HISTORY & HAUNTINGS AT THE OHIO STATE PENITENTIARY
On April 21, 1930, a fire broke out at the overcrowded Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus and claimed the lives of more than three hundred inmates. If prisons are truly haunted because of the death and tragedy that takes place in them, then the Ohio Penitentiary must have been one of the most haunted buildings in the region.
Even though the prison itself is no more, this has not stopped the stories of murder, brutality and of course, ghosts, from being told. The prison may be gone, but some say the spirits of the past still linger.
The Ohio State Penitentiary before the fire
The Ohio Penitentiary opened in late October 1834 when 189 prisoners were marched under guard from a small frontier jail to the partially completed building. As they walked along the banks of the Scioto River, they must have been amazed and dismayed by the stone walls of their new place of incarceration, as many other men would be in the years to come. Hundreds of thousands of men were sent to this prison over the next 150 years and thousands of them died, usually violently, behind the high walls.
The penitentiary that was located on Spring Street was actually the third state prison in Ohio and the fourth jail in early Columbus. The first jail in the city had been built in 1804 and was a two-story log stockade that was surrounded by 13 whipping posts. Author Dan Morgan noted that "horrible stories were told about this primitive prison" and said that men, women and children were all brought there. They were stripped of their clothing and then tied to the posts. This was followed by whippings that left their backs resembling raw beef. Further torture was inflicted with hot ashes and coals that were spread onto their bleeding flesh. It was obviously a horrifying place.
Between 1813 and 1815, the first state prison was built along Scioto Street, which later became 2nd Street. It was a simple structure that housed prisoners in 13 cells on the third floor. The prison was full within a year so the General Assembly commissioned a larger structure, designed for 100 prisoners, that was completed in 1818. This building provided unheated cells, straw mats on the floor, infestations of lice and rats and was plagued by several cholera epidemics. It also had several subterranean places of punishment, called "holes," where conditions were even worse.
The prison remained in use until a new building was constructed on Spring Street, however an odd occurrence took place there in 1830. At that time, a fire of "incendiary origin" destroyed most of the prison workshops. Strangely, a century later in 1930, another fire of “incendiary origin” destroyed an entire cellblock and claimed 332 lives at the new penitentiary. It is still considered the worst fire in the history of American prisons.
American penitentiaries were originally designed as a place of contemplation for the mistakes made that caused the inmates to break the law in the first place. Prisoners "labored in silence during the day and were locked in solitary confinement at night." The men worked in factory shops, located behind the walls, to make leather harnesses, shoes, tailored goods, barrels, brooms, hats and other common goods that were not manufactured by legitimate business in Ohio.
The paltry food the prisoners ate usually consisted of cornbread, bacon and beans and was served on "rust-eaten tin plates" and eaten with crude implements fashioned from broom handles. They slept on hay sacks and although fold-down beds were installed around the time of the Civil War, blankets were only issued in the wintertime. The clothing and the bedding were filthy and were major carriers of disease as laundry facilities were non-existent in the early days. There was also no medical treatment to speak of and epidemics, dysentery and diarrhea killed many. In 1849, a cholera outbreak killed 116 of 423 prisoners. The guards fled the grounds and the prisoners begged for pardons.
The inmates were routinely punished for both major and minor infractions. Whipping remained the major form of discipline until 1844, but was replaced by no less cruel methods of causing pain. These included dunking inmates in huge vats of water, hanging them by their wrists in their cells and of course, the sweatbox. In 1885, the prison would begin carrying out executions, as well.
The "golden age" of the prison came during the tenure of Warden E. G. Coffin, from 1886 through 1900. A number of flattering books were written about the institution during this era and visitors who came to tour the place could even buy picture postcards and souvenir books. One section of the souvenir book stated: “It is to Mr. Coffin's revolutionary methods of inaugurating, perfecting and successfully establishing humane but repressive methods in the management of the prison that the Ohio Penitentiary owes its world-wide celebrity.”
On Christmas Day 1888, Columbus newspapers reported that Warden Coffin had decided to do away with such punishments as the dunking tub and the stretching rings. Coffin said, “A hard box to sleep on and bread and water to eat will cause them to behave themselves. It may not be so speedy but it is more humane.”
Despite the fact that things at the Ohio Penitentiary seemed to be changed from the outside, the prisoners had a different story to tell. In 1894, a newspaper reporter learned that prisoners were still being locked in sweatboxes as punishment and that the ball and chain were also in use. The newspaper denounced the state of Ohio for "a partial return to the dark ages when the stocks and pillory were used for punishment." In addition, the prisoners were still being given bad food and medical care was still very poor. They also complained of pay-offs and political graft that resulted in some prisoners being blindfolded and tortured with water hoses, while well-connected inmates were given large cells and special privileges.
