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 said, 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 said.
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.