For sale: Historic Pa. jail haunted by the ghosts of hanged coal miners
The jail's owners have spent the last two decades running the imposing, 147-year-old stone building as The Old Museum Jail
By Jason Nark
JIM THORPE, Pa. — The asking price — $749,000 — includes gallows, nooses, handcuffs, the everlasting handprint of a hanged coal miner, and possibly some ghosts who have good reason to be ticked off.
“Oh, we have ghosts here,” Betty Lou McBride said last week. “Tons of ghosts.”
McBride, 84, and husband Tom, 87, purchased the former Carbon County Jail in Jim Thorpe in 1995 when it still housed prisoners, and took over once the county moved the last of them to a new facility in Nesquehoning. The McBrides have spent the last two decades running the imposing, 147-year-old stone building as The Old Museum Jail.
“We’ve been saying we were going to sell it for a long time, but it’s hard to let go,” she said.
The two-story, 27-cell jail is tucked into a rocky hill atop Broadway in the quaint mining town formerly known as Mauch Chunk on the Lehigh River. Pennsylvania has plenty of old stone buildings where nothing much happened, but the jail is on the National Register of Historic Places because of its unique and ominous place in the history of labor unions in America.
In the late 1800s, immigrants were pouring into Northeastern Pennsylvania and heading down into the mines to extract anthracite coal. Faced with low pay, meager living conditions and discrimination, Irish miners turned to fraternal organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians for solidarity and, eventually, to fledgling trade unions to organize.
“What they were, basically, were miners who were just trying to get the mine owners to treat them fairly,” said Karliene Zack, of the Mauch Chunk Museum down the street.
Blood was spilled on both sides, along with brawls and vandalism, and when mine owners were killed, coal barons sent in their own private police force — the Pinkerton National Detective Agency — to infiltrate the Irish miners, dubbed the “Molly Maguires” after an Irish woman who led revolts against English landlords. On June 21, 1877, a day known as “Black Thursday,” four Irish miners were hanged inside the Carbon County Jail for murder, while six others were hanged in Pottsville.
A 1970 film The Molly Maguires, starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris, was one of 10 movies that shot footage in the Carbon County Jail.
Three more Irish coal miners were hanged in the jail after “Black Thursday.” The fairness of the Molly Maguires’ trials has long been questioned by historians. In 1979, the alleged leader of the Mollies, Jack “Blackjack” Kehoe, was posthumously pardoned by Gov. Milton J. Shapp.
“The judge was a friend of the coal companies,” McBride said.
On the right side of cell 17, a Molly Maguire handprint stains the wall about six feet up and allegedly can’t be scrubbed off, painted over, or plastered.
“This handprint will remain as proof of my innocence,” the prisoner allegedly exclaimed before he was led to the gallows.
Cell 17, McBride said, almost always remains locked, the handprint visible through the bars.
“Nobody gets in the cell with the handprint by themselves. Nobody spends the night here,” she said. “I’m not about to spend the night here, not because I’m afraid, but because I don’t want to sleep on a concrete floor.”
One former inmate, Walter “Mountain Main” Rodriguez, was in cell 17 by himself, McBride said, after his arrest in connection with the murder of a teenage girl. She said Rodriguez, a member of the Warlocks Motorcycle Club, begged to be moved to a different cell out of fear.
The museum sees approximately 24,000 visitors a year, and while McBride holds ghost tours, she’s never gone full-tilt into the lucrative Halloween market, like Eastern State Penitentiary’s “Terror Behind the Walls.”
She said she respects the ghosts too much.
“I don’t understand them and I never wanted to ridicule them with an artificial haunted house,” she said.
McBride said there’s been some interest in the sale, though not from the county or borough, and she said it could be a turnkey haunted museum for the right buyer.
“It’s a good business,” she said. “It’s not brain surgery. The most sensible thing is to keep the museum running, maybe expand.”
Neighbors want it to stay that way, too.
“It’s a great tourist attraction,” said Sue Zarillo, 53. “All kinds of creepy things happen there.”
Currently, the museum is open from Memorial Day through October. It’s tough to heat in the winter, McBride said.
“The building takes on a different look in the winter. It’s not welcoming,” she said.
The jail’s rec yard goes unused as well, though it has all the makings of a beer garden. In 1990, an inmate on work release scaled the mountain behind the jail and shot and killed his cellmate with a rifle while he was in the yard.
McBride said there’s been at least one wedding, and every now and then, a former prisoner will show up and take the tour. She rents the building out by the hour, often to paranormal groups as long as they’re not out to debunk her ghosts. Plenty of field trips come through as well.
“The kids don’t get as scared as I’d like them to,” she said.
McBride doesn’t scare easily either, and that helps if you’re going to buy a haunted jail.
“I’ve seen things here that aren’t here,” she said. “People feel their hair being touched, or they feel a hand on their shoulder.”