Weird News, Ghosts and the Paranormal.

Mysterious Handprint on Prison Cell Wall

The Handprint

As someone born in the North East of England, I am no stranger to either coal mining or the need for Unions to protect the rights of workers. This story therefore has a lot of resonance with me, even if the coal mining in question took place over 130 years ago and several thousand miles away in Pennsylvania state.

The story goes that in the 1870s a group of Irish coal miners, all part of an Irish Pro-Union organisation called the Molly Maguires, were accused of murder. It is such a well known tale that there was even a movie about it starring Sean Connery. Accounts agree that the circumstances of their arrest and trial between 1876 and 1878 were somewhat shady with an investigation carried out by the Pinkerton Detective agency (a private concern) and arrests made by the Coal and Iron Police (a paid militia run by the companies that owned the mines). There were also suspicions of Jury tampering (the composition of the jury was composed of ethnic groups such as German and Welsh immigrants who had a distaste for the Irish) and the judge was reputed to have a heavy anti-Molly bias.

The men protested their innocence until the very end, though with circumstances like those described it is really no surprise that a guilty verdict was delivered and a sentence of death handed down.  One of the men, Alexander Campbell, decided to make a more visual demonstration of his innocence. As he was collected to be taken to the gallows he proclaimed his innocence and slapped his hand against the wall of the cell. This left an impression on the wall and as he was taken away he said “There is proof of my words. That mark of mine will never be wiped out. It will remain forever to shame the county for hanging an innocent man.”

That mark, a black handprint, is still there today despite several efforts to eradicate it that including one warden allegedly knocking down part of the wall and re-plastering it in 1930. The handprint apparently reappeared in the same place. Experts have examined the phenomenon since that time, including a forensic scientist called James Starrs and a police chemist by the name of Jeff Kercheval who did “everything short of painting over the print or literally taking it off the wall,” (James Starrs) . They failed to find anything that could explain why the mark persists after checking for a number of paints, oils and pigments. However, following a study using infrared photography, he did say that there was no sign of the wall ever being painted over and mentioned that the handprint is a left hand print while the anecdotal evidence claims Campbell used his right hand.

Damp mould

So, can this mysterious hand print be explained? There is at least one explanation for dark marks on walls other than inks or pigments – damp mould. I imagine it is fairly common in old prisons where the conditions are perfect for it. As a biologist that was my first thought when I saw the pictures of this handprint and it might explain why it keeps coming back – the mould simply regrows and even knocking the wall down and re-plastering it without doing something about the damp (such as installing a damp proofing layer which I doubt a 1930s prison warder would bother to do) won’t stop that from happening. However, this does not explain everything. It does not, for example, tell us how it formed that particular shape at coincidentally the same time as Campbell hit the wall nor how after more than 100 years that entire wall is not covered in the same mould. I am also guessing that at least one person, maybe James Starrs, would have already thought of that and tested it. There is also a bit of doubt in the evidence linking this to the Molly Maguires too, not least the reversal of the handprint, which may suggest that the shape has nothing to do with Alexander Campbell at all and is merely coincidentally shaped like a hand. The tale of Campbell striking the wall is one that might inspire those who visit the cell so they are primed to see a pattern where there is none, in much the same was as we see patterns in clouds. Certainly the accounts of this phenomenon I have read so far seem to pay attention to the evidence that supports a paranormal explanation while not discussing the results of any tests that may cast doubt on this conclusion. I am, of course, merely speculating here and would be interested in any comments that might add more evidence to that which is discussed here.

Whatever the true cause of this phenomena it certainly presents an intriguing mystery.

