Prisons seem to be prime locations for supernatural phenomena. With their dim, forbidding halls, claustrophobic cells, and often violent and dark histories of pain, suffering, and death, it is perhaps no wonder that such places should have tales of ghosts and the paranormal gravitate towards them. Some of the most frightening tales of prisons and the paranormal revolve around those prisoners who have been executed here, only to continue on to sow terror even after their blood has run cold, and putting a new spin on the term Death Row.
One of the earlier of the spooky accounts we will look at revolves around a man named Frederick Hollman, who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1883 and in around 1886 embarked on a killing spree that spanned the nation. Holland was one of the first full-on serial killers ever seen in America, and by the time he was arrested and convicted for the murder of a woman named Wiebke Geddes in 1896 he was suspected of at least five other similar murders and possibly as many as seventeen killings, as well as an additional eight attempted murders, making it one of the most shocking and brutal crime waves the nation had ever seen at the time. Hollman was sentenced to death and imprisoned at the historic Ford County Jail in Paxton, Illinois, to await his fate, all the while insisting on his innocence. On May 14, 1897, Hollman was executed by hanging, but before he dropped on the gallows he let out his sinister and chilling last words:
Just wait until I am dead and I will come back every night and visit those men who put me here, those witnesses and jurors. I will haunt them to their graves. I will rap on their windows at night, and they will see my face at their windows.
By all accounts he seems to have kept his promise, and Ford County Jail has gone on to become ground zero for paranormal phenomena directly linked to his ghost. Rapping on windows can indeed be heard at night, and there have been photographs purported to show Hollman’s face glaring into his jail cell from the window. The cell where Hollman spent his last days is often overcome by waves of cold, unbearable feelings of dread, and shadowy figures are frequently seen skulking about in the corner. A disembodied voice thought to be that of Hollman is frequently heard and captured on recording equipment here, very often not sounding too pleasant. Some visitors have even reported being poked or pushed by some unseen entity, and the ghost is perhaps not surprisingly seen as a rather malevolent presence. The haunting has gone on to make Ford County Jail a sort of tourist attraction for ghost hunters and macabre curiosity seekers.
Another of America’s first serial killers also seems to have found a way to keep terrorizing after death. In this case the perpetrator was a woman, a Lavinia Fisher, who according to legend began her reign of terror with her husband, John. In the early 1820s the two ran a guest house near Charleston, South Carolina, called the Six Mile House, and beneath its charming and inviting veneer it was in reality a charnel house of horrors for unsuspecting travelers.
Travelers who came through the area were met with great hospitality by the owners, especially Lavinia, who was known to be beguiling and to have quite the way with men. Targets were usually rich gentlemen, who Lavinia would supposedly invite to a luxurious parlor room for tea, which was unbeknownst to them spiked with poison that would make the guest groggy and seemingly very drunk. The two owners would then bring the guest back to his room, which was equipped with a trapdoor leading to a cellar down below, and drop the body down into the dark. If the fall didn’t kill the poor sap, then an axe to the back of the head certainly did, and the body would be stripped of valuables, dismembered, and disposed of.
The couple supposedly managed to keep this grim work going for over a year, with no one the wiser, until one guest by the name of John Peoples. It was his dislike of tea that saved him, as he poured it out when no one was looking, and Lavinia, no doubt perplexed as to why he wasn’t falling into a stupor like everyone else, began to act odder and odder. The unsettled Peoples finally decided to head back to his room for the evening, excusing himself much to Lavinia’s chagrin. When the trapdoor in his room opened he barely escaped, and he immediately went to authorities, who allegedly found the remains of 20 to 30 corpses on the premises in varying states of decomposition.
John and Lavinia were arrested and eventually found guilty, but since married women were exempt from the death penalty at the time, John was the first to go, and with him gone she was next at the gallows, as she wasn't techncally married anymore. According to accounts, Lavinia really played up on the drama of the moment and was defiant to the end, wearing her actual wedding dress to her execution and proclaiming “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me - I'll carry it,” after which she purportedly cursed and shrieked wildly and then did the executioner’s job for him by hanging herself.
Much of the tale surrounding their crimes and arrest have been exaggerated and turned to legend over the years, such as the fact that the Fishers were never found guilty of murder, but rather of highway robbery, which was nevertheless considered a capital offense at the time, and the wedding dress tale is likely fiction as well, making it hard to separate the legends from the reality. However, one thing that is certain is that Lavinia and her husband were hanged, and that ever since this execution Lavinia’s spirit has reportedly haunted the cell she was kept in. It is here where her specter is often sighted wandering about, or her face spotted peering into the cell window. The ghost has also been seen at the nearby potter's field by the Old Jail, where both her and her husband were likely buried.
