During my travels, I’ve visited many county historical societies throughout Pennsylvania. Most are located in beautifully restored mansions that recall a bygone era, and, in some ways, the McKean County Historical Society Museum is no different. However, there is one big difference: the back half of the building is the remains of the McKean County jail. Oh, and it’s also the sixth most haunted building in Pennsylvania.
The building that the McKean County Historical Society is located in served two purposes during its day. The front half of the building was an ornate home for the sheriff and his family, but the back half and cellar were used as the county’s jail until 1990.
The Old Jail Museum, as it’s now known, does a great job combining two museums into one to tell the story of McKean County through the years and about the jail’s most famous, and eternal, inmate.
The two above-ground floors feature many interesting exhibits chronicling the history and nature of McKean County. On the ground floor, exhibits are fairly typical of historical society museums including historical items from local companies (a collection of wooden toys from the Holgate Toy Company), interesting oddities (a two-headed calf), and items from major local industries (in this case oil and glass). However, there were also several collections that make the museum especially interesting to visitors.
One example is the museum’s large collection of items relating to the Bucktails, a famous Civil War regiment that fought in many of the major battles of the war, including Gettysburg. The Bucktails are revered throughout north-central Pennsylvania, and the museum features many interesting pieces from them including weapons and uniforms.
Also of interest is the museum’s fantastic collection of antique weaponry, which includes guns dating back to 1640, and a Bible that once belonged to local Seneca Chief Cornplanter. Most of the ground floor exhibits are displayed behind the large stone walls and steel door of the old jail, making the setting nearly as interesting as the exhibits themselves.
The second floor of the Old Jail Museum houses a room filled with large looms that are still used to make rugs and other textiles. I was fortunate enough to visit while a class was being taught, which gave me a chance to see the large looms in action. The second floor also contains a room filled with taxidermied local wildlife that is set alongside a mural that showcases the best sights in McKean County.
While the ground floor and second floor of the museum are interesting, I found the cellar to be the most fascinating part of the tour. Home to the remnants of old jail cells, the area, and the entire building for that matter, are said to be haunted by former inmate Ralph Crossmire. In fact, the Old Jail Museum is considered to be one of the ten most haunted buildings in Pennsylvania.
One of five prisoners to be executed in the building’s basement, Crossmire professed his innocence until his death and, right before he was executed, promised to haunt the building. Since then, inmates, prison guards, museum workers, and even visitors have claimed to have felt the presence of Crossmire.
In the past, many inmates claimed to have seen his ghost; however, in the 21st-century, it seems that Crossmire is more interested in pulling pranks than showing himself. Ask a worker about Crossmire, and many will be able to tell you stories of the many unexplained things that have happened inside the Old Jail Museum.
Ghost or no ghost, I quite enjoyed my visit to the Old Jail Museum in Smethport. Most local historical societies have things on display that are of interest to even non-locals, and this one was no exception. However, thanks to the museum’s setting and ghostly stories, this is a fantastic destination for any visitor to McKean County.
Note: My visit to the Old Jail Museum in Smethport, Pennsylvania, was hosted by the Allegheny Forest Visitors Bureau. However, the opinions expressed in this article are my own.
Old Jail Museum
Cost: Adults: $5, Children 12 & Under: Free
Children 13-21: $3
Address: 502 King Street