You can go to see the handprint for yourself should you happen to be in Pennsylvania. The Prison closed in 1995 and was reopened as a museum. Naturally enough, for a place where executions took place on a regular basis, it does have a reputation for being haunted. You can take a ghost tour for the very reasonable price of $10 and learn about the hand print and all the other strange phenomena seen at the prison. So, if you happen to be near Jim Thorpe in Pennsylvania you can go and see for yourself and maybe come up with your own theories. If you cannot travel all that way, there is a convenient video of the prison on You Tube showing the hand that can be seen below:

D.A Lascelles is a writer, teacher and blogger who knows about damp mould because he is a biologist and also had it crawling up his wall until the house got damp proofed. He contributed a short story to the   Pirates and Swashbucklers Anthology and is also the writer of the Paranormal Romance novella, Transitions. He also writes fantasy wargames and about UK Cult TV  as well as maintaining his own blog, Lurking Musings, in a haphazard fashion.


6 responses

  1. Wow that is incredible. Thanks for this. I had never even heard of this one and I live in the UK. I have seen the one with the guy standing his foot into the ground in protest of his being accused of treason or something. They were dragging him off to be executed or something like that. But this one is new to me. Thank you so much for sharing this story. Poor miners never have had an easy time of it.

    August 1, 2013 at 4:15 AM

    • I had never heard of it until a few days ago either… but then I never really paid much attention to coal mining in Pennsylvania. Was surprised that there was a film about it too.

      Thank you for commenting.

      August 1, 2013 at 4:30 AM

      • I’ve got books from all over the world about the werid and Paranormal and this one has never been mentioned. Stories like that, that produce this sort of evidence that matches the story or urban legend always touch a nerve. There is always soemthing about these weird and unusal stories that makes it seem…sort of real. By which I mean…it puts actual human emotion to the story. Did his dispair really do that? Was her grief so strong, was his anger and determination that strong that they were able to change the very fabric of stone or brick or metal etc….I have been saying for years that our brains are capable of far more than we realise. I know I can move things with my mind when I am really angry and my husband and I can break electrical things when we are upset, frustrated or contemplative. So I have no doubt this sort of thing can be done. It just fascinates me, it truly does. So Thank you for this. I learnt something new today 🙂

        August 1, 2013 at 4:39 AM

  2. Spiritchild: Oh, I know. I have the same thing – loads of books on this and lots of reading and it has never come onto my radar either.

    It also fascinates me, mainly because I have a ‘there are things on this earth that cannot be explained by your philosophy’ approach. I agree, there are things out there we cannot explain, though that does not mean that they are not eventually going to be explicable. This is why I like to examine these things with a scientific eye and try to see if there are any rational explanations. Sometimes there is but other times there are still questions to be answered. This is one of the latter.

    August 1, 2013 at 4:58 AM

    • I couldn’t agree more. I see the dead and live a Paranormal life since childhood but I always say to clients and others ‘Don’t just take everything you hear or see as lore, you must use a scientific mind and be open minded while using common sense as well’. Too much is blamed on Spirits or Demons that has a perfectly resonable explanation. Common sense and Science while being open minded is the key to understanding The Paranormal. Like I believe Big Foot exists but there has only been two bits of evidence I have seen in the years of so called evidence that I believe to be true and that’s because it was Scientifically proven to be of an Unknown Ape Species. But I also have enough common sense to know that Science doesn’t know everything and my common sense tells me If that photo or video of a Big Foot looks like a man in a suit, it probably is. I however feel intuitively The Actual Big Foots of the world aren’t stupid enough to allow themselves to be seen or caught because they know what would happen if they did and it would put thier entire species in danger. Man is a stupid Ape and instead of wanting to study them and learn from them as to how they managed to live so long under the radar, we would hunt them for cash and to show off at county fairs. And they know this. Same with Nessie (In my blog I explain that my Ancestral cemetery is on the Dark Side of Loch Ness, so called because Alister Crowley owned Boleskin House across from our Boleskin Cemetery and he did rituals in the cemetery) I live about 2 hours from it. My Mums memorial bench over looks Loch Ness and we always look for Nessie but I don’t think they are stupid enough to show themselves either. Myth and Legend always has some truth in it but you have to be careful how you choose to approach it all because it can be too easy to get caught up in the fantasy.

      August 1, 2013 at 5:12 AM

  3. Pingback: Ghostly Pics: San Antonio Railroad Ghosts | News From The Spirit World

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