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The Handwriting On The Wall

July 2024
2min read

The history of the American labor movement has more than its share of fascinating stories, but not many of them are tinged with the supernatural (Joe Hill really did die, after all). But now Bryan Miller, a former Associated Press reporter, passes along the following Gothic tale:

“While touring the eastern Pennsylvania town of Jim Thorpe, a photographer friend and I encountered rumors about its ‘famous’ Carbon County jail and the ‘amazing’ phenomenon inside. As we poked around further, local folks repeated the legend with varying degrees of authority, although no one could verify it empirically.

“The story, in brief, was this: In the 1860’s and 1870’s many Pennsylvania coal mines were scenes of bloody conflict between English and Welsh mine owners and the militant fringe of an inchoate coal union known as the Molly McGuires. Murders and arson were commonplace, and in the 1870’s the mine owners hired Pinkerton agents to infiltrate the union and implicate the alleged leaders. A group of miners was arrested in 1877, four of whom were convicted of murder and hanged on July 21 in the Carbon County jail. A fifth, Tom Fisher, was later convicted and sentenced to hang on March 28, 1878, for the murder of mine superintendent Morgan Powell.

“Fisher vehemently protested his innocence right up to the moment he was hauled out of his cell. As the legend goes, when the prison guard came to take him away, Fisher reached up and pressed his hand against the cell wall, leaving behind a sweaty handprint. He vowed that the handprint would remain forever as proof of his innocence. After the execution, jittery guards tried to scrub the print from the wall. It would not come off. Then they tried painting it over. It came through the paint. They painted again. Same result. The warden then ordered the cell boarded up—and it remained closed for the next 102 years.

“My friend and I were intrigued, to say the least, and determined to verify the tale. At first, we were denied entry into the jail, which still houses prisoners. We tried every possible means, finally calling the warden himself at home during his Sunday dinner. He gave us permission, and we went inside. A burly, suspicious guard confirmed the handprint story and agreed to take us into the cell, which had not been opened in memory. We had to walk through the open courtyard, which was filled with prisoners, and, while everyone watched nervously, we pried open the old door. Inside the dusty, cobweb-latticed cell, with its nineteenth-century wooden toilet and disintegrated mattress, we saw the handprint. Faint but clearly identifiable, it remained high up on the whitewashed wall. My friend snapped some photographs as the guard proudly posed, then we bid farewell to the excited prisoners and scurried out.”

Alas, this moody and fascinating story has to be somewhat tempered. The handprint is indeed visible, but the cell has not been boarded up since Fisher’s execution. According to one of the jail’s correctional guards, Don Mans, for years Boy Scout tours liked to come through on weekends, and the curious could take a look whenever they chose. Now, though, access is a little more limited: it seems that an influx of young women in tank tops was upsetting Carbon County jail’s corporeal inmates.

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