Once a thriving lumber camp on the banks of Potato Creek in McKean County, the village of Betula lies halfway between Smethport and Emporium.
The few people who call this backwoods location home are friendly folks, who are likely to point you to the best fishing spots or give you directions to nearest gas station. However, during the height of the lumber boom in the early 20th century, Betula was known around the region as home to some of the toughest and meanest characters who ever wielded an axe or a saw.
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Betula is situated in the southeastern corner of Norwich Township, and although the township was first settled in 1815, it wasn’t until 1909, when the Norwich Lumber Company began clearing thousands of acres of virgin forest, that villages began to spring up on the banks of Potato Creek. The first homes, which little more than wooden shanties, were built in Betula the following year.
It didn’t take long for the woodsmen to find trouble. A lack of women and an abundance of whiskey, coupled with seclusion and the pressures of a dangerous job, often caused tempers to flair.
Just three years after Betula sprung into existence the village experienced its first murder, when, in October of 1913, a moonshiner named Ben Prouty bashed William Wagner’s head to a pulp with a wooden club. Although Prouty bragged about what he had done, the wilderness was so thick that it took three weeks for authorities to track him down.
In 1918, Betula was the scene of another murder, but, unlike the spirit of William Wagner, this victim would not rest in peace.
Archie Turner was a sixty-year-old lumberjack who shared a room in the company bunkhouse in Betula with a fellow worker by the name of Edward Ralph. Though both men were middle aged, they were just as fond of gambling and liquor as men half their age.
The men had gotten paid on Saturday, and Archie Turner promptly spent his earnings on whiskey. From payday, which was February 9, until Valentine’s Day, Turner was thoroughly inebriated.
By Thursday, February 14, Turner was so enebriated that his friends and co-workers began to fear for his safety. He spent the morning stumbling around camp, talking jibberish and singing incoherently. His presence was an annoyance to most of the men at camp, though Mrs. Sophia Bennett found him particularly bothersome.
It was Sophia’s husband who ran the lumber camp, but Archie had grown quite fond of the bossman’s wife, and had spent Valentine’s Day hounding her. Sophia, of course, was quite put off by the drunk lumberjack’s amorous advances.
When Sophia Bennett called the men to lunch, Archie Turner took a seat at a table next to Ellis Derr and Buell Strang. A short while later, Archie’s bunkmate, Edward Ralph, came into the house and went into the kitchen for a drink of water.
Turner yelled at Ralph to keep out of the kitchen, saying that he had no business in there with Mrs. Bennett. Ralph, who was accustomed to his friend’s drunken behavior, paid little attention to Turner, who became so angry that he threatened to “clean out the whole bunch”. He got up from the table and stumbled upstairs to his room.
Seeing the drunk man’s condition, Ellis Derr and Buell Strang thought it best for Turner to sleep it off bed, and Ed Ralph said that he would go upstairs and put his friend to bed.
A moment later a gunshot was heard, followed by the sound of a body tumbling doen the stairs. Ellis and Buell ran to the landing, where Ed Ralph was lying on the floor, gasping from breath, in a pool of blood. At the top of the stairs sat Archie Turner with a pistol in his hands.
The gasping breaths of the dying man were too much for Turner to bear. “You make too much noise!” said Turner, who said that he had a splitting headache. He pointed the gun at the dying man and fired again, but the bullet embedded itself in the downstairs wall.
The men inside the camp took cover and tried their best to remain calm. They knew that if they were to move a muscle, Turner would continue shooting. When Turner caught a glimpse of Buell Strang, who was crouched at the bottom of the stairs, Turner indeed fired another shot, but missed.
Meanwhile, Ellis Derr had managed to run from the camp to secure help, and a few minutes later he returned with several men from the narrow gauge lumber railroad. While some of the railroaders distracted the shooter, Ellis Derr dragged Edward Ralph outside.
One of the railroaders, Nick Carter, seeing that Turner was distracted, bravely rushed up the stairs and tackled the shooter. He tied up the gunman, and Turner was taken to the nearby village of Crosby by train.
Later that evening, Dr. Burg Chadwick and County Detective Joseph Robinson arrived from Smethport, but help was too late in arriving. According to Dr. Chadwick, Edward Ralph had died as a result of a bullet through the brain.
On Saturday a grand jury was empaneled, and Archie Turner was charged with first-degree murder. He was held without bail at the McKean County jail until the court convened on February 25. At his trial, Archie Turner agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to six years at the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. He was pardoned two years into his sentence.
While the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was content with Turner’s punishment, it seems that his victim, Edward Ralph, was not. Just before Turner’s release from prison in 1920, the state took control of the timberlands around Betula.
The abandoned lumber camps– such as the Bennett camp where the murder was committed– were rented or leased by hunters, campers and fisherman. And before long, word spread that the cabin where the crime took place was haunted by the ghost of Edward Ralph.
In 1922, Elias Smeed, a woodsman who occupied the cabin during the winter months, claimed that night after night he had lain awake in horror, listening to the heavy footsteps of an unseen being on the stairs leading to the second floor.
The ghostly footsteps always stopped halfway up the stairs, to be followed a few minutes later by a mournful cry from just outside the front door that pierced the night.
Smeed, who was not a native to the area, had been unaware of the cabin’s history until he told his tale to a reporter from the Smethport Miner.
Smeed’s story rang a bell, and the reporter recalled a murder that had taken place near Betual a few years earlier. Sure enough, Smeed was renting out the cabin that had once been the Bennett camp’s bunkhouse. The details of Smeed’s story and the details of Edward Ralph’s death tallied perfectly.
Author: Marlin Bressi, source: paoddities.blogspot.com Marlin Bressi is an author and history buff who currently resides in Harrisburg. As a nonfiction writer he has authored four books, the most recent of which are Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America’s Most Colorful Hermits and Pennsylvania Oddities.
Marlin Bressi is an author and history buff who currently resides in Harrisburg. As a nonfiction writer he has authored four books, the most recent of which are Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America’s Most Colorful Hermits and Pennsylvania Oddities.