Joints of The Damned: America’s Haunted Prisons by Amy Van De Casteele and MJ Steel Collins

Cells at Moundsville Photo Courtesy of Eric Glosser

Prisons in modern-day America are quite comfortable places these days compared to bygone years, containing relatively spacious cells supplied with adequate light, heating and running water. Capital punishment is a thing of the past in most places, and torture of prisoners is no longer sanctioned (although unfortunately it is not eradicated). In previous centuries, by contrast, prisons were places of horror, with cramped reeking cells and reputations of brutality among both staff and inmates. Many prisoners died horrible deaths and the imprint of their misery has been left on the buildings, which housed them in their final days. When you became a prison inmate you faced the threat of abuse meted out by your fellow convicts or the guards, and prisoners developed a ‘code of conduct’ which included: minding your own business, not being a snitch, and not attracting attention. Unfortunately, this code of conduct didn’t say much about beating, raping or even murdering fellow inmates

Johnny Cash attempted to get beyond any notions that those incarcerated in America’s prisons should be left there to rot. Folsom Prison was one that had a marked effect on him. He first became aware of Folsom whilst still in the US Air Force, when he saw a film about conditions in the jail. Following his stint in the Air Force, Cash embarked on his music career, his first big hit being “Folsom Prison Blues”. It was shortly after this release he began playing in prisons on a regular basis, which culminated in his acclaimed albums, At Folsom and At San Quentin in the late 1960s. Playing these shows brought home to Cash the human side of prison life. He was aware that the prisoners were there for a reason, but part of him that ached for hopelessness of the inmate’s lot. Cash was known for his activism on prisoner’s rights; in 1973, he gave evidence to the US Senate’s Subcommittee on Prison Reform. He successfully campaigned for the release of Folsom Prisoner Glen Sherley, a talented musician, on Parole in 1971. Cash took responsibility for Sherley, giving him a job on the Johnny Cash Show. However, it was a tough call. By the late 1970s, Cash had given up his prison shows as he found it too hard to bear. Glen Sherley was fired from the Johnny Cash Show due to erratic and threatening behaviour. Sherley eventually killed himself in 1978. Johnny Cash paid for his funeral.

Unsurprisingly, prisons have always been rife with mental illness. Recent reports have shown that 20% of US inmates suffer from a serious mental illness – most commonly manifested as psychosis – and the same would have been true years ago. Some prisoners were also driven mad by the cruel torments doled out to them by their guards. With such a culture of brutality and unhappiness, it is not difficult to imagine that many tormented spirits must still roam the corridors of America’s prisons, unable or unwilling to leave the housing of their injustice.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison is an imposing grey-stone building with twin turrets located on West Walnut Street in the remote town of Rawlins. This state penitentiary-turned-museum boasts a colourful history, “as elaborate as the plot of a classic western movie” according to its official website. Although its first cornerstone was laid down in 1888, the Frontier Prison was opened in December 1901 with only 104 cells and no running water or electricity. The cells were frequently overcrowded and poorly heated, until the construction of Cell Block B in 1950 helped to ease the problem. As in many other prisons around the world punishment was a key part of penitentiary life and the prison was well equipped to mete out its fair share of ‘discipline’, with its own dungeon and ‘punishment pole’ where men would be restrained and beaten.

Fourteen executions took place in the prison, using the gallows or a gas chamber, and other prisoners died trying to escape or took their own lives. One man was lynched by his fellow prisoners and two others died from hypothermia because of the lack of heat in their cells. Several guards also lost their lives, murdered by the prisoners they were in charge of. With such a gruesome history, it is unsurprising then that Frontier Prison has developed a reputation as being a haunted location, so much, so that paranormal tours are now held there and the building has even been visited by the ever enthusiastic Ghost Adventures crew. Some of the documented paranormal activity in the penitentiary includes disembodied voices, apparitions glimpsed out of the corner of an eye and experiences of a malevolent presence, which haunts the Dungeon. A number of chilling EVP’s have also been recorded inside the prison, including the voice of a little girl wailing. Ghost enthusiasts can participate in regular hunts run at the prison, which now operates as a museum.

In West Virginia, the Moundsville Penitentiary was established in 1876, operating for 119 years, until its closure in 1995. During the time of the of the prison’s operation, the small town of Moundsville grew up around it, sitting on the Ohio River. In that same time, the prison got notorious as one of the nastiest in the United States, making it into the top ten of Department of Justice’s list of the most violent institutions. The harshness of life in Moundsville Pen was established almost from the get go; in the 1880s, it emerged that prisoners were subjected to brutality and torture. Between 1899 and 1959, 94 inmates were executed. The majority of this was by hanging, which the public were free to come and watch until June 19 1931, when the botched hanging of Frank Hyer, a convicted murder, resulted in his head ripped off by the noose. As well as the executions, there were also numerous suicides and murders amongst the inmates. Around 998 in total died serving time in here. In later years, there were riots and escapes, which also resulted in the deaths of prisoners, staff and law enforcement officers. The murder of prisoner R.D Wall in 1929 seems to have given rise to the first stories to emerge from Moundsville Penitentiary. Wall was assigned a job in maintenance, looking after the boiler room. Unpopular with the general prison populace, many suspected him to be a ‘ratter’ who informed the prison authorities of what other inmates were up to. Wall was sitting on the boiler room’s latrine when a group of prisoners attacked him with handmade weapons. It was an unpleasant end. Three of Wall’s fingers and the top of his head were cut off while he was still alive. Guards found his headless body in the toilet stall.

