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Ghosts of Luzerne County past

By Mary Therese Biebel From The Times Leader

October 22, 2013

Just last Sunday, Bob Stevenson said one of the guides leading a ghost walk through Old Mauch Chunk, also known as present-day Jim Thorpe, heard a tourist ask if he was going to “tell us anything about Mary.”


“Why, yes,” the guide said. “You’ll hear a couple stories about Mary Packer Cummings, who willed her house to the borough when she died in 1912.”


Did this wealthy lady ever wear a black dress and a shawl? The person wanted to know.


“Why, yes,” the guide said. “Why would you be asking so specifically?”


“Because she’s standing right behind you,” came the reply.


If that little anecdote gives you a shiver, you’d probably enjoy a weekend stroll through Wilkes-Barre or Jim Thorpe, where guided ghost tours are taking place this month. Both municipalities have the tours in the downtown historic districts where so much living and dying – even hangings – have taken place.


The old Carbon County Jail in Jim Thorpe was a setting for the execution of several Molly Maguires, allegedly members of a secret society who had plotted to murder mine bosses. Ghost tour guides in Jim Thorpe are likely to tell the story of one of those men who died hoping for a reprieve from the governor. “They didn’t have telephones,” said Stevenson, who coordinates the tours to benefit the Rotary Club. “Someone would have to run half a mile up the hill from the train station with the telegram.”


Just before the man in question was about to be hanged, Stevenson said, there came a banging at the jail door. “It’s just Mrs. Sharp, trying to get in,” the jailers said, ignoring the knocks. Intent upon keeping out the soon-to-be-widow, they executed Mr. Sharp and only later opened the door to find the messenger standing there with the reprieve.


In downtown Wilkes-Barre, too, guides from the Luzerne County Historical Society can point to the scene of hangings as well as to a site designed for less severe punishment. Stocks and a whipping post once stood near River and Northampton streets.


“There’s no record they were ever used,” historian Bill Lewis said. “But the settlers from Connecticut probably brought the idea from New England, where they were common.


“They probably served as a deterrent,” Lewis continued, speculating a long-ago resident could have his or her head and arms enclosed in the stocks for a period of time because of petty theft, lying, or even gossiping.


In his research for this year’s tours, Lewis uncovered some facts about Timothy Pickering, “a gloomy, grumpy kind of character” whose 18th-century mission was to carve Luzerne County out of what had been a much larger Northumberland County.


“His grandfather or great-grandfather was on the town council in Salem at the time of the witchcraft trials,” Lewis noted.


In a more lighthearted reference to witches, Lewis will be happy to tell you about area native Marion Lorne, who brought her acting skills and her own collection of doorknobs to the cast of the 1960s sitcom “Bewitched.”


Another name sure to crop up when Lewis leads the Wilkes-Barre ghost walks is one Charles Betterley, who witnessed so much history first-hand that Lewis thinks of him as “the Forrest Gump of Gettysburg.”


Born in Berwick, Betterley came to Wilkes-Barre at age 15, intending to work as a carpenter. “In 1862, like a lot of local folks, he enlisted in Col. Dana’s group, ended up at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and was wounded at Gettysburg.”


After treatment at a field hospital, Betterley returned to service and was wounded again at the Battle of the Wilderness, where he witnessed the escape of John Mosby, a Confederate known as “the Gray Ghost” for his pattern of inflicting damage in a raid and quickly departing.


Betterley eventually went to Washington, D.C., where he attended a show at Ford’s Theater on the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Because he was in uniform, he was immediately recruited to help search for the assassin. Later, after serving in the honor guard at Lincoln’s funeral, Betterley moved to Pottsville, where he was called to jury duty for some of the Molly Maguire trials – which took place there as well as in Jim Thorpe.


Bend your ear to these spooky tales


You were supposed to drive along Suscon Road and flash your high beams near the site of an old railroad bridge — and maybe you’d be rewarded by the sights and sounds of a floating apparition called the “Suscon Screamer.”


At least that’s one version of a local ghost story. When Jennifer Moran, 36, of West Pittston was a teen, she remembers piling into a car with a group of friends and she thinks that’s where they went.


“I don’t think any of us saw anything,” she recalls. “We were just laughing so hard.”


Whether you’re a serious ghost-hunter, or just in it for a few laughs, what better time is there than the Halloween season to search out a haunted spot?


Here are a few suggestions:


• For the Suscon Screamer: Times Leader archives advised driving along Suscon Road between Dupont and Mountain Lake. The identifying railroad bridge has been demolished, but you might still see the screamer floating about, and you might hear her moaning or screaming. According to various legends, this poor creature may have been jilted at the altar, murdered on her wedding day or killed on the way to the prom.


• For Mrs. Huber and her chauffeur: This Wilkes-Barre pair of employer and employee, who really did exist, were tending to a household task that involved gasoline. Unfortunately, their chore went awry, and the two died of terrible burns. The house where this took place will be pointed out on Wilkes-Barre Ghost Tours. Strange shadows and sounds reportedly are evident there, every now and then.


• Meanwhile, back at the jail: More than one person, it is said, has toured the old Carbon County Jail in Jim Thorpe and felt a hand on his or her shoulder. Turning around, the visitor sees no one. Could it be the ghost of the same accused Molly Maguire who placed his hand on the wall and vowed that its imprint would never depart as evidence of his innocence? The handprint, of course, is still on the cell wall.


Mary Packer Cummings. At the other end of the economic spectrum from the condemned miner was this Carbon County woman, so wealthy she could afford to take her player piano along on ocean voyages. According to the custom of her day, she wouldn’t have been able to inherit her father’s fortune if she remained single so she entered a marriage of convenience. Judging from portraits, she did favor dark dresses, and her spirit may be a little restless even today.