She is often blamed on the frequently malfunctioning alarm system and for lights that go on or off without warning at the Old Jail. Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) has been incredibly active at her former cell, and it seems that Lavinia is quick to answer questions or engage in banter, as well as spewing obscenities or giving ominous cryptic messages. Hers is supposedly a very aggressive and malignant spirit, with reports from visitors of the feeling of hands choking them or of an inexplicable shortness of breath, as well as having things knocked out of their hands, and of being poked, shoved or scratched by some invisible, aggressive force. The TV show Ghost Hunters famously had a scene in which one of these attacks was captured on camera. Sudden blasts of an overpowering stench that rolls through only to vanish, as well as cold spots have also been reported from the jail, sealing it as an unpleasant place indeed.
Interestingly, the Charleston County Jail has a myriad of other ghostly phenomena that are not always related to Lavinia Fisher at all. For instance, there is the apparition of a jailer complete with a rifle that has been seen here, as well as spectral black man in ragged clothes said to wander around in a daze about the facility. It is definitely not a place one wants to be after dark, and certainly seems to be filled with some very angry, troubled ghosts.
From later years we have the case of Raymond Snowden, who in September of 1956 brutally murdered a woman named Cora Dean in Garden City, Idaho, ruthlessly stabbing her dozens of times, severing her spinal cord, and earning himself the gruesome nickname “Idaho's Jack the Ripper.” When Snowden was convicted of the killing he would claim that he had killed two other women as well, but there was never any evidence that this was the case. It didn’t matter, as the death of Dean had earned him a death sentence by hanging, the first to be carried out in this fashion at the massive Old Idaho Penitentiary, in Boise, Idaho.
On October 18, 1957, Snowden was bought to the gallows and there in full view of the bereaved family of the victim the execution was carried out, but it did not go according to plan. Due to a technical malfunction the drop from the trapdoor did not snap the criminal’s neck and kill him instantly as it was meant to, and for nearly 20 minutes Snowden jerked and twirled about on the end of that rope, choking, gurgling, and gasping for breath before he was finally still. It is perhaps this ghastly botched execution that has caused Snowden’s vengeful ghost to remain tethered to this spot.
Although the prison is now a museum and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that doesn’t seem to make much difference to Snowden, and he has been supposedly haunting this place ever since his death. The site of the gallows is where nearly all of the paranormal activity is concentrated, and there is a lot of it. Visitors and tour guides alike frequently report the sounds of choking or gasping coming from here, as well as laughing or screaming, during both evening and daylight hours, and there is very often an indefinable sense of crushing dread and anguish that washes over those who come near. On occasion there has even purportedly been seen a full bodied apparition of Snowden skulking about in the shadows, or even more frightening a hulking, pitch-black figure that exudes malevolence, and EVP phenomena recorded here are impressively creepy.
Snowden’s ghost apparently has company here as well, as there is another entity at Old Idaho Penitentiary joining him. This apparition is said to be that of death row inmate Douglas Van Vlack, who opted to commit suicide by leaping from the rafters of the cell block rather than let the state execute him. Vlack’s spirit is also seen by both guests and employees, and usually takes the form of anomalous mists, fogs, and orbs of light gravitating towards the area where he died, and smart phones and other electrical equipment will apparently have their batteries go dead in short order or similarly malfunction.
By far the most infamous and well-known criminal to appear in this article is none other than prolific serial killer and notorious monster Ted Bundy, who eventually confessed to at least 30 murders in six states between the years of 1974 and 1978, although the true number is probably even higher. Charismatic and attractive, Bundy lured young women to their dooms, often decapitating them or performing sexual acts on their corpses, and he was once described as “the very definition of heartless evil,” even describing himself as “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you'll ever meet.” He was a heartless, sadistic abomination who has gone on to become one of the most reviled and well-known serial killers the world has ever seen, and even in death it seems he still manages to reach out from beyond.
On January 24, 1989, Bundy was put to death by electric chair at Florida State Prison, but by some accounts he has never really gone away. Over the years there have been numerous prison guards who have reported seeing Bundy’s apparition here at the prison, which is now called Union Correctional Institution, including a report from 2001 from one guard who claimed to have seen the spectral murderer perched atop the electric chair and smiling maniacally at him. Bundy’s ghost has apparently been seen in his former cell as well, and whenever anyone approaches too closely the apparition will simply blink out of existence. Bundy’s ghost has even been reported as talking to guards, such as one alleged encounter where he supposedly was sighted in his holding cell and told a group of guards, “Well, I beat all of you, didn't I?” The ghost of Bundy has apparently been seen so often at the prison that some guards are too spooked to even return to work, and Katherine Ramsland Ph.D., author of Blood & Ghosts, said of this in an article in Psychology Today, thus:
The man telling the story said there were so many sightings at one point that the warden couldn’t find anyone willing to enter the execution chamber alone. I don’t know if the reporter tried to corroborate this by asking the warden. (I would have.) However, some reports claimed that the warden had said that anyone who spreads stories about Bundy’s ghost will be fired. So, I guess there’s no need for a reporter's follow-up call. (Supposedly, some guards quit, anyway, rather than face the deceased killer.)
