Hauntings at Ohio State Reformatory

Famed to be the film set for the many popular movies including the widely acclaimed Shankshaw Redemption, the Ohio State Reformatory (also known as Mansfield Reformatory) has earned its place as one of the most historic buildings in Ohio. Yet, the reformatory’s violent past have also made it one of the most haunted places in the city of Mansfield.

For the thousands of tourists who go on the “Hollywood Tour” at Ohio State Reformatory every year, the highlight was not the various film sets they had seen on the movie screens but rather, the paranormal encounters that will make even the skeptics wince.

Many tourists have claimed to have heard whispers and experience cold spots when walking along the run-down hallways and visiting the barren cells. Shadowy figures have also been spotted roaming around the basement of the reformatory.

Several active spots have been reported at the reformatory including the Toilet Room and East Showers on the first floor of the East Wing, the Chapel, the Admin Basement as well as the Solitary Confinement (also known as The Hole).

Solitary Confinement (The Hole) | Image credits: Tripadvisor

The twenty solitary confinement cells is known to be the most haunted area in the entire reformatory. Inmates living in ‘The Hole’ were forced to spend as much as two weeks in the pitch-black cells with small portions of food and water given once every few days. As such, many were said to have been driven to madness and had taken their lives within the four walls. Visitors who enter the cell reported feeling a sense of uneasiness, as if someone is watching them from a corner of the empty cell.

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Deaths at the Reformatory

It is estimated that over 200 people including inmates and guards have died during the operation of Ohio State Reformatory.

The darkest day in the prison’s 80 year old history came on July 21, 1948 when inmates Robert Daniels and John West abducted the superintendent John Niebel, his wife and their 20-year-old daughter. Nicknamed the “mad-dog killers”, the duo were released from Ohio State Reformatory just months earlier for good behavior; West was convicted for auto theft while John was imprisoned for robbery. Yet on July 10, Daniels and West committed another heinous crime: the killing of Earl Ambrose, owner of a local tavern at Columbus.

John West | Image credits: Ohio State Reformatory

On July 21, Daniel and West stormed into the Niebel family farm located just outside the prison grounds. The family was dragged to a nearby cornfield before being shot in the head by Daniels. The duo would go on to commit another two murder: the killing of farmer James Smith and truck driver Orville Taylor. On July 21, the duo was discovered during a road-block. West was killed in a shootout while Daniel was apprehended; the latter was executed just six months later on January 3, 1949.

Robert Daniels | Image credits: Ohio State Reformatory

Other tragic deaths that have happened within the walls of the reformatory is the killing of two prison guards. In November 1926, a 72-year-old guard was killed during an unsuccessful attempt to escape from the prison. The shooter Philip Orleck was arrested two months later and sentenced to death by electrocution. Six months later in October 1932, inmates Merrill Chandler and Chester Probaski bludgeoned 48-year-old prison guard Frank Hanger to death with an iron bar during an attempted prison break which failed. The duo was executed in 1935.

Apart from the numerous murders that have occurred, a large number of deaths can be attributed to diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis. Due to a lack of resources and a understaffed team, many of the inmates were unable to receive adequate treatment. As a result, many died in the cells that have imprisoned them.

Brief History of the Ohio State Reformatory

Opened in 1910, over 15 years after its initial construction in 1886, the Ohio State Reformatory was built to house young first-time offenders in the state. Designed by Levi T.Scofield, the reformatory featured several architectural style—Richardsonian Romanseque, Victorian Gothic, and Queen Anne—to differentiate itself from existing reformatories and diminish the negative connotation associated with such facilities.

Facade of Ohio State Reformatory | Image credits: Cindy Vasko

The East Cell Block in particular, stands at six tiers high and remains as the largest free-standing steel cell block in the world since its completion.

In 1986, the reformatory was ordered to be closed down after the filing of a class-action lawsuit which condemned the harsh living conditions that the inmates were living in. On December 1990, Ohio State Reformatory was officially closed. Since then, several demolition work have been done on the site. This led to a huge outcry among the local community who sought for the preservation of the historic site. Efforts are currently being done by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society to restore the interior and prevent the buildings from further deterioration.

Cells in the Ohio State Reformatory | Image credits: roadtrippers.com

Today, the reformatory runs both day and night (ghost) tours to raise awareness about the historic site and raise funds for the ongoing restoration projects.

Apart from the tours, Ohio State Reformatory is being used as a film set for many film and television productions. This includes

  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  • Marilyn Mansion photography shot (1996)
  • Air Force One (1997)
  • Ghost Hunters investigations by SciFi Channel’s TV (2005)
  • Fallen Angels (2007)
  • Inside: Secret America series 1 episode 5 by National Geographic Channel (2013)
  • Ghost Asylum (2015) TV show by Destination America
  • Escape Plan: The Extractors (2018)
  • “Some of It” music video by Eric Church (2019)
  • Judas and Black Messiah (2019)
Scene in Shawshank Redemption | Image credits: Vanity Fair

The reformatory also hosts several large scale events including The Shawshank Hustle 7km run, the INKcarceration Music & Tattoo Festival as well as the Pour One Nine Beerfest festival.

Ohio State Reformatory Cell 13

Cell 13 at the Ohio State Reformatory is infamously known for being the spot where 22-year-old inmate James Lockhart set himself on fire after getting denied for parole. The story goes that Lockhart stole a bottle of turpentine from the prison furniture shop and went back to Cell 13 before pouring it over his head and lighting it with a match.

Within seconds, fire engulfed Lockhart.

Cell 13 in Ohio State Reformatory where James Lockhart self-immolated | Image credits: Juleana @Medium

His self-immolation was immediately made known to the guards by the inmate at Cell 14. However, they could only watch helpless as Lockhart screams in pain, seemingly regretting his actions.

It is reported by those who visits the reformatory tthat one can vaguely hear his screams when standing in the middle of cell 13 at night. Some have also claimed to have felt a slight warm when gripping the cell doors of Cell 13.

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