Schambacher’s Tavern: A Real Ghost Story
The scariest ghost stories are the real ones. And while not all the facts in this one can be verified, many can be. Best of all, this particular story is connected to the Hagenbuchs and the area of Berks County where the family first established itself.
The story begins in February of 1756 in the midst of the French and Indian War. Early one morning, a group of Lenape emerged from the forests that covered the Blue Mountains of Albany Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania. Allied with the French, they were intent on murdering colonial families living on the frontier. An account of the attack was documented in a letter from (Jean) Valentine Probst to Jacob Levan:
I cannot omit writing about the dreadful circumstances of our Township, Albany. The Indians came yesterday morning, about 8:00 o’clock, to Frederick Reichelderfer’s house. As he was feeding his horses, two Indians ran upon him, and followed him into the field 10 or 12 perches behind; but he escaped and ran toward Jacob Gerhart’s house, with a design to fetch arms. When he came nearer Gerhart’s, he heard a lamentable cry “Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus,” which made him run back towards his own house, but before he got quite home, he saw his house and stables in flames; and heard all the cattle bellowing, and thereupon he ran away again.
Two of his children were shot, one of them was found dead in his field, the other was found alive and brought to Hagenbuch’s house but died three hours after. All his grain and cattle were burnt up. At Jacob Gerhart’s they had killed one man, two women, and six children. Two children slipped under the bed; one of which was burned; the other escaped and ran a mile to get to people. We desire help, or we must leave our homes.
The brutal murders of the Reichelderfer children and Gerhart (Gerhardt) family would haunt this region for decades to come. The story also contains a connection to the Hagenbuch family too. Like the Reichelderfers, the young Jacob Gerhart likely sought refuge at the homestead of Andreas Hagenbuch and his family. This was located less than a mile from their ravaged farms.
The orphaned Jacob Gerhart stayed in the area and grew up under the care of another family. Eventually, he settled in the mountains overlooking the spot where his family was massacred. In 1793 he built a sandstone tavern on the property. This happened to be along a popular route that took travelers over the Blue Mountains and into Schuylkill County.
Throughout history, mountains have often been seen as mysterious, magical places. Not surprisingly, local lore tells that the Blue Mountains were sacred to the Lenape who once lived there. The place where Jacob Gerhart built his home was special for other reasons too. It is located along the migratory path for many birds of prey and provides spectacular views of hawks soaring through the air. It also happens to overlook the spot where a young Jacob watched the gruesome murder of his parents and siblings.
Whether it was the spirits of the Lenape or unsettling childhood memories, many say that Jacob Gerhart was never quite right. After his death in the early 1800s, George and Priscilla Bolich bought the property and used the house as a tavern. Indeed, the stone house was a perfect stopping off point for weary travelers making their way over the summit. In the mid-1800s, the tavern changed hands once again. The new owners were Matthias and Margaret Schambacher, and their names would forever be associated with the property.
Schambacher’s Tavern (also known as Schaumboch’s Tavern) is located within the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary on a ridge in the Blue Mountains overlooking Albany Township, Berks County. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The tavern is a place shrouded in rumor, mystery, and ghost stories.
Many of these were collected by the first curators of Hawk Mountain, Maurice and Irma Broun. Beginning with their arrival in 1938, the Brouns started to hear disturbing stories from locals about Matthias Schambacher and his evil deeds. More troubling, the Brouns were actually living in the tavern at that time!
One of the first stories came from a man who claimed his father had once visited Schambacher’s Tavern during a terrible thunderstorm. After knocking on the door, he was greeted by a grim looking Matthias who pointed out a barn where horses could be stabled. As they approached the barn, the horses became spooked and reared up in terror. The impatient man threw down the reigns and entered the barn himself. There he saw traces of fresh blood spattered about. The man decided he was better off continuing through the storm than spending the night at the tavern!
Rumors circulated about travelers who mysteriously disappeared after heading up the mountain and staying at Schambacher’s Tavern. Some told of how Matthias plied guests with food and drink until they could no longer stay awake. Once in a deep sleep, Matthias would murder the travelers and sell their belongings for a profit. To dispose of the bodies, he would first hack them apart. Some pieces were dumped into an old well, while others were strewn in the forest for the animals to clean.