Shortly after this, in the 1930s, s monitoring the prison grounds for escaping prisoners began seeing a strange figure outside. Every time the alarm was sounded and investigations carried out, but there was no escapee. Soon stories of ghosts abounded. Wall’s spirit still roams the boiler room, seen by visitors on regular occasions. In the area where he died, there have been reports of the apparition of a face, as well as reports of disembodied voices. His is the most famous ghost in a prison full of them. It’s difficult to catalogue every ghost that roams Moundsville Penitentiary. As one ex- put it, “They died inside these walls; that’s where their souls stay.” The Sugar Shack, a huge recreational area in the prison’s basement is a hot bed of uncanny experiences. Prisoners would go in here when the weather prevented them from using the outside yard, and officers didn’t exactly supervise it. Unpleasant things happened there, including murder. There are cold spots and disembodied voices, whispering and arguing, often heard. Other apparitions have been reported. The Shadow Man is another famous ghost. No one is sure who it is. It lurks in the dark corners of the cells and hallways, disconcerting anyone who encounters it. No distinguishing facial features can be discerned; it is just a big outline of darkness, which has been photographed on several occasions. There is a legend that the prison was built on an ancient Native American burial ground, causing the prison to be cursed.

Across the country in South Carolina, the Old Charleston Jail also boasts its fair share of ghostly happenings and gruesome tales. Between 1802 and 1939 this historic building housed the area’s most notorious criminals – among them the country’s first female serial killer Lavinia Fisher, whose famous last words were “If anyone has a message for the Devil, give it to me and I’ll deliver it, for I will be seeing him in a moment”. Also executed in the jail were freed slave Denmark Vesey and poor Daniel Duncan who was hanged for murdering a businessman, even though evidence later came to light which proved his innocence. As if an undeserved conviction wasn’t enough, Duncan’s execution was botched and it took 39 minutes for him to slowly strangle to death on the end of the rope – an awful end to an innocent life.

With such a brutal history and having played host to so many troubled souls, it takes no great leap of the imagination to think that the Old Charleston Jail must be haunted. Bulldog Tours, a company that runs a number of historic and paranormal tours through Charleston, have had their fair share of run-ins with the Jail’s tormented spirits. One female tour guide and a member of her tour group both witnessed a skull with red glowing eyes that peered out of its cell at her and then disappeared back inside the gloomy room. If this wasn’t spooky enough other creepy experiences documented inside the jail include cell doors slamming for no reason, women being touched inappropriately by a perverted male spirit and the appearance of a female apparition dressed in a white wedding gown walking up a prison stairway.

Over in Philadelphia, Pennyslvania, Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, as a new kind of prison. Instead of punishment, its aim was rehabilitation. Prisoners lived in permanent solitary confinement. The metal grate door of each cell was covered by a wooden one to prevent prisoners from talking to one another. Inmates moving from their cells had to wear masks over their faces to hide them from other prisoners. The idea was that solitary confinement would make prisoners reflect and eventually turn to God. However, it didn’t work out that way. The disconnection from other people drove many prisoners mad. By 1913, experts recognised that continuous isolation caused mental illness and the prison was overhauled and extended. The prison population expanded to 1700. Despite it being originally designed for rehabilitation, torture was frequent. Prisoners who broke the no communication policy were punished with an iron gag clamp. Some would be strapped to the Mad Chair for days and denied food. They normally went insane . Murder was not uncommon. Wire mesh was put up under the railings of upstairs cellblocks, as prisoners were able to reach through the grate doors of their cells and push guards over the rail. In 1830, a guard was brutally murdered by inmate Joseph Taylor, who beat his victim to death with a piece of weaving machinery in the exercise yard before going back to his cell and falling asleep. For all its horror, the prison was in fact world famous in the 19th century, and many prisons around the world were based on its design. Charles Dickens visited in the 1840s and found the conditions deplorable.

