The Old Jail Museum

Once again, I am running around my native Pennsylvania collecting historical tidbits to share with readers all over the place. This time I thought I’d share one of my favorite places that I’ve covered in my work.

The Old Jail Museum is exactly what the name implies. Situated in Jim Thorpe (formerly Mauch Chunk), in Pennsylvania’s picturesque Carbon County, it served for more than a hundred years as the county lockup.

At first glance it looks more like a fortress than a jail. From 1871 to as recently as 1995, it housed prisoners from throughout the county, and is regarded as an excellent example of 19th century architecture. Behind the barred windows and heavy iron doors, visitors will find 72 rooms, the first several of which once served as the residence of the warden and his family.

Upon entering, visitors will usually find themselves milling about in the entrance hall until it’s time for their tour. Tickets are purchased in what used to be the warden’s family sitting room, to the left of the entrance; it’s now the gift shop, and along with tickets visitors can purchase books about the jail’s history, t-shirts, magnets, postcards, and also a candy bar or beverage to tide them over until the tour is completed.

Another room on the first floor once served as the visiting area, where prisoners could be brought to converse through windows with their loved ones or legal representatives. The visiting windows now house various relics from the bygone days of the jail, including actual handcuffs from the 19th century and items carved by former prisoners. This is also the room where visitors can access the only public bathroom, but be warned - it has just one toilet stall, so expect a line, and the lock has been known to stick in humid weather and make it difficult to open the door. Please do not ask me how I learned this fact. On the bright side, despite what the old sign says, visitors are no longer subject to body searches.

Undated sign warning visitors about body searches
PHOTOGRAPH BY Laura Klotz

Visits to the jail are via guided tours only. The entrance hall, gift shop, and old visiting area can be viewed by anyone, but to go farther requires a ticket. When a tour begins, visitors are brought into a room to watch an informative video about the history of the jail and its most famous occupants, the so-called Molly Maguires. If you’re not familiar with the story of the Mollies, they were mine workers in the 19th century who were accused of forming a secret society and murdering some of their bosses. Modern historians believe they were most likely framed and that the entire existence of the Molly Maguires (at least in Pennsylvania) was invented by the coal mine owners to create a scapegoat and make the public suspicious of the poor immigrant miners. Much of the jail tour centers around the Mollies.

Following the video introduction, visitors are escorted upstairs through what was once the living quarters of the warden’s family, including the old bathroom which led into the very small section of prison reserved for female inmates. From there, the tour goes into the main section of the jailhouse, including the kitchen, the library, and the 27 main cells. These are arranged on two levels, with an open central area in which a replica gallows has been erected. That’s because the accused Molly Maguires who had been prisoners in the jail were all found guilty and hanged on location. The original scaffolding is long gone, but the replica features four nooses, just as it did on “the day of the rope.” Signage throughout the cell block describes daily life in the prison, and gives details about the trials and executions of the Mollies.

The cell block in the heart of the prison
PHOTOGRAPH BY Laura Klotz

All of the cells in the block are open and visitors may go inside them - all except one. Cell #17 is sealed, and can only be viewed through the window on its door. This is because cell #17 is home to the infamous handprint, left by one of the Mollies before his execution. The story says that the prisoner rubbed his hand on the cell's dirt floor and then smacked the wall to leave the print, declaring that he was an innocent man and the handprint would stay forever as proof of that. He was hanged the same day, but more than a century later, the handprint remains. Over the years, the wall has been scrubbed, repainted, and even partially replaced. The print always comes back within a few days. In 1975, a team of scientists studied the wall to determine what was there, and they found only paint. The handprint has been featured on the show Mysteries at the Museum (season 11, episode 11) and has been examined by many ghost hunters and paranormal experts, none of whom can give any better explanation than that of the legend. Visitors are forbidden from taking pictures of the handprint, lest modern equipment somehow damage it, but postcards of it are available for purchase.

The tour also takes visitors down into the lowest part of the prison, where the solitary confinement cells can be viewed. With only small windows to allow daylight to enter, these were once the darkest places to be imprisoned. Naturally, it’s on this lowest level that visitors have encountered the most ghost activity. The Old Jail Museum is understood to be extremely haunted, and many people have taken what they thought were ordinary photographs only to discover orbs, flares, and other unexplained phenomena on the developed images. I myself am one of them - in my own picture of a solitary confinement cell, there are two mysterious pinpricks of light right where a person’s eyes would be if he were sitting on the floor. I shared it with the jail owners, who agreed that I’m part of that unusual photography club.

My ghost photo from the solitary confinement level
PHOTOGRAPH BY Laura Klotz

The Old Jail Museum is privately owned and operated by the McBride family. Generally speaking, tours are offered from May through October, but check the website for confirmed dates; the year’s schedule is usually posted during the month of April. October tours are slightly different from the rest of the year as they focus more heavily on the jail’s haunted status. Tickets must be purchased in person; there is currently no option to buy them online or over the phone, and the tickets must be used on the day they are purchased. Check the website for current ticket prices. Because of the building's age, it is NOT wheelchair accessible, but certain accommodations can be arranged by calling in advance. Strollers and animals (other than registered service animals) are not permitted on the tours. For any other concerns, please contact the museum.

Oh, and before you leave, be sure to get your picture taken behind bars.

Me behind bars
PHOTOGRAPH BY Laura Klotz

The Old Jail Museum 570-325-5259

128 West Broadway https://www.theoldjailmuseum.com

Jim Thorpe, PA 18229

*    *    *

Laura Klotz

Laura Klotz is a published author and historian whose family has lived in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region for more than 300 years. Through her weekly blog, MarkerQuest, she explores the rich history of her native state and shares both the well-known and the lesser-known stories behind Pennsylvania’s historical marker program. Visit MarkerQuest at https://pamarkers.blogspot.com