Schambacher, however, found some guests more useful than others. According to one story, a hungry traveler who stopped at the tavern was served a meal of so-called “Old German Sausage.” The traveler began eating but found that the food didn’t taste quite right. When he realized there were no pigs or livestock on the property, the man put two and two together. He figured that he might be in the next traveler’s meal and made a hasty escape!
Another story told of Elias Featherolf’s visit to Schambacher’s Tavern one day while walking over the mountain. After hearing a strange noise, he approached the infamous barn on the property. The sounds were of someone in distress, and Featherolf quickly entered the barn hoping to help. There he spied Matthias Schambacher in the loft holding a hatchet. Matthias saw Featherolf and yelled back, “Go away; go away quick or I’ll sink this hatchet in your head!” Featherolf ran away, and Matthias’s reputation as an evil, deranged man only grew.
One of the most persuasive stories came from Ed Trexler who recounted his father’s tale of a man peddling old Civil War uniforms in Albany Township during the 1870s. The man was eventually reported missing and had last been seen heading up the mountain towards Schambacher’s Tavern. A few weeks later, Matthias was seen in Reading, PA selling merchandise similar to the peddler’s.
While lore has it that Matthias Schambacher killed at least 11 travelers, records reveal that he was never charged with any crime. Perhaps the stories were just imaginative tales dreamed up by distrusting neighbors? If he did kill as many as are claimed, he would have the distinction of being America’s first serial killer.
Matthias Schambacher died in 1879 and was buried at New Bethel Church in Albany Township, Berks County, PA. However, even his death is shrouded by rumors. One tells of how Matthias made a deathbed confession to the murders. In the confession, he claimed that an evil spirit on the mountain whispered to him day and night, encouraging him to act on murderous impulses. Perhaps it was the troubled spirit of Jacob Gerhart or the displaced Lenape who once called Hawk Mountain home? Another story describes how as Matthias’s body was being lowered into the ground, a bolt of lightning struck nearby and caused the pallbearers to panic. The coffin rolled over and Matthias Schambacher was buried face down.
After his death, the myth of Schambacher’s Tavern only grew. Some locals tell the story of a pious man who became the next owner of the house. He believed the house was haunted by a dark, evil spirit, but his complete belief in God kept it at bay. One day, someone traveling over the mountain came upon the former tavern and noticed that its door was ripped off at the hinges. He peeked inside. Furniture was strewn about, and there was no sign of the pious owner. A search party was mounted and they soon located the decapitated corpse of the man. The murder was never solved.
It is known that William Turner bought the former Schambacher’s Tavern property in the late 1800s. He raised a large family there and continued running it as a stopover for travelers. By the early 1900s, many patrons were hawk-shooters who would hike to the top of the mountain and shoot the birds for sport. A story from this time describes how Turner had a beautiful young daughter. While playing her whistle, she stumbled and fell down the steep steps leading into the tavern’s basement. The girl died, but the haunting music of her whistle supposedly lives on.
Schambacher’s Tavern was next sold to John E. Wenz in 1922. Soon after, locals began to suspect some sort of mischief was going on there. Weird lights were seen and odd noises heard at all hours of the night. In time, there were enough reports that the authorities started to investigate the rumors. In 1930, prohibition agents raided the property. After a brief shootout, they found a gin mill and bootleggers holed up there.
In 1938, Schambacher’s Tavern was sold to the newly established Hawk Mountain Sanctuary to house personnel like Maurice and Irma Broun. The Brouns heard many of the stories noted above, and even added a few of their own. Maurice was known to have claimed that he found several human bones on the property. No evidence exists of these though.
Whether or not Schambacher’s Tavern is truly haunted, people continue to delight in the retelling of these ghost stories. This is at least in part due to the real people, places, and events which they are based upon. Matthias Schambacher’s infamy continues to grow as well. In recent times, he and his wife Margaret’s gravestones have disappeared from the New Bethel Church cemetery.
Were the stones taken by cemetery vandals who wanted to own a piece of history? Or, perhaps the Schambachers themselves reached up from the grave and pulled down their stones in an attempt to hide from curious visitors? One never knows.