It was also during this era when the Death House was brought within the walls. Prior to that, the gallows had been set up on a place called Penitentiary Hill, located in a ravine near the present-day intersection of Mound and 2nd streets in Columbus. The first execution in the county had been carried out in 1844, when a convict was hanged for murder. The day of the hanging was regarded as “truly the greatest event in the history of Columbus” and was remembered as a day of “noise, confusion, drunkenness and disorder” during which one bystander, Sullivan Sweet, was reportedly trampled by a horse. Two sets of physicians were anxious to obtain the remains of the hanged man. One of the groups went to his grave and exhumed him and while they were making off with the body, they were shot at by the other doctors. The first party ran off, leaving the body to the second group, along with the now-empty grave. The dead man’s foot was, for many years, preserved in alcohol and kept on display by Drs. Jones and Little, who had an office on East Town Street.
In 1885, the gallows were moved behind the walls of the Ohio Penitentiary. Starting with Valentine Wagner in 1885, 28 men, including a 16-year-old named Otto Lueth, were hanged at the end of the prison’s East Hall. The electric chair (considered a humane form of execution) replaced the gallows in the hall in 1897 and 315 men and women were put to death in it.
This aspect of prison life became hated and feared by guards and prisoners alike. Corrections Major Grover Powell, who spent 31 years as a guard at the Ohio Penitentiary, told reporter David Lore in 1984, "Nobody ever really wanted to work the executions; nobody ever volunteered.” Death House duties, such as staying with the prisoner during the last meal, fastening the straps or flipping the switch, were rotated. The warden would get $75 overtime pay to split among the attending officers. Powell recalled that many of the men, even during the lean days of the depression when extra money came in handy, did everything they could to get out of working the executions.
But nothing in the history of the prison, even the macabre execution devices, matched the carnage and horror of April 21, 1930.
The penitentiary in flames
The fire began as a candle flame in a bundle of oily rags on the roof of the West Block of the prison, paralleling Neil Avenue. Authorities later reported that three prisoners had set the blaze in hopes that it would really start to burn around 4:30 p.m. They hoped that it would divert the guards’ attention from their escape, which they planned to take place when most of the prisoners were still in the dining hall. The fire smoldered too long, though, and didn’t erupt for an hour after that, just after the hundreds of prisoners had been returned to the cellblock. Most of the 322 inmates who died that evening perished because of the poisonous smoke given off by green lumber being used in some construction scaffolding on one part of the cellblock, but others suffered a more gruesome fate. Photographs of the debris from the fire showed evidence of incredible heat, which turned the levels of catwalks and bars into a tangle of blackened and twisted metal. Many of the prisoners were literally cooked alive.
Rescue workers try to assist the burned and dying inmates
It was the worst fire in Ohio history and the worst in the history of American prisons. The cellblock had been dangerous and overcrowded, critics said, citing concerns about too many men in the prison that dated back to 1908. At that time, over 4,500 men had been jammed into the century-old prison (with room for 1,500) and this had created the volatile conditions that had ended in the fire. The attention on the prison led to a repeal of judicial control over minimum sentences, which was thought to have contributed to the overcrowding. A package of new laws in 1931 established the Ohio Parole Board and established parole procedures, which by 1932 released 2,346 prisoners from the Ohio Penitentiary alone.
Rows of caskets belonging to the inmates who died in the fire
Officially, the fire was blamed on three inmates, two of whom committed suicide in the months following the tragedy. This was the official word, anyway, although many suggested that the fire had been accidental and that prison officials had blamed the disaster on the prisoners to cover up their own incompetence. Only a handful of people named a more sinister source for the fire, noting with interest that the doomed West Cellblock, which had been added to the original prison in 1875, had been built directly on top of the old prison cemetery. The bodies, the legends say, were never removed. Were some of the former prisoners having their revenge against the prison from the other side?
The 1930s saw more problems at the Ohio Penitentiary. This era began to see an increase in problems at the prison. Many believe that the growth of the "rackets" and the general disrespect for the law in the 1920s and 1930s resulted in an upsurge of prison terms that had the available prisons filled to overflowing. The one-man cells at the prison were converted to handle three or more men and the average daily count swelled to 4,100 inmates by the end of the decade. In 1939, Warden William Amrine once again recommended the construction of a new prison, stating that "conditions at the Ohio Penitentiary are a disgrace to the state of Ohio." His request was turned down, but World War II marked the beginning of a new era for the prison.
