Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Explorations Below Ground: Profile James E. Starrs

Scientific Curiosities

English and Welsh Protestants had owned the coal mines in Jim Thorpe, once known as Mauch Chunk, but it was the Irish Catholic laborers who worked them. They endured long hours and suffered frequent accidents, making barely enough money to survive. They also had to pay for their own gear. Anger against the mining companies and their representatives grew during the mid-1800s into a secret society of violent Irishmen known as the Molly Maguires. They became something like the Italian Mafia today. In 1869, when Frank B. Gowan became head of the Reading Railroad Company, he proposed to destroy the unions, and his only opposition was the Molly Maquires. To break them, he hired Allen Pinkerton, who planted an agent undercover among the members of this secret organization. That person gathered evidence that solved several murders in the area, and the Mollies involved were hanged.

Allan Pinkerton
Allan Pinkerton

Alexander Campbell was one of those arrested and found guilty of murder. He admitted to being an accessory because he was present during a murder, but the court found him guilty of murder in the first degree. He continued to insist on his innocence, even as they dragged him from cell #17 to be hanged on the gallows that had been built inside the jail (the better to terrorize those who were next, according to one tour guide). Before he was physically removed, he placed his right hand against the wall and stated that its mark would remain visible there as proof of the truth of what he said: "That mark will never be wiped out. There it will remain forever to shame the country that is hanging an innocent man."

Portrait of Alexander Campbell
Portrait of Alexander Campbell

To this day, visitors to the building, which is now run as a tourist exhibit, can still see the handprint. The legend says that even though there have been considerable efforts to remove it, the mark of the innocent man continues to come through. In fact, as stories go, in 1930, a local sheriff decided to replace the wall altogether. But after he did, the handprint reappeared on the new wall the very next day. In 1960, it was covered with latex paint, but again it resurfaced.

James Starrs came there to test the handprint with a criminalist named Jeff Kercheval, according to a newspaper article published on the Jim Thorpe Web site. The reporter claims Starrs was as mystified about the print as everyone else. "They found no paints or pigments or oils that would explain why the handprint exists, much less why it persists to this day." But that's not what Starrs says.

He dismissed this attempt to face science off against the paranormal. He indicates that he and Kercheval performed every conceivable test within the constricting limits set by Judge John P. Lavelle. These included infrared photography, metal detection, and examination by ultraviolet lighting. One clear inconsistency that Starrs found with the recorded legends was that supposedly Campbell had placed his right hand on the wall, but the imprint was clearly from a left hand (if any hand at all). "Indications of the handprint being a hoax derived from my historical research into the case," he stated to this author. "According to the earliest reports of the placement by Campbell of his handprint on the wall of his jail cell and comparing that report to what I saw under visible light at the jail cell, the handprint was from a different hand when placed from that which I observed at the jail cell. Somebody didn't know one hand from the other." There were also no ridge marks to indicate that a hand had made the impression. To him, it seemed a mere tourist attraction, a "gulling" of the public.

"I was very limited in the scientific testing that the local judge would allow me to conduct," he added, "but it was crystal clear from the infrared photographs taken in the jail cell of the handprint that the handprint had not been painted over as it appeared from light in the visible spectrum. The photographs showed that the paint brush strokes had come up to the handprint from all sides but had not covered it."

While Starrs likes solving such quirky mysteries, he believes that they must be approached appropriately, with the right tools for solving them. That position once put him on the other side of the historical exhumation debate.

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