Franklin Co.’s Old Jail makes any time spooky

Marie Gullard

The kitchen of Franklin County’s Old Jail has been preserved. It’s said the historic site in Chambersburg, Pa., is haunted by tortured souls. (Franklin Co. Tourism)

So, you don’t believe in ghosts? Prove yourself right — or wrong — with a visit to Franklin County, Pa. 

The first settlers ventured into the south central Pennsylvania area in 1730, while the county seat of Chambersburg was founded a half-century later. The area’s illustrious past includes attacks by the indigenous Native Americans, a haven for runaway slaves (including abolitionist John Brown), and the burning of Chambersburg by Confederate soldiers in 1864. 

With so much history and unrest, it would appear likely that if ghosts do exist, there would be at least a handful or so smattered in and around the county’s small towns. 

Chambersburg’s Old Jail is said to be haunted by the tortured souls of the condemned dating back to its construction in 1818. A sense of tension permeates the basement area, used then as dungeons where shackling and beatings were everyday events.

“Some people are very sensitive and don’t like to go down to the dungeon,” said Ann Hull, director of the Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny, now housed in the Old Jail. “I had a Western Maryland Penitentiary guard come one time and he told me he wouldn’t stay down there. He felt things touching his legs.”

There were many who drew their last breaths in the dungeon and at the gallows in the courtyard. A psychic visited the jail and experienced an apparition of bodies piled up in front of a fireplace on the first floor. Afterward, she was informed that the room had been a doctor’s office back in the day. Orbs manifest themselves in photographs, often near the place where names and dates have been etched into the concrete walls. 

Hull chooses to ignore the noises and moans she sometimes hears when working alone in the jail, telling herself they are from the street, rather than from the dungeon below her office.

The historical society also purchased a three-bay clapboard house in town where John Brown and his cohorts planned their raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Now a recreated period home, footsteps are often heard by office workers on the second floor. Yet nothing and no one is ever there. Additionally, workmen have claimed to see shadows at a side glance, only to have the apparition disappear at full glance.

Spirits in other locales

The Allison-Antrim Museum in nearby Greencastle was the sight of hauntings long before the museum’s board of directors purchased the 1860 property in 1998. Faces on walls, attic door latches that lock and unlock without assistance, children laughing when none were in sight, apparitions — all have been experienced at the museum. 

“There was a visitor who remarked that she really appreciated the way the actors walked around in period dress,” the museum’s Bonnie Shockey recalled. “I didn’t hire anybody!”

Still, the visitor described, in perfect detail, the dress of the two people, right down to a gentleman’s top hat.

“I tell people to be aware, (they) might see or hear something,” Shockey continued, “but I never expect to go in and be surprised.”

Still, her theory is that the ghosts feed on the fears of the people who experience the hauntings.

“If I hear something or see something, I just acknowledge the presence and things become calm,” she said.

Many places throughout the county are the site of hauntings. Mischievous ghosts “play” in the gift shop in the Chambersburg Heritage Center after closing. Books are removed from the shelves and piled on the floor. They are replaced during the day, only to have staff find them on the floor the next morning. An interesting observation is that the books are always by the same author.

Many believe the Capitol Theatre, which opened in Chambersburg in 1927 and now serves as a cultural arts center, is haunted by the ghost of Wilford Binder, the theater’s first organist who died in the apartment above the venue. People say they feel a person sitting beside them when no one is present. Lights and the sound system will go on and off, only to function normally once an audience arrives.

After extensive research, Athena Varounis, a retired special agent with the FBI, wrote the book Franklin County Ghosts. Many of the county’s hauntings are chronicled, and it makes for a spooky read.

Visitors with an interest in the paranormal can make a weekend of ghost hunting during this Halloween season. The county is filled with fine dining, shopping, and quaint bed-and-breakfasts. The staff at the Franklin County Visitors Bureau can fill you in on upcoming events and help plan an unforgettable visit.

For more information

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