Is the Lebanon Farmers Market, built on the site of a 19th-century prison and gallows, haunted?
by Tom KnappApril 21, 2021 6 min read
Jan Helen McGee remembers seeing ghosts in the subterranean level of Lebanon Farmers Market – and, although it scared her when she was young, it sparked a later interest in spirit activity that still exists today.
“When I was a child in the 1950s, I used to go to that market with my grandmother to shop,” McGee said in a recent interview. “I was terrified of the bathrooms, which were located in the basement as they are now. I refused to go down there unless she accompanied me.
When I did go to the basement, I’d look down the hall to the area where there is still evidence of the old jail. That’s where I saw spirits and they frightened me.”
he market building dates to 1892 and, although the structure has been restored and updated, it retains its 19th-century bones. The 30,000-square-foot facility occupies nearly half a block at 35 S. 8th St.
“I believe there is ‘something’ there,” Joya Morrissey, owner and manager of the market, told LebTown. “We have experienced pockets of very cold air and a heavy feeling in certain areas. Lights have gone on and off as well. We have heard footsteps when no one is around, or even in the building. Some vendors, who were setting up their stands on closed days, have actually seen apparitions.”
Lebanon city mayor Sherry Capello agreed, noting that the market has hosted ghost tours and paranormal investigators over the years, and ghostly voices have been captured on tape.
“I do think there are spirits in the market building,” Capello said.
And, whether or not the spirits are real, the mayor said, “I think it is definitely something that can be used to spark tourism!”
After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story?
While butchers and produce vendors might not be likely progenitors of lingering spirits, the parcel of land on which the market house sits has a deeper, darker history. As LebTown reported in 2019, “one of the county’s early prisons was built at the location, housing those who had run astray of the law in conditions that would have been less than ideal, even by jailhouse standards.”
That’s where, in the late 1870s, the Blue-Eyed Six were imprisoned, and where five of the six were hanged.
The prison was later destroyed by fire, and the market was built on the site. In more than a century, the building has gone through a variety of uses, from market and theater to school and sewing company and, finally, back to a market again.
And, if you care to look, the jail’s stone foundations are still visible in the market basement.
Karen Groh, president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, said some people who work in the market are “pretty sure it is haunted.”
“I’ve never had any experiences there but I’m sure you can find some juicy tidbits” from people who have,” Groh said.
Jennifer C. Kuzo, president of Visit Lebanon Valley, agrees there is something spooky about the site, which is where the local marketing organization is housed.
“Personally, I don’t go downstairs to the restroom after dark,” she said. “I can’t put my finger on it, but it just doesn’t feel right.”
Kuzo, too, noted that paranormal recordings in the market house captured “some spooky stuff,” including “a voice saying one of the names” of the Blue-Eyed Six. “It’s truly up to individual interpretation,” she said.
“We will be conducting the ghost tours again this October,” Morrissey said, although dates for the tours have not yet been set.
Who were the Blue-Eyed Six?
According to the Visit Lebanon Valley website, there are “numerous stories of haunted places in the Lebanon Valley.”
Perhaps the best known, the website proclaims, are stories involving “the infamous” Blue-Eyed Six, who are said to lurk at the market.
“Have you seen the blue lights in the basement, the site of the jail where the blue-eyed prisoners were held?” the website asks. “Stand out in front of the market, where the prisoners were hung, will their spirits raise goosebumps on your arms?”
According to newspaper records, the trial of the Blue-Eyed Six stems from the violent death on Dec. 7, 1878, of 60-year-old Joseph Raber, a reclusive and impoverished Union Township man. Initial reports said Raber suffered “an attack of vertigo” and fell into the Indiantown river, where he was drowned.
But later investigations revealed that four men – Israel Brandt, Henry Wise, Josiah Hummel and George Zechman – had taken out a $10,000 life insurance policy on Raber, and two other men – Franklin Stichler and Charles Drews – were employed to help make that payment come due.
