April 18, 2011

The Midnighters: Mad Science

For over thirty years, Jerry worked as a police officer in Pittsburgh. In his time on the force, Jerry had seen some bad things, some worse things, and some downright evil things. Cleaning up when people got mad or got crazy was part of the job, but there were other things that Jerry saw, things that most people never see, things that prowl the night, things that refuse to die.

I interviewed Jerry several times in 2002. The following incident is just one of the many stories Jerry shared in hours of audio recordings. I have transcribed them just as they were told to me by Jerry.

“When I was kid, long time ago, back in the 30s thereabouts, I guess... Anyway, when I was a kid I lived up in the North Side. It was a nice neighborhood just over the river, right? Everybody on my street, which was Ridge Avenue by the way, everybody on my street knew the scary old house at 1129 and everybody had heard the stories about the Doctor that lived there.

“My father said the guy’s name was Brunrichter, Doctor Brunrichter from Switzerland in Geneva, I think. My mother said he was the devil and don’t go near that house. Well she didn’t have to tell us kids because we stayed away from it anyway. It was a spooky old place.

“So, there was this one summer, I must have been ten or twelve maybe, I got sick real bad. One day I couldn’t get outta bed, like my legs didn’t work anymore. They took me to the hospital, they thought it was polio, but the docs said, no, it wasn’t, but they didn’t know what the problem was.
“After some treatments and medicines and nothing helping, the doctors sent me home and told my dad there was nothing they could do. Well, my old man did not like to hear that from nobody. One day he comes up to my room where I’m in bed reading my books and says, ‘We’re gong to see the Doctor,’ and I said, ‘But they sent me home, dad,’ and he says, ‘No, not those doctors, the Doctor.’

“Well, I thought my dad had lost his marbles but I couldn’t stop him. He carried me himself down the block. I don’t think he told my mother what he was doing.

“We get to the Doctor’s house and it’s starting to get dark and my dad is pounding on the door. Now, the door opens, right, and my dad has me over his shoulder and I’m looking out behind him, see? So, he’s pounding on the door with one hand and holding me over his shoulder with the other and the door opens and I can’t see anything.

“My dad says, ‘I brought the boy,’ and all I hear after that is the door creaking as it opens and my father goes inside.

“The inside, it’s dark and musty, and I’m being carried through it by my dad. I still can’t see no Doctor, right? And then we’re going down some steps, into the basement I guess.

“Finally, my dad sets me down and I get a good look at the place. It’s a small room with all sorts of contraptions and doodads and things, like wires and tubes and beakers. There’s a table with a lot of straps on it and a big coiled metal thingy above it. And then out comes this Doctor.

“Well, I guess he wasn’t too scary when I think about it now, but I was a kid, right? Well, he was tall – real tall – and he had short black hair and these real deep eyes with bags under them like he never slept. I think he was wearing like a dirty lab coat or something.

“He didn’t say nothing to me but he starts examining me and his hands were like ice, right? His coat had a high collar, and I remember that when he leaned over me, I could see that underneath it, he had all these bandages around his neck and it looked like there was some old blood on it.

“I was too scared to say anything and my dad stood there and watched as the Doctor gave me a once over. He picked me up and put me up on the table and I started to get real scared when the Doctor strapped my arms down.

“My dad was holding my hand, you know, trying to comfort me and we both saw the Doctor strap my legs down, too, and I thought, what’s the point, but he knew what he was doing.

“He tells my dad, ‘Step back,’ in this kinda tootie-fruitie English accent, which was surprising ‘cause he sounded a lot younger than he looked, and he throws a switch, right, and the whole room lights up and the big metal coil above the table starts shooting sparks all over the room.

“I can see my dad is biting his lip, not sure if he’s helping his kid or getting him fried. The Doctor is pushing buttons, pulling levers and stuff, and the electricity seems to respond ‘cause it starts shooting into my legs, right, and it’s arcing between my legs.

“I remember how the room was lit up by all the sparks and I saw my dad with tears in his eyes and then I could see the Doctor in the shadows and how the flashes reflected in his eyes, only in the Doctor’s eyes. And then I passed out cold.

“Sure, when I woke up my legs was still no good, but over the next few weeks, I could move them again and soon they was fine. My mother was pretty upset with my dad for awhile, but she got over it when I started walking again. I don’t know the whole story, but I know people on the block were talking about what happened and old Father Mollinger gave me the stink eye for some time.

“I never saw Doctor Brunrichter again. I think he stayed on in the house for some years until it changed hands. I hadn’t been back to the place until that night in 1969.

“Frank and me, we were doing our patrol and we heard an awful boom, big explosion. We couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but a little later that night, we get a call from dispatch telling us to head to the North Side, Ridge Avenue. ‘Goin’ home, Jerry?’ Frank says to me.

“So we get up there and it’s the old Doctor’s house, all right. The place is gutted from fire but the guys got it out pretty quickly. Frank has a buddy in the Fire Chief’s office and it was him that called us. He said he knew Frank would want to see this and since it was late, the inspectors wouldn’t be doing much work until morning.

“He takes us inside and it’s just black soot everywhere. He said there was a lot of smoke from the basement, that something blew up down there. But they found some other rooms down there, some secret rooms.

“The basement isn’t too bad. The explosion and fire kinda melted things and blackened it and made a mess. I guess it blew out these secret doors in the basement and that how’s the fire fighters found the stuff.

“Frank’s friend takes us into this large room, not the one I was in, and it’s full of equipment, though, just like the stuff I remember seeing, only more of it and bigger. There was even a table that was chained to the ceiling on a winch and could move up and down. And there was a big metal coil like the one I seen, but this one was twice as big.

“Anyway, Frank’s friend says the thing we want to see is along the wall. There’s a row of metal boxes and Frank and I walk up to see. Now the front of these boxes is glass or something like glass but stronger ‘cause it ain’t even got a crack in it. It’s covered in soot, so Frank takes out his hankie and wipes it off and we take a peek inside.

“There’s five boxes, right? In each one, there’s a head, a human head, and each head has the top cut clean off and you can see there ain’t no brain in there, just a big empty hole. And in the third box, there’s Doctor Brunrichter staring out at me.

“I don’t know what happened to Brunrichter or whoever he was and I don’t know what he was doing down there, but I told Frank my story and he looked into it, but we could never close the case. Frank thought the Doctor was still out there somewhere, maybe still out there even today.

“One thing made us wonder was that there was a sixth box next to the others down there, but it was empty and the doors to the back of the house, the ones facing the river, they were the only ones upstairs that were blown out, but Frank, he doesn’t think they were blown out, he thinks they were torn out from the inside.”

Read more stories of the Midnighters here.


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