Mysterious Handprint on Prison Cell Wall
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.
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.