CHAPTER FOUR (1973)
“Curse of Convicted Mollie Still Lives”
by Jim Castagnera
On June 21, 1877 four men were hanged in the Central Pennsylvania coaltown of Mauch Chunk. The four — Michael Doyle, Edward Kelly, Alexander Campbell, and “Yellow Jack” Donohue — were members of a secret society of Irish coal miners, known as the Mollie Maguires. They had been convicted of murder in the most sensational trial to ever take place in the Carbon County courthouse, located in Mauch Chunk.
The Molly Maguires used terror and violence to combat the oppression of their English and Welsh foremen at a time when wages for a danger-filled day “in the hole” amounted to about fifty cents. The name was derived from a similar secret society, formed in mid-19th century Ireland, whose members frequently dressed in women’s clothing to better ambush the rent collectors. The power of the American Mollies peaked during the 1870s. They are credited with about 150 murders, and incited the mining communities to sporadic mob violence. They even organized strikes in unsuccessful attempts to bring the great mining and railroad companies to their knees.
Finally, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, hired by the mine owners, sent an undercover agent named James McParlen into the anthracite coal fields. He successfully infiltrated the Mollie organization, and lived to testify at trials in Carbon and Schuylkill Counties which sent some dozen Mollies to the gallows.
“Yellow Jack” Donohue had been convicted of the 1871 murder of Morgan Powell, a foreman for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company in Summit Hill, a tiny Carbon County community.
His three companions on the gallows had been found guilty of killing a mine foreman named John P. Jones.
Newspaper accounts of the executions record that “Yellow Jack,” Doyle and Kelly displayed no remorse as they faced the hangman’s noose. Only Campbell protested his innocence.
As they dragged him from his cell on the first floor of the county jail, Campbell flattened the palm of his left hand against the damp plaster wall.
“This hand print,” he vowed, “will remain here as proof of my innocence. He shouted this vow over and over as the sheriff’s deputies dragged him to the gibbet in the jail yard.
Campbell dropped two feet, six inches through the trap door. He took fourteen minutes to die. When the county coroner pronounced him dead at last, his body was cut down and taken home for burial.
The years passed. The Mollie Maguires gave way to the United Mine Workers of America with its less violent tactics and more successful strikes. Alexander Campbell’s hand print remained.
After the turn of the century the palm print on the jail wall became something of a legend in the anthracite coal regions. Tourists from the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains made the pilgrimage to Mauch Chunk to see for themselves the curious legacy left by Alexander Campbell.
The response of local law officers to this notoriety was less than enthusiastic. The open sore of Molly-Maguireism was slow to heal.
Anti-Irish sentiment persisted into the twentieth century.
In 1930 a Pennsylvania Dutchman named Biegler was elected sheriff in Carbon County. Biegler was known to be anti-Irish and anti-Catholic. He was determined to put an end to the legend which had grown up around the so-called ‘miracle’ in the first floor cell.
One night he brought the county road gang into the jail and had them tear out the wall that bore the bizarre shadow of a human hand. When the rubble was cleared, the road gang put in a new wall and covered it with fresh plaster. Sheriff Biegler retired early the next morning, confident that he had obliterated the noxious Irish ‘miracle.’
When he awoke and visited the cell later that day, he was appalled to find that the fresh plaster was marred by the vague outline of a hand. By evening a black palm was clearly visible on the cell wall. Or so the story goes. Witnesses who will corroborate the strange incident are hard to find.
But a more recent attempt to obliterate the hand from the wall can be corroborated. In 1960 Sheriff Charles Neast took up residence in the jailhouse in Jim Thorpe. (The name Mauch Chunk was changed to Jim Thorpe in 1954 to honor the great Indian athlete.) To test the authenticity of the 83-year-old print, he covered it with a green latex paint.
As Ferdinand “Bull” Herman, the current jail turn-key, is pleased to point out
to visitors, the shadow hand has once again reemerged and is clearly visible.
The Carbon County Jail, built in 1869, looks the same today as when it housed four condemned Irish terrorists nearly a century ago. In fact it was used by Paramount Pictures in 1968 for several scenes (including the inevitable gallows scene) in the movie titled “The Molly Maguires.”
The jail still has a few prisoners — a duo of dope addicts and a local gent who wrote some bad checks — but no prisoner has agreed to sleep in the cell containing the hand print. No cot is kept in the cell. The ponderous steel-grating door is opened only to accommodate tourists. According to “Bull” Herman the number of visitors to the cell grows each year.
“People come from all over to see the hand,” he says, “Had some folks in from Georgia not long ago. It seems people around here have begun to forget about it. But people from out of state hear about it somehow.”
No doubt the Paramount movie contributed to renewed interest in the Mollie Maguires. Sadly, the film overlooked the hand print. But the legend of this eerie, black silhouette survives by word of mouth. “Bull” Herman is summoned to the massive, black and gold front doors of the jail by curious tourists more frequently every year.
It’s almost as if some power we know little about has decreed that the legacy of Alexander Campbell — the hanged Mollie who swore his innocence — will remain to be seen by succeeding generations of Americans. And will remain to thrill and haunt the sons and daughters of the miners who used to dig the Black Gold.
Excerpt from the diary of Maggie Mulhearn, dated June 13, 1973:
My silly parents wouldn’t take me to see the hand print. They said it wasn’t the sort of thing a teenaged girl should be interested in. I swear! They’d still have me playing with dolls if they could !! And I’m 13 !!!
Thank God I can always get Gram and Pop Pop to do whatever I want them to. After Sunday dinner, I helped Gram with the dishes. Then we all got into Pop Pop’s new Impala and drove to Jim Thorpe. It’ll be our little secret, Pop Pop said and winked at me as he turned round to back the car out of his driveway.
What a creepy place the jail is ! And that old guy, the Bull !! Well, he’s really just a skinny old man. Really, I guess it’s the place that makes him seem like such a creep. I kept wanting to call him Egor ! Probably he’s somebody’s Pop Pop. But how can he hang around that place all the time ?? I mean, I know it’s his job. But REALLY !!!
The door actually creaked when he opened it. Boris Karloff ! And the smell! It made me think of Pop Pop’s socks when he comes into the kitchen in the summertime after working in his garden all morning and pulls off his old work-boots and then yanks off those white socks that he owns a thousand pairs of. Anyway, that’s how it smelled.
Then “the Bull” (ha, ha) took us to the cell. The bars must weigh a ton, they’re so thick. They creaked a little, too, when he opened them. Besides the regular bars there was some kind of steel mesh attached to them. I asked Mr. Bull and he said that had been added on to all the cell bars much later than when
the Molly Maguires were here.
The hand print was pretty high up on the wall and I asked him if he’d mind reaching up and putting his hand on the hand print. Then I took his picture. I think he was flattered. I think this makes him feel important, like some kind of celebrity or something.
I thought the whole thing was a lot of fun. But Pop Pop and Gram seemed a little upset when we left the jail. When we got back to their house I asked them about it. And then they told me about my Great Great Grandfather.
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