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History for sale: Jail was the site of Molly Maguires hanging

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    The former Carbon County Prison on West Broadway in Jim Thorpe is for sale.Made famous as the site of the hanging of seven Irish coal miners known as Molly Maguires in the 1800s, the jail was used by the county as its official prison from 1871 until 1995. It has since been run as a museum by Thomas and Betty Lou McBride. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS

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    The former Carbon County Prison on West Broadway in Jim Thorpe is for sale.Made famous as the site of the hanging of seven Irish coal miners known as Molly Maguires in the 1800s, the jail was used by the county as its official prison from 1871 until 1995. It has since been run as a museum by Thomas and Betty Lou McBride. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS

Published August 10. 2018 11:40PM

 

etty Lou McBride wanted nothing to do with Carbon County’s old prison on West Broadway when her husband Thomas bought it for $160,000 in 1995.

She called it “dirty, unappealing and depressing.”

But on Thursday afternoon, Betty was momentarily brought to tears at the thought of selling the 147-year-old building, a decision the McBrides recently made.

“It’s going to be very hard emotionally to let go,” she said. “I thought we’d only be here 5-7 years because we’re project people. We fell in love with the people. It became a challenge. How can we be a little bit better this year? How can we make things more interesting? I think we’ve rounded it out to a really nice business.”

History

The jail, made famous as the site of the hanging of seven Irish coal miners known as Molly Maguires in the 1800s, was used by the county as its official prison from 1871 until 1995. When the county built a new jail in Nesquehoning, the McBrides stepped in and turned the jail into a tourist destination, telling of the building’s lore including a handprint left behind on a cell wall by one of the Molly Maguires shortly before their hanging.

Since then, around 24,000 people came through the doors each year in the roughly five-to-six months the museum is open annually.

Though the McBrides are in their 24th year running the museum, that role hardly ever came to be for Betty.

“I was never coming in here when Tom bought it,” she said. “He was good friends with Joe Boyle and they were talking about the town and preservation and what would happen to the jail. Tom came home and said he wanted to buy it. I said you may buy it as an investment, but don’t expect me there. After the prisoners left and it was cleaned up, it became our building and I was able to appreciate the beauty of the building itself.

When we bought it, I anticipated having my sewing machine in the kitchen and then when someone would come in, I’d let them go through or take them through. Boy has it changed since that idea.”

Stories hit home

A wide variety of visitors have stopped to learn about the jail’s history or even reflect on time spent in the building.

Guests, McBride said, have ranged from former prisoners to people who work at the Pentagon.

The jail has been about much more than preserving history, however. About 10 kids a year have gained summer employment there, for many their first job, giving tours and running the cash register.

“A lot of young people from the area have worked here and learned and benefited directly from tourism,” Betty said. “I get really upset when I hear people say tourism doesn’t do anything for the town.”

The Molly Maguires were a secret organization, composed mainly of Irish Catholics, that started one of the first labor movements in the country. The men hanged at the jail were accused of murdering the management of the coal mines where they worked, and vandalizing the mines and mining equipment. They proclaimed their innocence and many still believe they were falsely accused.

Working at the jail day in and day out can make one lose appreciation for the storied developed within its walls. Betty herself became guilty of that.

“When you tell the story five times a day, it takes time to stop and think these were real guys,” she said. “They were scared stiff going up there. They knew they were going to see their maker. I often go in the cell block and look at that gallows and think how scared they were. They tried to make life better for the rest of us.”

What’s next

Having devoted nearly a quarter-century to tourism at the jail, the McBrides would like to see that stay its main use.

They would have even considered turning the building over to family, but the timing didn’t work out.

“It’s just time to turn it over to the next generation,” Betty said. “ I can’t wait for my next generation. Our three daughters all have their own businesses. My grandson isn’t quite old enough. So it’s time to sell.”

The building is listed at $750,000 and while there has been interest, nothing is set in stone.

Before long, however, a tough choice may be on the horizon for the McBrides.

“I know what I hope the future holds,” Betty said. “I would like to keep it in tourism in some way. If someone walked in and handed us cash, would we take it for a non-tourism purpose? I don’t know the answer to that right now. I think that is why we haven’t sold it before this. We keep not wanting to make that choice if it comes to it.”

Tours remain available while the building is for sale.

The museum is open Thursday through Tuesday from noon to 4:30 p.m. through Labor Day weekend, and only on weekends in September and October.

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