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History's Headlines: Old Carbon County Jail: Doing time since 1871

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 26 2013 04:56:12 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 06 2014 11:15:26 AM CDT

History's Headlines

As a native of Cleveland, Ohio, Betty Lou McBride did not grow up hearing tales of northeastern Pennsylvania's anthracite coal region’s Molly Maguires. But all that changed when she married her husband Tom who grew up in Hazleton.

That knowledge took concrete reality in 1995 when the couple purchased the fortress-like old Carbon County jail from the county and converted it into a museum. The Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe (aka Mauch Chunk) is the site where four “Mollies,” labor heroes to some, thugs and terrorists to others, were hanged in 1877. In 1878 and 1879 three more accused Mollies were also hanged there. Jack Kehoe, perhaps the most famous, was hanged in Pottsville in 1878.

McBride does not claim to be the expert on their history that her husband is- he's written two books on the subject. But she has opinions. “I’ve read parts of the trial transcript, not the whole thing like my husband has, but parts of it,” she says, “and it clearly seems to me they were railroaded.”

It was in part to tell the Mollies' story that the couple bought the solid stone structure with its 29 original cells, warden’s living quarters and 16 solitary “dungeon” cells. They offer tours there in the summer and early fall.

The building’s architect was Philadelphia born Edward Havilland (1823-1872). He designed many Pennsylvania county jails in the mid 19th century, including those at Easton and Reading.

“When we first took it over the place was horrendously dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty,” she says with a shudder. “What can I tell you? It was a jail.” It took an application of chemicals to remove the old paint that had apparently been painted over the dirt for years so that new paint could adhere to the walls.

According to McBride, in an average six month season they see between 23,000 and 25,000 visitors from every state and about 25 foreign countries. “Most of it is street traffic,” she says. “They are tourists who come to town for a visit. They see our sign and walk in.”

The tours are held daily, 12:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., from Memorial Day to Labor Day, every day except Wednesday. From September to October they are on weekends only. Something McBride finds interesting is that very few of those who stop in know anything about the Old Jail Museum’s most famous inmates.

“Seldom does somebody come here and already know about the Molly Maguires and those that do usually know about them because of the movie,” said McBride. That movie is the Hollywood film, “The Molly Maguires.” Made in 1970, it stared Sean Connery, Richard Harris and Samantha Egger.

Some of the scenes were shot in Jim Thorpe, in particular the trial scene in the old Carbon County Courthouse. That building, although roughly of the period, was built in 1893 and so had nothing to do with the Mollies.

In its day the Molly Maguires story was a major news event and even influenced popular culture. In 1914 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, published “Valley of Fear,” a novella based on the Mollies' story in which Homes plays a role.

The real history is rooted in the labor strife in eastern Pennsylvania coal fields in the mid 19th century. Most of the coal mine owners were WASP Americans or English and most of the mine laborers were Irish immigrants. With generations of conflict behind them in Ireland over both politics and religion, it is probably not unusual that they would clash here.

By just about any standards, conditions in the coal mines were primitive at best. Low pay, along with a series of accidents that cost hundreds of lives (and were often blamed by the courts on the careless Irish workers), lead to resentment and anger.

The original Molly Maguires had their beginnings in Ireland. In the late 18th century a woman said to have been named Molly Maguire gave word to local men when a landlord was about to evict them. The men wore dresses as a disguise and so came to be called Mollies.

Historians still debate today if there ever was such an organization or if its name was just revived in America by coal mine and railroad owners headed by Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, to defame the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a social order of the Irish workers, and to undermine the coal miners union.

Gowen hired the Pinkerton Detective agency to gather information on the Irish. They sent James McParlan, aka James McKenna, and a lot of other agents into the field. While there certainly was plenty of violence in the region- some of it perpetrated by Irish miners - Professor Anthony Wallace noted in 1987, “the impressive fact is that the detectives, including McParlan, despite their suspicion of a link between Molly Maguires, terrorism and union objectives, failed to report any evidence of violence ordered by union officers.”

Perhaps the most distinctive tie between the old Carbon County Jail is the infamous hand print on the wall of cell 17 that's said to have been placed there by a Mollie who claimed his innocence. For many years that handprint has been attributed to Alex Campbell. McBride says her husband, based on research in the old newspapers, believed it could also have been that of prisoner Thomas Fisher. McBride notes that the print attracts attention during tours. “We don’t let people in the cell but they can see it clearly through the door,” she says.

McBride is particularly happy with the tour guides, many of them local, young people. “For many it is their first job and they take it very seriously. Some come back over several years and have gone into the criminal justice system and one has become a criminologist.”

Tour prices are: Adults $6, Senior citizens over 65, $5, high school students, $5, Children age 6-12, $4 dollars, and children 5 and under free. For more information call 570-325-5259 or go to www.OldJailMuseum.com.