All six men were found guilty of murder, and five of them eventually confessed. The sixth, Zechman, was granted a retrial and ultimately found not guilty.
The killers, Drews and Stichler, were hanged on the site on Nov. 14, 1879. The conspirators – Brandt, Hummel and Wise – followed on May 13, 1880, after a failed escape attempt by Brandt and Hummel. On the gallows, Wise announced that all six men, including Zechman, were guilty of the deed.
Although Zechman was not executed with his peers, he later developed painful coughing seizures that led to his death from consumption in 1906 at age 39 – which, some folks said, was his just punishment for eluding a rightful conviction.
Of course, there are other possibilities to explain the restless spirits on the site.
McGee, who also runs Jan’s Music & Education Center on Chestnut Street, also works as a psychic and medium. She has led ghost tours of the market house, and she plans to host more tours this fall.
“Yes, I have perceived spirits at the Farmers Market building,” she said. “Some are content, and some are disgruntled, and they come and go. People perceive spirits differently. Some people hear them, see, feel, smell, or sense them. I see them as wavy and indistinct, but I feel them more than anything. When I give the tours, people often get cold, and goosebumps. I think those come from disgruntled spirits.”
McGee began assisting local police in the 1990s with cases after she experienced nightmares about unsolved murders. Although she initially kept her work secret, she eventually went public and appeared on the television show “Psychic Witness.”
It’s “impossible to give a definitive answer” about possible hauntings at the market house, she said. “It’s more of a belief system that I have, and many other people also have. I call them spirits, but I can also call them ghosts, although I don’t use the word ‘haunted’.”
It’s impossible to identify spirit activity precisely, McGee said.
“There’s no date stamping on when ghosts have lived, so the history of a building comes into play,” she explained. “It was a market, a sewing factory, a printing shop, coin shop, and a jail. The basement is the spookiest, according to those who have been on my ghost tour. The bars to the jail cells can still be seen on the floor.”
“Some of the spirits upstairs are from the sewing factory,” she said. “Sometimes I think a few of the Blue-Eyed Six are hanging out by the back windows on the west end, since the hanging courtyard was out there. The basement, well it’s usually the convicts.”
McGee said she and Morrissey walked together through the building, and they both “got goosebumps or felt a ghost” in the same locations.
At one place, she said, she could “see” where a fight occurred and a man fell down the stairs and broke his leg. Capello said a paranormal team from Reading conducted a paranormal investigation of the market in September 2011 and obtained evidence that suggests the site is truly haunted by the infamous murderers. Past reports noted that workers at the market have heard strange noises in the basement and have had technical issues with equipment there.
Kenny Weikel Jr., director and founder of Quest Paranormal Society – which appeared on Travel Channel’s “Paranormal Challenge” and Animal Planet’s “The Haunted” – said they debunked some claims of paranormal activity. Other evidence is harder to explain away.
According to the report, the team used a Ghost Box (a radio frequency device) to contact Wise’s spirit, who responded to questions and told investigators, bluntly, “I am dead.” The team also “had several hits in the basement” on an electromagnetic field detector, which measures electromagnetic fields and frequency, and recorded an “unexplained noise phenomenon” during the investigation.
Although there’s no definitive evidence proving the existence of spirits in the market house or linking unexplained activities there to the Blue-Eyed Six, many people remain convinced that the killers and conspirators are lingering at the scene of their imprisonment, trial and execution.
But, apparently, their restless spirits are given to roaming. The website Hauntingly Pennsylvania claims the Blue-Eyed Six also haunt the Moonshine Church along Route 443, where Raber was buried. Perhaps, the website opines, the spirits are “coming to beg for Joseph Raber’s forgiveness.”
“I wouldn’t risk my reputation as a teacher if I didn’t truly have this belief,” McGee said, although she acknowledged it’s simply spooky entertainment for some people.
“Many other buildings in Lebanon have spirits,” she added. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”