Saturday, March 29, 2008

Alexander Campbell's Handprint

alexander campbell
Alexander Campbell from Wikipedia

Carbon County in the 1870s was no place for the meek. The flint hearted Protestant mine owners and the burly Irish Catholic miners were squared off over unionizing the coal fields. Both had blood on their hands. The Molly Maguires did their own violent deeds while the owners used the Pinkertons and the local law to terrorize the miners.

In 1877, four Molly Maguires were tried and convicted of murder in a trial in front of a kangaroo court. One of those condemned to die was Alexander Campbell, a hotel owner. As he headed to the gallows, he slapped his hand against the cell wall of the Carbon County jail and proclaimed his innocence, saying his handprint would stay on the wall forever to remind everyone of the injustice being carried out that day. It has.

Sheriffs have torn down the wall, painted over and scrubbed off the handprint. It keeps coming back. The jail is now a museum, and the cell is closed off. But if you peek through the iron door of Cell 17, you'll see the handprint. Campbell swore it would last as long as there was a jail, and he's been right so far.

The town was called Mauch Chunk then. It's Jim Thorpe now. The handprint is a famous phenomena, well represented on the web and written up by Matt Lake in Weird Pennsylvania and Patty Wilson in Haunted Pennsylvania among others.

Both branches of the Pennsylvania legislature passed resolutions condemning the trials of Alexander Campbell and the other accused Molly Maguires as being unconstitutional a couple of years ago. It was just a little late to be of any help to Campbell and the others who were executed on the infamous "Day of the Rope". His handprint still bears mute witness to that.


Joan Campion said...

Nice to find you. I am the writer/editor of Welcome To Penn's Woods (, was looking for more about Duffy's Cut and about Alexander Campbell--and there you were. I'm going to follow you, and to recommend you to others. It's too much to say I am going to link to you; I'd love to, but I am a technoklutz and don't know how.
(Also, being the author of the Carbon County history "Smokestacks and Black Diamonds," I've had to deal with the jailhouse hand before...)
Now, about Duffy's Cut. This is a BIG story; I heard about it originally through NPR, then read about it in the Smithsonian magazine. I contacted Professor Watson some months ago. It DOES seem to me that your writer is telling more about the role of the nuns than anyone really knows.
Joan Campion

Ron Ieraci said...

Hey, Joan, nice having you stop by. As I'm sure you know, the state has had a rough history regarding its Irish. Here in Pittsburgh, the initial settlers from the Emerald Isle were "Scotch-Irish," meaning that they were Protestant and so named to differentiate them from the more rough-hewn Catholic Irish. So I guess the strife of the homeland carried over across the Atlantic, and it certainly shows in Commonwealth history, spooky and otherwise.