on Monday, July, 14 2014 11:52:54 pm , 758 words
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Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, August 17, 1875, following a trolley ride to near the Harrisburg (Penn Street) Bridge, Louisa Bissinger of Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania, walked with her three children, Lillie (age 9), Mollie (age 6), and Philip (age 3), across the bridge and then two miles down the Union Canal towpath to lock number 49 East (having told them they were going on a picnic). At the lock, she loaded the basket with rocks, some of which she had got the children to gather along the way. Then she tied the basket to her waist, held her unsuspecting children tightly to her, and plunged with them into the murky waters of the canal. Though Louisa, weighed down by the basket of stones, sank immediately, the children struggled to stay afloat.
A witness to the event, who could not swim, ran for a boat at nearby Gring's Mill, across, on the west side of, Tulpehocken Creek, but ultimately he reached them too late. Louisa and her children were drowned.
Louisa's commission of this her final desperate act came about as the culmination to her husband's longtime "undo respect" toward her and his open courtship of another woman whom he eventually brought into their home. A newspaper story, date-lined "Reading, Pa., August 21," explained that an argument had led to Louisa being ordered from the house and told to take the two girls, but to leave their brother, who was the youngest. Expecting her fourth child, a fact not known to most others until after the tragedy, and determined that she would not let another woman raise her children, Louisa decided to kill herself as well as her offspring.
Captain Philip Bissinger, the husband, long a respected, prominent, and prosperous member of the community nonetheless had to be placed under police protection soon after the drownings and was nearly killed by members of the procession of about a thousand persons who had attended the funeral. "When the bodies were lowered into the graves," the newspaper reported, "the people hooted Bissinger, and made a rush for him." Only the quick action by policemen assigned for the occasion saved his life. He was hurriedly placed into a carriage and taken away. A shot had been fired before then and yet another was fired as the vehicle reached the cemetery gate. Later, in an attempt to defend himself from public calumny, Bissinger wrote the newspaper that it was his wife who was to blame for listening to what he said were baseless rumors concerning extramarital affairs. Fred Eben, Captain Bissinger's former brother-in-law, answered Bissinger's remarks to the press, calling him "the murderer of my sister and your four children."
Louisa and the three children she drowned that sad summer day are buried in Reading in the Charles Evans Cemetery, next to the graves of two of her three other children who died before the tragic murder-suicide. Philip Bissinger remarried, and he and his second wife are buried in the row of graves adjacent to the graves of his first wife and children.
It is said that the ghosts of Louisa and her children haunt the towpath near the lock. The legend states that since the time of the tragedy, people walking the towpath have sometimes seen Louisa and her children gathering stones. The spirits vanish as the viewer watches them. Others have reported hearing children's voices in the vicinity of the lock, as well as cries for help which cease when they approach near the site of the drownings. Charles J. Adams III, an Exeter Township author who has written much about ghosts in Berks County and environs, writing in Ghost Stories of Berks County (1982), related his attempt to try to investigate the presence of ghosts at the lock. Disappointed by the lack of spectral evidence, he and several reporters who had accompanied him were leaving the area when suddenly one reporter clutched his chest and was unable to breathe or speak. Adams conjectured that the event could have been the result of a spirit attempting to enter the reporter's body.
Today the Union Canal is dry; however, the Berks County Parks Department maintains the towpath as part of its facilities for jogging and cycling. The park would be an interesting and enjoyable place to visit. Who knows, it may also be a place where you can see a ghost!
Illustrations: 1) Louisa Bissinger 2) Captain Philip Bissinger 3) Gravestones of Louisa and her children: L to R: Mother, Mollie C., Lillie, Philip, Infant, Louis P. 4) Graves of Captain Philip Bissinger and second wife.