In 1849 Abram Ritner, a railroad conductor, bought the property for $500 (using Measuringworth’s unskilled wage numbers to estimate “affordable” comparisons that would be a little over $100,000 in 2007). A son of the abolitionist Governor Joseph Ritner, Abram was thought to be part of the Underground Railroad during this period.
Abram died in 1851 leaving his widow, Mary, with five children. In 1852 Mary Ritner expanded the house to accommodate boarders for income and so Ritner’s Boarding House was opened.
In 1858 John Brown sent his son to scout the area. Brown’s son had a list of persons who were viewed as sympathetic to the cause.
In the spring of 1859 “Isaac Smith” (one of John Brown’s aliases – Brown was also known as John Smith and Frederick Douglass confused the aliases in his Life and Times of Frederick Douglass) and “John Henri” (John Henri Kagi’s alias) arrived. By this time Brown had grown a beard in an attempt to escape detection because of his activities in Kansas.
Brown was in and out of the house during the summer months. Kagi stayed for longer periods checking mail and receiving shipments of arms marked as mining tools by rail. The shipments were held in the Oaks and Cauffman Warehouse on nearby North Main Street till they could be carried by wagon to the Kennedy farm near Harpers Ferry.
Other members of the Provisional Army also boarded that summer including Tidd, Hazelett, Coppocs, Anderson, Meriam and the three Brown sons: Owen, Oliver and Watson.
On August 16 Brown and Frederick Douglass met at an old quarry in the southwest part of Chambersburg. Brown was dressed as a fisherman; Douglass used the pretext of delivering a speech in Chambersburg as his reason for being in the town. Brown revealed his latest plan to Douglass and tried to persuade him to join the effort. Douglass refused.
On October 7 Mary Virginia (Kennedy) Cook and her five month old son, John, were brought to Chambersburg from Harpers Ferry by John Brown and were housed at the Ritner Boarding House. Mary V. Cook was a native of Harpers Ferry and the Cooks had lived there for better than a year.
Brown left Chambersburg October 9 for Harpers Ferry; Kagi left on the 10th.
After the raid failed seven raiders escaped. Osborne Perry Anderson and Albert Hazlett parted near Chambersburg. Anderson sought shelter with a friend, but was forced to flee from the house by the arrival of a United States Marshal. Hazlett went to Ritner’s but was also forced to flee. The sheriff retrieved his Sharps carbine from the back yard of the house. Hazlett – using the alias William Harrison – was arrested in Carlisle, PA on October 22 and returned to Virginia.
On October 25 John Cook, who had left his group – Barclay Coppoc, Owen Brown, Frank Merriam and Charles Plummer Tidd – in the mountains to go for food was captured in the village of Mont Alto by Clegget Fitzhugh (a foreman at the Mont Alto iron works) and Dan Logan (a well-known slave-catcher). He was taken to Chambersburg where he was housed in the jail – 1/2 block from the Ritner Boarding House. The next morning he was taken from the jail and transported to Virginia.
In the early morning hours of October 26 Brown, Coppoc, Merriam and Tidd arrived in Chambersburg and stopped a block short of Ritner’s. Tidd and Coppoc continued to the house. They could not waken anyone by knocking on the front door so Tidd went to the garden and got a bean pole with which he knocked on Mary Ritner’s upstairs window. She came to the window and warned them away saying that the house was being watched. The group then followed a railroad track out of town and found a place to hide during the day.
The house survived the burning of Chambersburg on July 30, 1864.
Mary Ritner sold the property in 1866 and moved to be with her daughter in Bridgeport, CT.
In 1971 the Franklin County Redevelopment Authority sold the property to the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission (PHMC).
The PHMC began to renovate the house in 1978 and later rented it to several nonprofit organizations.
In 2002 the PHMC sold the property to the Franklin County Historical Society – Kittochtinny (FCHS-K). The property was gained through the generosity of a benefactor – Dr. Wilbur R. McElroy and Family.
In 2007 the board of directors of FCHS-K voted to restore the house and make it a historical attraction.
The house was reopened on May 2, 2009 in time for the 150th anniversary year of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry.