Of Mystery, Murder and Help for a Home in Cresson

MRS. THAW IN TEARS OVER SON’S ARREST, Aug 19, 1913, New York Times Headline read. “Gayly chatting with her woman traveling companion, smiling and laughing, although she undoubtedly knew that her son, Harry, was under arrest, Mrs. Mary Copley Thaw stepped from the Pennsylvania Limited at 5:22 o’clock this evening, threw up her parasol before the fire of a battery of cameras, climbed into her motor car and was whisked over the two miles to the Thaw Summer mansion Elmhurst.”

After being found not guilty because of insanity in the murder of celebrity architect Stanford White, Mrs. Thaw’s son Harry escaped from an institution and fled to Canada. Harry was to be returned to the states and jailed, although he was later released.

Stereoview of The Mountain House

On that evening, Mrs. Thaw’s train had arrived in Cresson, a small mountain town and a second home to the rich and powerful. If all could be counted, we might find that Andrew Carnegie spent more time here than in Pittsburgh and at one point brought in famed landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted to help plan a magnificent Scottish-style castle. Harry Thaw and actress Evelyn Nesbitt had a home nearby. Henry Clay Frick sent his ailing daughter to Cresson in hopes the tranquil atmosphere would help her recover. President Benjamin Harrison took up residence here in September 1891 while prolonged White House alterations continued. The steel magnate Benjamin Franklin Jones had a summer house here. British philosopher Herbert Spencer came to Cresson at the urging of Carnegie. Charles M. Schwab, who got his start when he met Carnegie in Cresson, later built a French Chateau named Immergrun in nearby Loretto, where he would later spend afternoons watching the stock ticker.

“It was raining when we reached Cresson,” wrote mystery writer Mary Roberts Reinhart in her book The Man in Lower Ten. “a wind-driven rain that had forced the agent at the newsstand to close himself in and that beat back from the rails in parallel lines of white spray.

“The Cresson trip stood out in my memory for its seriocomic horrors and its one real thrill,” Reinhart wrote.

You have to imagine just a little when visiting Cresson that this used to be a summer resort for millionaires and a setting for favorite mystery novels.

Andrew Carnegie probably spent the most time in Cresson and was responsible for bringing in some of the others. Several of the cottages still stand, but the Mountain House hotel is gone. One of the cottages now supports a turret removed from the hotel.

This Staircase inside the Jones (Braemar) Cottage may have been designed by McKim Mead and White

The largest of the remaining cottages, known as Braemar was built by steel tycoon Benjamin F. Jones. Braemar sits next to a much smaller cottage owned by Carnegie. Carnegie’s mother spent considerable time in Cresson and would die there. A frequent item of debate is exactly which cottage Mrs. Carnegie died in.

On my recent tour of the home our tour guide, a man in a top hat and coat—a costume that made it seem I was waiting for a groundhog to exit its burrow, told us conclusively that Margaret Carnegie had died in the Jones Cottage, now called Braemar. It seems that over time the name Braemar was transferred from the small cottage owned by Carnegie to the much larger home of Jones. While the tour guide put the place of death in the Jones Cottage, most seem content with the logical conclusion that Mrs. Carnegie died in her son’s cottage.

It seems it may be difficult to remove a coffin from this second-story window at Carnegie’s Braemar Cottage

As it goes, the story of the day Mrs. Carnegie died begins with Andrew sick in an upstairs middle bedroom and his mother in an adjacent room. Andrew’s condition was such at the time that when his mother passed, doctors felt it would be detrimental if he knew his mother had died. Her body couldn’t be carried out through the house without his notice, so they took the casket out a window and lowered it to a carriage, which sent Mrs. Carnegie to a train and eventually to Pittsburgh.

Looking at the small cottage owned by Carnegie, it doesn’t seem this story would be possible. While the upstairs of this cottage appears it may have three bedrooms, the second floor doesn’t have ceilings of full height. More, the second-story windows don’t seem large enough to allow a casket to be moved through them. This information is only conjecture, but on following up with another call to Charlie Miller in Cresson, I was told Carnegie biographer Joseph Frazier Wall had visited Cresson and confirmed that Margaret Carnegie was indeed in Jones Cottage when she died. Unfortunately, Wall died in 1995.

A caption under this photo of Carnegie’s Braemar in the book Millionaires And Grub Street reads that it was taken during Carnegie’s illness.

So why would Carnegie and his mother have been in the neighbor’s house? While built privately, the cottages were essentially an extension of the hotel. They were rented when unoccupied. All meals were taken at the Mountain House. The land was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad and leased for 99 years to the cottage builders.

Built later, the Jones Cottage likely had conveniences Carnegie’s Braemar didn’t. Moving to the Jones Cottage, which had a larger room for staff and indoor plumbing seems like an inviting option with two bed-ridden occupants.

David Nasaw’s recent book says this about Carnegie’s cottage: “The wooden cottage was not a typical millionaire’s summer mansion. It lacked central heating, cooking facilities, a dining room, servant’s quarters, and anything resembling a ballroom.”

Given the rich history, neither building needs a “Mrs. Carnegie died here” marker to justify historical significance. Today Carnegie’s Braemar is privately occupied, and the Jones Cottage (now known as Braemar) is owned by the Cresson Area Historical Association and threatened with demolition. Jones’ Braemar is by far the largest existent cottage. The group has an August deadline to raise $25,000 for necessary roof repairs, or the building will meet the torch.

It would be a sad thing and in a way another round of defeat for Stanford White. Jones’ Braemar Cottage contains a central staircase that’s said to have been designed by White’s architecture firm, McKim Mead and White.


5 thoughts on “Of Mystery, Murder and Help for a Home in Cresson

  1. The pictures you have listed as the Jones cottage are not of the cottage. The staircase photo is the exact same staircase that is still in the cottage. I personally know the owners that purchased it in 2011 and have visited it on numerous occasions.


  2. Yes, it would have been difficult to move a casket from a second story window, because that’s not how it occurred. Mrs. Carnegie was on the first floor, with Andrew just across the hall. Her room and windows that nearly touched the ground and they removed her body that way. The cottage next door, the Jones cottage, is not in any way part of her death. Mrs. Carnegie passed in Braemar and Andrew Carnegie never visited again after her death.


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