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Gallows refurbished in Pa.

August 06, 2000

Gallows refurbished in Pa.



By DON AINES / Staff Writer, Chambersburg


CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - On April 30, 1912, William Reed dropped to eternity through the trap door of the gallows behind the walls of Franklin County's Old Jail, the last of at least seven men to meet their maker at the end of a rope during the county's history.

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As Lillian Colletta watched progress being made on the renovation of the wooden gallows in the Old Jail's courtyard last week, she said more research needs to be done on its history. The Kittochtinny Historical Society president knows a little bit about the historical structure, but adds, "Most people haven't seen one, and I need to do some research on when it was built," she said.

For the past month Earl Burns and Larry Lowry have been making repairs on the gallows, replacing the flooring, some cracked or rotted cross beams and angle supports and refurbishing the trap door mechanism. On Saturday, Lowry predicted the work would be completed early this week.

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Both men refrained from indulging in too much gallows humor in recounting the history of the device.

"We think it was built just prior to 1912 for the hanging of William Reed," Lowry said.

Burns said, however, it could date back to 1879, when the county carried out two executions. He found records indicating it was disassembled and stored in the courthouse before Reed, 42, was hung for the murder in Mont Alto, Pa., of his girlfriend, Sara Mathna.

"Then in 1916 Washington County (Md.) had a fellow named John Brown they were going to execute, so Washington County borrowed the gallows," Lowry said. There the contraption stayed in storage until 1976 when it was returned to the Old Jail, by then owned by the Kittochtinny Historical Society and Franklin County Heritage Inc.

Lowry said it took two years for volunteers to figure out how to put it back together. Since then, Burns said, "It's one of the major tourist attractions at the jail. That and the dungeons."

In an effort to preserve it from the elements, the gallows was placed in a corner of the courtyard with a roof overhead. That didn't keep it from getting wet in foul weather and prevented it from getting enough sunshine to dry out, according to Lowry.

Now the gallows sits in the middle of the courtyard, painted blacker than a moonless night. All that is missing is the hangman's noose with its 13 turns on the knot.

There is a set of rotting steps leaning against the courtyard wall, but Burns and Lowry said when the gallows was used here, the procedure called for it to be placed next to the jail, so the condemned could walk directly from the building onto the platform.

Unlike the carnival atmosphere of public hangings in the Old West, at least the later executions in Franklin County were solemn ceremonies. The nine-foot drop from the trap door was concealed by a canvas shroud, Lowry said.

Properly done, hanging results in an instantaneous death. "Reed was supposedly one of the best hangings they did," Burns said.

There is a pulley to operate the trap door from ground level, but Burns said Sheriff George Walker had a lever rigged to activate it from the platform for Reed's execution.

Since the county was established in 1784, six other men were executed in the county before Reed - all but one for murder.

John Hanna and Joshua Ramage were both hanged May 3, 1786. Hanna for killing a man with a wood auger and Ramage for murdering his wife.

Jack Durham, a slave convicted of rape, was executed on July 8, 1788. Burns said Durham's owner was reimbursed $80 for the loss of his human property.

Three days before Christmas in 1807, John McKean was hung for the murder of his wife, Burns said.

The Old Jail was built in 1818, but it was 61 years before anyone was executed within its walls. In April of that year Hezekiah Shaffer was executed for the murder of his wife. Two months later Peachy Swingler was executed for killing a man at a dance.

Colletta said the historical society wanted to give the gallows a complete makeover for years, but cost and expertise were scarce. Burns and Lowry, both tour guides at the jail, have been donating their time.

"Kids are in awe of the sight," Colletta said. "This brings history true to life. When you see it here, you know what people went through."

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