The 1930s had been a horrendous time at the prison but changes came about because the inmates were now desperately needed to produce goods for the war effort. Warden Ralph "Red" Alvis is credited for the major changes in the prison, eliminating lock step marching, the strict requirements of silence and striped prison uniforms. And while many of the restrictions were lifted and the men were kept productive during the war, the food became worse. Wartime restrictions and rationing were hard on the ordinary public, but even worse on the prisoners. Gentry Richardson, a prisoner who began serving time at the prison in 1942, recalled, “They would give us butter beans with a piece of fat sowbelly in there with hair on it, big hairs up to an inch long.” Bad food, in fact, was a reason for the 1952 Ohio Penitentiary riot, the first of three to rock the institution over the next two decades. It would not be until after this incident that the rations would start to improve.
Warden Alvis began to implement recreation programs for those incarcerated in the Ohio Penitentiary and began to assume a more humane posture toward the prisoners. His goal was to improve prisoner morale and to encourage a sense of dignity in the men. He believed this was the best way to rehabilitate the inmates and hopefully to release changed men back onto the streets.
Holiday boxing and wrestling matches came about as early as 1940 and a bandstand was built on the O. Henry Athletic Field, the home of the inmate’s baseball team, the "Hurricanes."
For years, the Ohio Penitentiary drew celebrities, athletes and performers like fighters Joe Lewis and Jack Dempsey and entertainers such as Lionel Hampton. Ohio State University students performed classical music and opera behind the walls and pilots from the Lockbourne Air Force Base led literary discussions. Legendary coach Woody Hayes even once offered to help start an inmate football team. The high point of each year was always the inmate Christmas show, which was performed by the prisoners and always played to a full house. A few outsiders were allowed in for each show and the tickets were always in high demand.
Despite all of this, the conditions of the prison building continued to deteriorate and overcrowding became more of an issue. The prison population reached a record high of 5,235 in April 1955. Classrooms and visiting areas had to be used as dormitories and many of the programs fell apart. With more men came more danger. One former prisoner stated, “I saw a lot of men die behind the walls. How many? I can’t even remember half of them, but there was a lot of killing.”
On June 24, 1968, the worst series of riots in the prison’s history began in the print shop, forcing a number of political decisions that would end with the closing of the penitentiary 16 years later. The initial June riots led to at least $1 million in fire damage and the destruction of nine buildings and damage to six others.
Tensions continued to mount through July and led to more riots in August, when inmates not only started fires, but also took nine guards hostage. This forced a 28-hour standoff between the leaders of the convicts and the authorities that ended with an assault on the prison on August 21. Officers blew holes in the south wall and the roof and invaded the prison with deadly force. Five of the convicts were killed but the guards managed to make it through alive. This strengthened the conviction that the prison needed to be closed down.
Governor James A. Rhodes ordered a new maximum-security prison to be built in remote Lucasville, Ohio, and placed the old prison under the control of Warden Harold Cardwell, who immediately cancelled the Christmas shows, the exhibitions and the team sports. The prison was now under a permanent lock-down and would remain that way for the rest of its existence.
In 1972, most of the prisoners were transferred out and sent to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, which had just been completed. The old prison now housed only the sick, the psychotic and the troublemakers. Except for the most secure areas, the place was falling into ruin. The fire-gutted buildings had been left to rot and decay and were slowly crumbling away.
In 1979, the prison was ordered closed down for good as of December 31, 1983. For the first time in more than 150 years, the Ohio Penitentiary was completely silent and empty. Or was it? Not long after the last of the inmates departed, new stories began to be told about the legendary place. And there were stories of a much darker sort.
While some stated that the only “ghosts” that remained in the prison were those of legend – remnants of the history and memories of the place, others soon began to argue that point. They believed that the fires, the executions, the stabbings, the shootings and the quiet, desperate, suicides that snuffed out thousands of lives behind the prison walls were not the only horrors to be imprinted on the desolate location. They began to believe that the spirits of many of these angry and sinister men remained behind.
Stories began to spread about the old prison site. Those who wandered too close to the old buildings or who dared to go inside began to believe that the otherwise empty cell blocks were haunted by the spirits of the men who died in the prison. There were those who even claimed to experience the phantoms connected to the horrendous fire of 1930. It was said that by standing out in the prison yard, you could hear the roar of ghostly flames from inside and the horrible screams of the men who burned alive in their cells.
These stories continued for several years until finally, the prison was torn down and the site where it stood was cleared away. A sports arena was built where the prison once stood and in the fall of 2000, the arena became the home of the Columbus NHL hockey team. All traces of the old prison were finally destroyed. Or were they? According to reports, witnesses have spotted apparitions and have heard disembodied screams echoing across the arena’s parking lot at night. This has led many to believe that the site continues to be haunted today.
Years ago, when it was first proposed that a tourist attraction or development would take the place of the prison, one of the former guards spoke up, “I wouldn’t care if they dynamited the place. It’s the entrance to Hell itself... I can’t tell you what is there, what is seen and unseen....”
Could the destruction of the prison have erased the ghostly memories and restless souls that once lingered here? Or do they remain, still hoping for some sort of redemption to appease their troubled past?