Ghostly activity was first reported during the 1940s, with night staff reporting hearing strange voices. However, strange things were reported earlier than that when Al Capone was held in Eastern State Penitentiary in 1929 and 1930. Capone believed he was haunted by the ghost of Jimmy Clark, a victim of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, and could be heard by guards yelling at something to leave him alone. After the prison closed in 1970, reports of paranormal phenomenon increased. Visitors to the abandoned edifice heard the shuffle of feet in cells, and sobs of long gone inmates. Strange shadows and noises are encountered all over the prison, now opened as a tourist attraction. Cellblock 12 is famous for eerie laughter, whilst a shadowy figure still stands watching from one of the towers. One famous encounter occurred when a locksmith was working on picking open a 140-year-old lock on a cell in Block 4. Suddenly, he froze on the spot and saw hundreds of anguished faces on the cell walls. Strange figures wafted about the entire block, whilst another, dark figure beckoned to him. Some say when the locksmith unlocked the cell, he unleashed all the tortured souls trapped inside, who were delighted to get out…

Arguably, the most haunted prison in America must be Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. In operation for nearly 30 years, this maximum-security jail housed some of America’s most notorious inmates, including the aforementioned Al Capone, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Robert Franklin Stroud (also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz). The question is, did Jimmy Clark follow Capone? The prison was proud of its claim that no prisoner had ever escaped, even though many attempts had been made. Thirteen prisoners are believed to have died trying to free themselves from the island prison, although five of their bodies were unaccounted for. Other prisoners were executed in Alcatraz by electric chair or by hanging, and one person died in the Punishment cell – a lightless room where prisoners who had ‘misbehaved’ were locked for up to two weeks. The prisoners who suffered this awful treatment reported that something had been in the room with them, and when the unfortunate man died, it was believed that one of the ghosts of Alcatraz was responsible.

There have been many reports of ghostly activity inside the jail. One story associated with Al Capone involves unexplained banjo music being heard from the prison showers, where he used to practise his music because he was too afraid to go out into the prison yard. However, paranormal manifestations surrounded the Mafioso even before his death. As well as the ghost of Jimmy Clark, supposedly, Capone was also tormented by the spirit of Myles O’ Bannion and it is thought that this is what eventually drove him mad. To this day people can still hear O’ Bannion’s ghostly laughter ringing out through the prison. There have also been reports of cold spots in various places around the prison, and unexplained clanging and crying has been heard. The distinctive smell of smoke has also been detected even though there was no fire anywhere in the penitentiary at the time. Warden Johnston himself once heard unexplained crying and encountered a simultaneous blast of cold air, which he simply could not explain.

We end our tour at Mansfield, Ohio, home to the Mansfield Reformatory, also known as Ohio State Reformatory. In 1861, the ground on which the Reformatory now sits was a training camp for troops in the Civil War. By 1867, the site was mooted as a potential spot for a new Intermediate Reformatory, specifically for first time offenders between the ages of 16 and 21, who might still change. The institution took years to complete; though it opened in 1896, it was only fully built in 1910. In its early years, it was indeed a reformatory rather than a prison. The thinking behind the grandiose architecture was that it would improve the morality of inmates, who were also provided with a high school education and taught a trade. However, reformatory became a maximum-security prison, bringing all the associated problems. Life was tough and violence amongst prisoners rife. Discipline was also harsh – solitary confinement was the dreaded punishment, though there were also tales of abuse by prison staff. The solitary area of Mansfield was called The Hole. The temperature was deliberately kept high. Prisoners wore cotton jump suits, and were locked in cramped cells with no lights. The typical duration in The Hole was three days. Some went mad during that time. The Hole was the scene of some gory murders. In 1938, an inmate broke a piece of piping from the inside of his cell, opened the lock on the cell door, and bludgeoned a passing guard to death with the piping. Another occasion, two inmates were locked in a single occupancy cell. In the morning, only one man was alive, having murdered the other and stuffed his body under the cell bunk. A riot broke out in 1957, and the resulting punishment saw 120 inmates being kept in the tiny 20 cells of The Hole for a 30-day stint. The prison, regarded as an affront by Civil Rights activists, finally closed in 1990. In 1995, it was taken over by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, which now runs it as a museum and protects the structure against further deterioration.

Today, Ohio State Reformatory is seen as spine-chilling place. It’s so notorious for haunting that the Preservation Society runs regular ghost hunts. Not surprisingly, The Hole is a hot bed of activity. Visitors report glowing eyes peering at them from shadowy corners, if they’re not being poked and slapped. On one occasion, an old man was knocked to the floor by something unseen. Women are also a favourite target for slaps and hair pulling. Show fear in that place, and you’re fresh meat. The author of Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard, is scared to visit the prison. In a video short for Our Ohio, she describes not touching the walls, which she describes as being soaked in despair, for fear of taking ‘something’ away with her. The basement is reputedly haunted by the ghost of a 14-year-old boy who was beaten to death and an ex-employee called George. Something lurks in the graveyard, whilst the ghost of a woman has been reported in the prison library, either the spirit of a nurse murdered by an inmate or Helen Glattke, a former Warden’s wife. Helen died in 1950 after accidentally shooting herself when she knocked a gun from a shelf in the Warden’s quarters. Her husband died in 1959 from a heart attack whilst hard at work in his office. These days, visitors report strange things happening in the Administration building, particularly around the Warden’s lodgings. Warden Glattke and his wife have been heard in conversation, and the light smell of perfume occasionally wafts from the Warden’s private toilet. Echoes of the past? Who knows.


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