A haunting visit to one-time prison

A haunting visit to one-time prison
October 3, 2010
Phil Marty
The Chicago Tribune

MANSFIELD, Ohio — Somebody somewhere flipped a switch, and the old Ohio State Reformatory was pitched into darkness.

I flicked on my flashlight.

The bright beam pierced the blackness and accented the layers and layers of paint peeling from the bars of cell door after cell door down the long, open walkway.

This isn't a great place to be if you're afraid of the dark.

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Or ghosts.

But on this steamy July night, about 100 mostly normal-looking people have paid $65 each to be closed up in the dark with the ghosts in this huge (250,000 square feet), castlelike maze of buildings where, for more than a century, all manner of criminals lived and died, sometimes violently.

The reformatory, now on the National Register of Historic Places, has been closed since 1990, but it has been popular among filmmakers, most famously as the prison used in " The Shawshank Redemption."

These days there are ghost hunts and walks, a Glamour in the Slammer bridal expo, a monthlong Haunted Prison Experience tied to Halloween, a mystery dinner theater and even weddings.

But despite all that, this isn't Disney World Dungeon. It's the real nitty-gritty — emphasis on the gritty.

Think about what your house would look like if you walked out nearly 20 years ago, leaving the door open, and you'll get an idea of what it's like inside this place, which boasts the world's largest freestanding steel cell block (six tiers and 600 cells).

Most impressive is the peeling paint. Multiple layers are peeling off the walls, the ceilings, the bars, the bunks, the metal support columns. It covers the floors in the tiny cells (roughly 5 by 8 feet). In fact, lead-based paint is one of the hazards the Web site warns you about, along with steep steps and uneven surfaces. "It is not recommended for pregnant women," the site advises.

So why pay $65 to stay up all night in a place that's mildly creepy in the daylight and seriously creepy when the lights go out?

It's cool, and certainly offbeat.

This is a popular spot for people interested in the paranormal, and they come here with various electronic gizmos to try to measure the paranormal. Among those milling around outside waiting to go in on my visit was a group wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with "WRAITH — We Research and Investigate the Haunted."

But these ghost hunts also draw their share of alumni. During a late-night break for pizza, I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting across from me and found that the much-tattooed man served time here in 1990, the year the reformatory closed.

He and his girlfriend hadn't met up with any ghosts so far, other than the ghosts in his memory. "There were all kinds of people killed in here," he said. "A guy strangled his girlfriend in the visitors room when she told him she had a new boyfriend. And there were people killed in the laundry.

"I thought it was really inhumane when I was in here."

When I mentioned my encounter later to one of the volunteers who wander the prison during lights-out to answer questions, she said it's not unusual for former inmates to come back.

Jill, the volunteer who showed my group around before the lights were turned out, was full of historical tidbits. One was the tale of a warden's wife who was getting her hat out of a closet and knocked down her husband's pistol, which went off, fatally wounding her. Some visitors to the warden's quarters have reported smelling rose perfume or seeing a ghostly woman there.

She also told stories of personal encounters with ghosts, and gave us advice on how to maximize our chances of seeing or communicating with any spirits. "Politeness will get you a long way in here," she said, and noted the value of just sitting quietly.

I tried but failed to find ghosts.

"Is there someone here who would like to speak with me?" I offered while sitting in the blackened Catholic chapel, scene of many ghostly encounters.


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"If you don't want to talk, tap on the bars," I tried while standing amid the peeling paint of a cramped cell.


While standing in the dark in the shower room, where spirits also have been known to venture, I asked in what I thought might be old-timey language a ghost would like, "Will you not speak with me because you think I don't believe?"

Still nothing.

Hmmmmm. Guess I was all alone.

Or was I?
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