The Old Franklin Jail is a cool little museum full of history related to Chambersburg PA and Franklin County, including, of course, about the jail itself. We were there to tour the jail in advance of a ghost hunt later that evening.
Like many other such old buildings, the Old Franklin Jail also serves as the local historical society museum. And there’s a lot of history — some 300 years’ worth.
60 days for damn foolishnessDon Haugh
5/19/1945 – 7/19/45
Chambersburg’s settlement by Europeans began in 1730. Benjamin Chambers built a grist mill and saw mill by a waterfall where Falling Spring Creek joined Conococheague Creek. With the mills spurring the local economy, the town developed on both sides of these creeks.
Fast forward more than a century to 1859. That’s when John Brown and his group briefly made Chambersburg one of their headquarters prior to the raid on Harpers Ferry. In fact, associated with the museum is the John Brown – Mary Rittner Boarding House. During the Civil War, the town was the only major northern community burned down by Confederate forces in retaliation for U.S. Gen. Sherman’s famous March to the Sea in Georgia.
Thus, there was much more information and exhibits than I was expecting at the Old Franklin Jail. The exhibits covered Chambersburg’s contributions to the Civil War, life in Chambersburg in the 1800s, as well as the Underground Railroad.
The Old Franklin Jail
The community built the historic jail in 1818 as a two-story, brick building, topped by a cupola. In 1880, the jail added a three-story cell block. The sheriff and his family lived in one half of the original building; the rest served as the jail with cells on three levels. The jail served the community from 1818 through 1970.
A 20-foot high wall surrounds the jail yard, which is divided into two sections. Surprisingly, the sheriffs over the years only executed seven prisoners on the premises. The last, William Reed, hanged in April 1912, less than a year after he killed his former sweetheart, Sarah C. Mathna. Before that, the community executed two men in 1879.
During the 150 years of service, The Old Franklin Jail housed numerous local criminals, including Captain John Cook and the creatively named “Lewis the Robber.” Cook was one of John Brown’s men who was captured after the unsuccessful raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
During the tour, we saw the sheriff’s offices and living quarters, an old recreated pharmacy, several cells, the gallows and stocks, dungeon and kitchen.
For me, the highlight of the tour was reading the inmates’ graffiti on the walls of the old cells. One inmate recorded days of his meals:
- Monday: Oat-meal — noodles — B soup
- Tuesday: Ralston — cabbage — F. potatoes
- Wednesday: Meat — B. Beans — Boil Rice
- Saturday: corn flakes — S. Beans — Tomatoes
- Sunday: breakfast and lunch obscured — Beef & Gravy
I don’t know why it’s always such a thrill, but I especially enjoyed going into the historic jail cells.
The cellar, or as our tour guide called it, the “Dungeon,” contains five domed cells with rings in floors used to shackle troublesome prisoners. Oral tradition suggests these cells were also used as hiding places on the Underground Railroad to shelter freedom seekers enroute to freedom in the north.
The Old Jail and the Underground Railroad
In fact, one of the coolest aspects of the Old Jail was that it served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The lower level, otherwise known as “The Dungeon,” provided hiding places for the Underground Railroad. The jail apparently had built a fake fireplace in front of one of the cells to hide the freedom seekers. We found the information about the Underground Railroad particularly interesting. You’re likely to enjoy hearing about the bravery of escaped slaves and those who helped them.
Know Before You Go
The building is three floors. Steep, irregular steps lead downstairs to the ‘dungeon’ area. Other stairs may be less steep, but equally narrow. Tours last a little over an hour. Call ahead to ensure there’s a docent available to take you on a tour of the museum: 717-264-1667
Getting there: 175 E King St, Chambersburg, PA
Hours: May – October, Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; November – April, Thursday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Website: Franklin Historical Society