphia Inquirer, with Carl becoming a "wealthy oil and gas promoter" in the process. To be fair there were wealthy Hoffstots in Pittsburgh, but not these Hoffstots. 
Headline and excerpt, Philadelphia Inquirer 23 February 1920

Death threats were Srs Bsns back in the day. Not like now, when a casual Twitter comment about, say, how often to wash one's towels can bring down the wrath of the masses. 
Fortunately Carl lived to see another day, and many more after that. His fortunes did take a downward turn as the country spiraled into the Great Depression, and he spent the last decade of his adult life hanging wallpaper for a living. He was a dead one at age 46, passing in 1935 of acute rheumatic fever.  His mother Ann lived five more years, dying in 1940 of natural causes. Brother Miller outlived them all to the ripe old age of 89. He died in 1980 in Florida, where he'd moved with his wife. (It is not known what kind of car Miller drove in 1920). 
What all this newspaper coverage didn't mention, but what a dive into public records reveals, casts new light on the story. 
You see, Carl had an ex-wife. 
In 1911, Carl Hoffstot married divorced-then-widowed Cleveland native Maud Hill Schenermann. Maud's first marriage as a teenager ended early in divorce. He second marriage left her widowed with a son, Wallace. (Maud had three more husbands after Carl, apparently liking marriage in theory but not in practice. Or maybe she just needed more practice).
Carl and Maud lived for some years in Cleveland with Maud's teenage boy from her second marriage, but they divorced in Pittsburgh in December 1919. 
That's two months before a mysterious phone call to the Hoffstot residence threatened Carl would be a "dead one tonight." 
Now, Carl claimed he had no enemies. And who knows, maybe Carl was certain his ex-wife Maud and his stepson Wallace had nothing to do with this. He told the Post that "He knew of no woman...who had a grudge against him nor did he know of any other individual or group of them for whom she might have been calling." 
Maybe the threat actually came from some babushka-clad bubba whom Carl had clipped with his Ford while she was crossing the street with a basket of turnips. 
The Press speculated that the threat may have been a hoax.
But Carl didn't take it as a joke. The incident had so shocked his mother that it "almost prostrated her"  and Carl told the Philadelphia paper "I intend to run this thing down and will make it hot for the person responsible for causing my mother so much worry."
After the reward notice was published, the story died a quiet death, presumably for lack of further information. It was a dead one, for sure.
*A version of this story was posted to my Facebook page on 22 February 2020.

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