The Ghostly Handprint
JIM THORPE, PENNSYLVANIA - June 1, 2007 (WPVI) -- Some say the mark of an accused murderer remains on the wall of a jail cell in the Poconos - despite efforts to erase it. Matt O'Donnell investigates.
On June 21, 1877, four men were hanged in this prison in the Poconos. They were accused of being members of the Molly Maguires, a murderous Irish coal mining gang. Their guilt or innocence has been questioned ever since.
One of them was Alexander Campbell, who was housed in Cell 17 at the old prison in Jim Thorpe (the town used to be called Mauch Chunk, until it purchased the remains of Thorpe, a legendary athlete, in the 1950's - a long story we do not have time for here). Legend has he left his mark, moments before his hanging - one that is still visible nearly 130 years later.
Betty Lou McBride bought the jail with her husband, Tom in 1995 when it closed. It is now called the Old Jail Museum.
"We do not know why the handprint's there," Mrs. McBride said. "I would not swear on an oath that is was here for a hundred years. I haven't been standing here watching it."
When Action News paid the jail a visit, the McBrides allowed us to do what visitors cannot - see the handprint up close, and even touch it.
The story says Campbell wiped his hand on the grimy floor, placed his hand on the wall, and said this:
"It will remain forever, to shame the county for hanging an innocent man."
"The sheriffs here did not want it," Mrs. McBride said, "because it was an annoyance, because it not only bothered the prisoners, but people were always knocking on the front door wanting to come in and see it."
There are a number of stories of people having washed over this hand, tried to erase it, paint over it, even someone demolishing this wall. And yet, the handprint returns the very next day.
We talked to some residents of this Carbon County town. Just about everyone has heard about it. Do they believe it?
"Yes I do," said Rita O'Donnell (no relation to this reporter). "Because I've seen it, and they've painted over it. And the hand is still on the wall."
When the jail closed in 1995, and before the McBrides offered to buy and preserve the structure, many in Jim Thorpe feared the jail would be demolished. A judge in town asked someone he knew had experience in forensics to analyze the handprint - perhaps as an effort to preserve the mystery into the historical record.
That someone was James Starrs, a forensic scientist from George Washington University. He used infra-red photography to examine the handprint in the mid-1990's.
Starrs concluded it had never been painted over, and according to data he had gathered about what Alexander Campbell did moments before he was executed, the print really should be a right hand, not a left.
"I would say it is a collosal, and a delightful, but assuredly a true myth and a hoax to boot," Starrs said. He believes the legend emerged over the years as a way to remember the struggles of the Irish in the coal mines in the 19th century - struggles that may have helped planted the seeds for organized labor in this country.
"I'm not vouching for anything," Mrs. McBride said. "We simply know we have an unsolved mystery, and we do not intend to try and solve it."
Even if the handprint is indeed a hoax, the McBrides will never know for sure. They will not try to paint it over again, fearing they would permanently erase the remnants of a legend, and a symbol of the struggles in the once thriving Pennsylvania coal industry.
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