The story so far: Harry Lane’s blood-filled hat is discovered, and all indications are that he has been murdered, but weeks of searching fail to turn up his body. After his father files for bankruptcy, the theory that Harry might still be alive, fleeing his debts, begins to take hold.

The journalist and historian Earle Forrest, born in Washington in 1883, was 10 years old when Harry Lane disappeared. He would recount Lane’s supposed murder in his 1926 “History of Washington County,” calling it a mystery unsolved. In a series of articles he wrote for the Washington Reporter in April 1955 – “National Pike, Road of History, Romance” – Forrest wrote, “Later it was reported that he had been heard from in Canada, and it was definitely learned that he was alive, either in Canada or the West.”

Forrest, however, went to his grave in 1969 never knowing where Harry Lane ended up or why he left, or who else might have conspired with him to perpetrate one of the greatest hoaxes in local history.

It would take the internet to solve the mystery.

Until about 20 years ago, searching one’s family history was a tedious and painstaking effort requiring countless hours of research in libraries and county courthouses and, frequently, extensive travel to those depositories of information. Now, all that data and much more – U.S. Census forms, military records, birth and death certificates and family trees – are available instantly with a few taps on a laptop keyboard.

Even over the past five years, the amount of genealogical data available online has grown exponentially. And so it is with this tool we are able to find Harry Lane, living at the turn of the 20th century in sunny Los Angeles County, Calif., with his wife and two daughters.

The 1900 census shows Harry and Clara renting a house in San Gabriel. Their daughter Grace, 18 months old when her father disappeared, was then 8 years old. Another daughter, Mary, was born in California in June 1899. According to the census report, Harry was employed as a fumigator.

How long the family had been in California is not known, but it is more than likely that when Daniel Lane left Pennsylvania for California in 1896, it was to be near his big brother. Later on, brothers Robert and Roy would migrate to the Los Angeles area, as well.

Robert’s great-granddaughter, Linda Stanley, has compiled an extensive collection of information and photos on the Lane family, some of which have been used to write and illustrate this serial. She has also shared her family’s oral history.

“My grandfather was Harry’s nephew, and he knew Harry pretty well when they all lived in California,” Stanley wrote in an email message. “Harry was 36 years old when my grandfather was born, so my grandfather was pretty impressed with his ‘outlaw’ uncle.

“Harry told my grandfather that they killed a rabbit and then took the blood from the rabbit and smeared it inside his hat to make it look like he had been attacked and bludgeoned to death.”

That bloody hat was left about 100 yards from the National Pike at about the line between the properties of John Little and the Lanes. Stanley said that family lore has it that the hat was left there to implicate Little, to whom Robert Lane Sr. owed so much money and to whom it was likely he would lose his farm.

What might have happened

Based on this information, a scenario begins to take shape: Dan and Stuart Early, the farmhand, said they had come upon the horse Harry was riding – evidently ridden hard¬ – grazing not where the hat was later found but much farther down the road along the Lane property. It seems possible that Harry had galloped down the lane past his own house and past the Zediker farm to the B&O train tracks, from where he could hop a ride on a freight train, leaving the horse to wander back toward its familiar stable.

Maybe Harry was alone when he slipped onto the train, or perhaps he did so with someone else, as was implied in the story told by Elzy Freeman, one of the boys who also were stealing a train ride to Washington that Saturday night.

The next day, Dan Lane and Early said they went to town looking for Harry and on their return found the bloody hat. Sometime that Sunday morning, however, Dan killed a rabbit in order to create the murder scene. Early may well have been his co-conspirator.

If Harry wanted to disappear, some of his friends asked at the time, why wouldn’t he have left from Pittsburgh on one of his many trips there? That certainly would have been easier. But it is clear now that Harry did not just want to disappear; he wanted everyone to think he was dead, so that the authorities and his creditor would not pursue him.

Who knew what, and when?

Who else knew about Harry’s plan?

Had Harry abandoned his wife without a word? Or was her deep and wrenching despair just an act? That she would with her child seek the comfort of her own parents’ home in Illinois during the heated search for her husband’s body seemed reasonable at the time. But in light of everything that is known now, her leaving town nine days after learning of his possible killing seems suspect.

Where Harry fled to initially and where he and Clara were between 1893 and 1896 is still a mystery. But we do know for sure that they were together in the fall of 1898, when Clara became pregnant with Mary, and that Harry and Clara were together until Clara’s death in 1921.

Did Harry’s mother and father know his plan? It is difficult to imagine that they could have kept up the façade of grieving parents for so long. Then again, it is hard to imagine that Harry could be so cruel to them. Robert Lane Sr. was aware of Harry’s debt of more than $2,000 to James Pees, yet he insisted that his son was in no financial trouble and showed some documentation to a newspaper reporter as proof. Was accepting his “dead” son’s debt as his own a generous paternal gift?

What Harry’s parents knew in those sensational days of June 1893 will forever remain a mystery. But what is known that they spent their final years with their long lost son, having followed some of their children to California in about 1915.

In February 1916, Daniel Lane, who had worked as a farm laborer, committed suicide. He used arsenic to poison himself. Robert Lane Sr. died in 1918, and Sarah followed in 1926.

Harry Eastman Lane became a newspaper sales agent, and after Clara’s death he lived in homes as a boarder. In 1940, according to the census, he was retired and living with his daughter Mary Lane Goodwin and her two daughters. He died Dec. 5, 1948, at the age of 80.

The scene today

If you drive out Route 40 east of Washington and turn left just before Murphy Family Inc., on Zediker Station Road, you are on what was once known as the old Doak road. It was farmland and farmhouses when Harry Lane lived there, and it is now no more populated than it was 125 years ago. “A narrow country road winds down into a lovely little valley to the northward,” the Weekly Post of Pittsburgh described in 1893.

About a half mile down this road is an old frame house that closely resembles an engraving of Harry’s house printed in the Washington Daily Reporter a few days after he disappeared. That house sits on land once owned by the Lane family, then lost to John Little. By 1911 it was owned by the McKahan family, who later sold it to Paul Podish, who died in 1983. His widow, Helen Podish, still lives there along with her daughter and son-in-law.

In researching this story, I stopped at that house and spoke to Mrs. Podish, her daughter Darla Jean Podish and son-in-law, Bruce McCracken. I had an odd feeling that I’d been there before, and I had. In the mid-1970s, I was at that house to interview Paul Podish, who was a survivor of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, sunk by the Japanese at the very end of World War II, an event brought to the public’s consciousness by the film “Jaws,” which was playing in theaters at that time. Of the 1,195 crewmen aboard that ship, only 316 men survived the long ordeal in shark-infested waters.

But that’s a story for another day.

I walked down to the road and looked back up the sloping lawn to the house and imagined what that scene was like in the days following Harry Lane’s disappearance. I imagined women carrying baskets of food to the back and into the kitchen, their husbands sitting and lying on the grass, conversing in low tones. I could almost hear the clattering of wagons and buggies arriving and leaving, the neighing and snorting of horses, the shouting and laughter of children too young to respect the solemn occasion.

I could sense the anxiety of that moment, in that lovely little valley, at a time so long ago.


A. Parker Burroughs is the retired executive editor of the Observer-Reporter who continues to contribute historical articles to this newspaper. He is the author of “Washington County Murder and Mayhem: Historic Crimes of Southwestern Pennsylvania” (The History Press, 2014).

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