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The Shadow of Death

The Pennsylvania historical marker near Shade Gap in Huntingdon County has a chilling title, the Shadow of Death, but gives almost no other information. It tosses out the name of one of the early surveyors of the area, but doesn’t describe why the area once went by that ominous name. The plaque ends with the written equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders: “The local significance is now unknown.”

When Weird PA passed through the valley of the Shadow of Death, we got the scoop from a chatty clerk at the local filling station. As I chewed on a

delicious ham and cheese roll, Deborah filled in the details. In the days when Europeans first passed through the area, she explained, it was a prime location for ambushes. The heavily wooded mountains are peppered with caves, which makes it next to impossible to find an attacker. In 1966, this fact was brought home forcibly to the townsfolk. The events of that May brought the FBI and state police together to mount what was at the time the largest manhunt in history.

For a week, some 2,000 people from the FBI, state police, and National Guard, alongside fish and game wardens and volunteers, hunted through the Tuscarora Mountains. Their quest: To retrieve a 17-year-old girl named Peggy Ann Bradnick, who had been abducted by a local man named William Hollenbaugh.

Hollenbaugh, who was euphemistically described in the area as “special,” went by the nicknames of Bicycle Bill and Mountain Man. The reclusive fellow had developed an obsession with Peggy Ann, and snatched her as she made her way home from school one spring afternoon. When the two of them were discovered missing, local law enforcement jumped to the obvious conclusion, and the Feds came in. 

Hollenbaugh hid Peggy Ann in one of the local caves, and took potshots at anyone who appeared to be hunting for them. On May 17, 1966, one of the people he shot at was Special Agent Terry R. Anderson, who died from his wounds. From that point on, Hollenbaugh was a doomed man. After the authorities transported Anderson’s body back to Philadelphia, marksmen had Bicycle Bill in their cross-hairs, literally as well as metaphorically. After an eight-day hunt, Hollenbaugh was shot dead. Peggy Ann was found alive in a cave and brought to safety.

In 1991, NBC retold the story in a movie of the week called Cry in the Wild: The Taking of Peggy Ann. In the movie, David Morse played the deranged kidnapper, who for some reason goes by the name Bicycle Pete. The other characters go by their real names, including the doomed FBI special agent Terry Anderson, played by David Soul. The movie is a notch above the typical true-life crime stories, but it takes on particular resonance with the people like Deborah at the filling station, who remember the uncertainty of that week vividly.

After finishing my sandwich, I returned to take a picture of the historic marker. As I snapped away, a creeping sensation of fear lurked in the back of my mind. Perhaps it was because I’d recently seen The Village, and any Pennsylvania woodland seemed like a terror zone. Perhaps it was the historic name of the area playing with my mind. But most likely, it was the knowledge that somewhere out there, a deranged kidnapper had sniped at anyone who came near the object of his obsession. Whatever the reason, I was relieved to get back into the car and make my way on to the next weird destination.

Taking Potshots with Bicycle Bill

I know an actual moving-car-killer site. Shade Gap, Pennsylvania, was the home of Bicycle Bill. He used to sit on the hillside and shoot at cars going by on the highway. It’s a mountainous, well-forested area. He was apparently a very good sniper, and he positioned himself so that the cars he hit lost control and went over the side of the ridge. No one found the bullet holes because the cars and bodies were so banged up that nobody looked for them.

People didn’t figure out what was up until he kidnapped a woman and she escaped and told the police. This is not a legend. My mother routinely drove that route during her pregnancy with me while Bicycle Bill was still active.

Also, there is a truly hilarious Pennsylvania Historic Site marker at the spot in question. The title is “Shadow of Death.” I always wonder how many people just leap back into the car without finishing reading that sign. –Ali Davis

For more information on Pennsylvania’s many Fabled People and Places see Weird Pennsylvania.

Weird Pennsylvania

 

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