When I first moved to Ohio, one of the places I was most excited about seeing was the Ohio State Reformatory (aka Mansfield Reformatory). Photos show a beautiful medley of Victorian Gothic meets Romanesque Revival, its interiors frozen in the mid-twentieth century, never aging or changing thanks to state funding. That's the surface. Then you start learning more about the history and all of the creatures that continue to live out time within its walls. The building has borne witness to some atrocities towards humanity: abuse, human rights infringements, murder, and suicide that have caused many to stay after their bodies have gone. Before we get into some of the more famous (and horrifying) ghosts of the place and my own personal experiences, let's do a quick little history lesson.
Ohio State Reformatory (originally named the Intermediary Penitentiary) began construction in 1886. The hope was this reformatory would be a place for nonviolent first-time offenders, as a sort of halfway point between the boy's reformatory in Lancaster and Columbus' State Penitentiary. While the prison received its first 150 prisoners in 1896, construction wasn't completed until about 1910. It didn't take very long for the prison to stray from its original intention. As the criminal population of Columbus rose, prisoners with violent offenses and serial crimes were placed at OSR. The prison became overpopulated: rooms intended for a single occupant now held three residents at a time. Approximately 200 people perished during their time of incarceration from disease, murder or suicide.
The increased population and understaffing brought a series of torturous punishments. Misbehaving residents could be susceptible to popular Hole, the sweatbox (which I could only imagine was like a sauna but not in the good way?), water tubes and finally the butterfly, an electrical shocking device. That's only the beginning, but it's no wonder that the prison was shut down in 1990 due to inhumane and overpopulated conditions. The vestiges of misery acquired over a near-century of operation continue to haunt the hallways unapologetically in the forms of tens upon tens of very active ghosts scattered about the large prison.
There are a lot of ghosts here. That statement is not unfounded: there's a ton of documented evidence from professional paranormal teams to weekly ghost overnights that OSR hosts during the Fall season. You too can check out the haunted history as an overnight experience. That's something I have not yet done, all of my experiences with the Ohio State Reformatory have been exclusively during day time, but even so, it's been chilling to say the least.
The Basement is home to two specific entities, one tragic, and one nefarious. According to lore, a 14-year-old boy was beaten to death in the basement. His shadow is seen flickering across walls, or out of the corner of your eye as if he's escaping. Despite the lack of description, you'll be able to decipher his presence from the other ghostly resident of the basement. While the energy of the boy is light, you can feel something unnerving and unsettling approach when the guard is in your presence. He has been described as a sinister experience, and is potentially believed to be the murderer of the young boy.
As you would expect, the Hole of the prison is another real hot spot for paranormal experiences. For those of you unfamiliar, the Hole is a culmination of small cells intended for the isolation of, particularly naughty prisoners. Prisoners were not allowed to leave their cell in their time within the Hole, and the rooms within the hole had no exposure to natural light. It was a pretty miserable place to be and such a punitive technic has been known to drive people to and over the brink of insanity. One of the most unsettling stories about the Hole has to do with a guard set two prisoners within the same cell, and one emerged. All and all, it was said that 100 prisoners were sent to the hole in the space that was intended for only 20. Living people who enter the Hole experience nausea, cold spots, breathing and generally a lot of get-me-out-of-here discomfort.
Alright, the Chapel/Sanctuary was one of the first places that I really got creeped out. Despite the fact it was daytime and the whole place is absolutely beautiful, I kept feeling as if there was something lingering in the shadows, looking at me, wishing me harm. I felt as if it was time to move on, and definitely didn't want to spend too much time assessing the room. Again, I'm a huge fan of religious spaces, from an artistic and anthropological perspective, and this unnerving desire to get the fuck out is rare for me. But there I was, desiring to get the hell out as soon as humanly possible. Ironically, this space was once used for executions despite slapping some religious iconography and calling it a sanctuary, so this space is considered to be the most haunted location within the building.
The Chair Room is probably one of the strangest and most unassuming sites of the Ohio State Reformatory. You're walking down a hallway, and you look to the right. Here is this windowless room with a chair placed in the middle, facing outwards toward you, like someone is watching you. Legend has it that a very dark entity lives in this room, and prefers for the chair to be in the middle of the room. If you move the chair, expect for it to move back soon after. During my research, I found one account where a person sat in the chair, provoking the spirit. By provoking, I mean yelling at it, inciting it to take action. The person left with scratch marks all down their back. This is one of the only physical manifestations from the hauntings that I could find. Personally, I did not feel comfortable, not even a little bit entering the room. I felt as if someone was staring at me intimidatingly and biding me to move along my route.
Clearly, when you're in a prison, you're going to spend a lot of your time in the cellblocks. And the cellblocks is where I had my most uncomfortable and terrifying experience of the whole prison. These, after all, were where most of the prisoners spent the duration of their stays. These small cells were overcrowded, spilling over maximum occupancy early on in the history of the prison. It's really safe to say this was a miserable place where people lived miserable existences. Suicides and tragedies were not uncommon. In 1930 a large fire broke out, killing 330 people and severely injuring 200 others. Those who survived were confined to a hot, crowded attic space, covered in painful burns that based on conditions probably were prone to infection. While there were a lot of suicides in the building, two of them are infamous throughout the East Cellblock. One of which, is James Lockhart. It's believed that Lockhart, who had less violent offenses than his cellmate and neighbors, was experiencing bullying and threats. To escape his fate at their hands, he stole a turpentine can and set himself on fire. The fire was so significant that all that anyone could do was watch him slowly melt, screaming and writhing in pain as he died. That's some next-level shit. Larry Haymer, a prisoner who was a week due from transferring made a noose out of his bedsheets and tossed himself over the railing, hanging himself. Everyone assumes that there was a fate worse than death waiting for him at that other prison. So, a lot to work with for haunting material right? Well, I painted a more elaborate context because 1) I literally saw a goddamn ghost and 2) I got so nauseous and dizzy walking around these cellblocks that I had to stop multiple times. Someone, a shadow, was watching me walking through the cellblocks. Which is pretty fucking creepy. Before it appeared, the experience of nausea came on, which is a common occurrence when the air pressure is changing and the energy levels are wacky from another presence.
Whether you believe me or not, that's on you. If you don't believe in these sorts of things, that's cool too. I do, obviously, and I can pretty much assure you that if you go on over to the Ohio State Reformatory, you are going to experience something there. Their tour season is coming to a close on September 30th, so hurry on over there to see the sites yourself, or come through September 27th through November 4th for Blood Prison: their haunted house attraction. There are also A TON of paranormal programs available throughout the year for those thrill-seekers. Check out their website and follow them today on Instagram.