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Come and Go As You Please

The Old Jail, one of Chambersburg's oldest surviving buildings, is host to a wealth of history.

by Joe Weagley

The windows on the right side of the building, where the prisoners were kept, are still covered with bars. The left side of the building with the bar-free windows was where the sheriff or warden lived. All the way from the basement dungeons to the cupola on the roof, the structure is nothing if not sturdy. Perched atop the solid cupola is a weather vane featuring two crossed keys that inspired prisoners to nickname the Old Jail “The Cross Keys Hotel.”

Nowadays, committing a crime isn’t the compulsory way to take a look around the Old Jail. And popping in may not earn you any praise from those of ill repute, but if history is your game, it does impart a unique look into the past. Those interested in what the Old Jail has to offer run the gamut. Some are local, some are from the other side of the country, and some from another country altogether. “It seems they find us on their electronic gadgets,” says Docent Coordinator Joyce Horst. Among the regular visitors are the eighth graders from Greencastle-Antrim School District, and all the fifth graders from the Chambersburg Area School District.

Built in 1818 at the corner of East King and Second Street in Chambersburg, the Old Jail has been a landmark in the area for almost two centuries. From the outside, the prison soundly displays the symmetry of its Georgian design, which was built using bricks probably made from red clay mined from the banks of the Falling Spring and Conococheague creeks.

“If you cut the building down the middle, it is the same on the right hand side as it is on the left,” says Ann Hull, the executive director of the Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny, which calls the Old Jail home. “It’s balanced and has a very formal architectural style.”

During its 152 years of operating as the local lockup, scores of criminals hung their hats at the Old Jail, and some of them even managed to escape — but not quite as heroically as in the movies. David Lewis, a counterfeiter and thief known to history as Lewis the Robber, became the jail’s first escapee. He finagled his way out because a key was accidently left in a lock, says Ann.

Lewis’ time on the lamb, and this earth, was short-lived though. He was recaptured near his hometown of Carlisle, Pa. The “Robin Hood of Pennsylvania,” as he came to be known in certain circles, was shot during his apprehension and developed a case of gangrene that led to his death.

Captain John Cook also spent a brief stint in the Old Jail, following his participation in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Though he managed to escape, his fate was similar to that of Lewis. He was soon taken prisoner by slave catchers in Mont Alto, Pa., who released the Captain to Virginia authorities who were in Franklin County with a warrant for his arrest. His captors brought him to Charles Town where he was hanged the same year as the famous abolitionist John Brown, Ann says.

What the Old Jail may have lacked in security, it made up for in durability. On July 31, 1864, it was one of the few buildings left standing after the burning of Chambersburg by Confederate soldiers. In 1880, the jail was expanded to include a new cellblock with 30 cells on three tiers on the west side of the exercise yard with a high limestone wall to enclose the yard. The east yard still displays the gallows that was last used on April 30, 1912 to hang convicted murderer William Reed. The west yard has undergone a little beautification and is now a Colonial garden, a Japanese garden, and a fragrance garden, which are maintained by the Chambersburg Garden Club.

In 1970, after a new Franklin County prison was built, the Old Jail was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and is currently home to a genealogy library, a museum, as well as the Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny. Made up of four rooms on the second floor, the genealogy library is first-rate. “People come from all over the world to do research,” says Ann.

On the museum side of the Old Jail, Joyce, the docent coordinator, has been volunteering for 10 years, training new tour guides, and arranging group tours. “The exhibits are educating everyone to what life was like 100 to 200 years ago,” she says, “Both inside a jail and at home.”

Among the exhibits are a Civil War gallery and a photo exhibit, a former doctor’s office featuring an array of vintage apothecary bottles, and a music room containing three old-fashioned organs and a Victrola gramophone. In the 1880 cellblock, an exhibit titled “The Conductor Is Calling” highlights the history of the Underground Railroad. According to legend, one of the basement dungeons was used as a hiding place for escaped slaves in the years before the Civil War.

Of course not every aspect of the Old Jail was built to last forever. As part of the maintenance program, the rooftop cupola was removed for restoration in mid-December.  The reconditioned cupola will soon top The Old Jail again, and will once again crown the building with so many tales to tell.

The Old Jail

Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny
175 East King Street
Chambersburg, Pennsylvania 17201
Facebook: Franklin Historical
Twitter: @FranklinCoHist

Museum Hours
November through April
Thursday to Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

May through October
Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Library Hours
November through April
Tuesday 5 p.m.–8 p.m.
Thursday to Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

May through October
Tuesday 10 a.m.–8 p.m.
Wednesday to Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

For Guided Tours
Adults $5.00
Children $4.00
Children under 6 are admitted free
Family of three or more is admitted for $10.00

Special group tours for 10 or more can also be arranged. Call for more information.