Others refuse to enter the execution chamber or to go anywhere near Bundy’s former cell. The article also gives the testimony of current inmate at the prison, who corroborated the tales and said that Bundy’s spirit was indeed very active there. According to the article the unnamed inmate said in 2013:
For many years I heard the rumors of Ted Bundy’s ghost appearing and didn’t believe it. Now, my mind has changed. I and other residents (including staff) have witnessed the ghost on many occasions. It is definitely Bundy. It comes in the early morning before dawn in our housing unit and in different cells. He’s always smiling. It’s a white-blue mist but very detailed. Some of the other residents claim to hear him talking. I have not heard that yet.
It is not only the prison itself where Bundy’s ghost is seen, as he has allegedly been spotted in other scattered locations as well. There have been purported sightings of the specter at the Chi Omega sorority house, which is one of his old crimesscenes, as well as at a building where he once rented a room in Tallahassee. Other more questionable reports come from mediums who claim to have channeled the spirit and even those who say they have actually conversed with Bundy through a Ouija Board. Whether any of it is true or not, the thought of the lurking, grinning ghost of one of history’s greatest monsters is terrifying nevertheless.
Moving ahead in years we come to the dark story of Willie Lloyd Turner, who in 1978 was arrested and convicted for the brutal execution-style murder of a jewelry store owner in Franklin, Virginia. Turner would go on to spend a full 15 years on death row, during which time he was brought in for execution 5 times only to have it called off at the last minute due to ongoing appeals, leading him to lament, “Even a cat has only nine lives. Enough is enough. This is psychological torture.” Due to these repeated aborted trips to the execution chamber, Turner fought his grim sentence by claiming that the treatment was unconstitutional and could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. However, the courts didn’t see it that way, and he knew his day was drawing near, writing in his memoirs:
Two times, the guards have gone out of their way to show me the electric chair. As your date gets closer, the execution squad practices more and more. They test the electric chair. Because it is in the room right next door, I could hear it crack and hum.
Appeals and stays of execution finally ran out for Turner, and when the final day came he used his new right to choose his form of execution and opted for lethal injection rather than the electric chair that had haunted him so. He was executed on May 25, 1995, at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, and some strange things were found in the days after his death. When prison guards checked his room they were startled to see that he had somehow managed to smuggle in a firearm, which had been stashed within a typewriter on which he had typed out a rambling 600-page autobiography, which went into great detail on his life and musings on Death Row and included amongst the stranger entries tales of seeing ghosts, and even a claim that he had figured out how to become one himself.
Interestingly, for several months after his death Turner was apparently seen lurking about the prison by both guards and inmates alike. In this case, Turner seems to have been a strikingly real and life-like spirit, and rather than some misty, indistinct wraith he was described as seeming like he was really there. Indeed, it was said that one could almost mistake him for being a living person if it weren’t for the fact that he had the habit of just suddenly vanishing into thin air. Witnesses said that Turner’s ghost would often appear at the cell doors of other inmates, where he would stare at them thoughtfully before fading away right in front of their eyes. Interestingly the haunting would cease within 6 months, and one wonders if Turner really did find a way to become a ghost, only to perhaps decide that it wasn’t to his liking.
When looking at accounts such as these it is curious to note that it is not even always the criminals on Death Row who become restless spirits, but also the executioners as well. An odd case of such a haunting goes back to the early 1920s, at a place called Strangeways Jail, now known as HM Prison Manchester, in England. Although capital punishment was abolished in Great Britain in 1965, before then this place had seen over a hundred executions, and one of the main executioners for 23 years was a man named John Ellis, who maintained that position until he killed himself in 1932.
It is said that the ghost of Ellis still lurks at the prison, taking the form of a man in a dark suit and always carrying what appears to be a briefcase with him. This ghost is supposedly most often seen walking up the “B Wing” towards the control center, where he will instantaneously vanish at the foot of an old iron staircase. The rumor is that Ellis has decided to stick around in the afterlife in order to maintain order at the prison and keep under control the other ghosts said to inhabit the grounds, of which there are many. One of these is the ghost of Mrs. Merrifiled, infamous for a poisoning spree that got her hanged here in September of 1953 and by most accounts is a rather unruly and malevolent spirit. It is probably good that Ellis is there to keep her in line.
Are these ruthless criminals tethered to the places of their deaths? Do they still roam the prison halls as they did in life and are they in a sense still condemned to dwell here and serve their sentence even on in death, perhaps forever? Whether any of these tales are true or just urban legend and tall tales, they are certainly rather eerie and spooky considering the locales and the coldblooded killers these wraiths are meant to be, making these prisons even scarier than they already are.