A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Take a ghost-hunting tour of The Ohio State Reformatory and just maybe a ghost will find you

By Ryan Clark
NKyTribune reporter

MANSFIELD, Ohio — I never find anything.

It’s true.

I’ve traveled the country seeking out the weird and fantastic. I’ve been to supposed haunted houses and asylums. I’ve searched the skies for UFOs and hunted the woods for cryptids.

Never have I seen anything that made me truly question what I know. And I want to see something. I do. It’d just never happened.

That is, until I visited The Ohio State Reformatory.

Now I’m not saying I have something definitive. You may not think it’s anything at all. But nearly every person who has seen the photo finds it, at the very least, odd. Some say it’s unsettling. I’d have to agree.

But more on that in a second.

The trip was a spur-of-the-moment type thing. It’s probably what I love to do most in life: Get out and go on a road trip to see something weird. Thankfully, I have a few friends and relatives who like do the same. I am not a professional paranormal investigator — not in any way. I am just a writer who is drawn to the weirder stories of the world, hoping for a good story to tell.

Our latest trip occurred on the July 4 weekend of this year. With the pandemic seemingly waning, things had begun to open up again, and my daughter and I decided to head up to The Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, about a three-hour drive from our home in Northern Kentucky. The reason? To take the ghost tour of course.

With 94 years as a working prison (it opened in 1896) and 154,000 inmates held in its walls, there’s more than a few opportunities for some ghostly stories. On top of that, the structure was built on a Civil War battlefield.

I’m fortunate my daughter, who is 11, likes to do this kind of stuff, too. She seems to find the paranormal fun, so she was ready to drive up to Mansfield. But I was interested because the former prison was interesting for a couple of other reasons: 1. It was the setting for the film The Shawshank Redemption, one of my all-time favorite flicks. There’s a small museum of sorts there that celebrates the movie. And secondly, the prison is a huge monstrosity — at six stories high, it is the tallest cell block in the world.

So I was in. And let me tell you, the tour does not disappoint. At about 90 minutes long, you’re able to take a self-guided walk with a handheld audio player. At various points you are prompted to turn on the audio player and you will hear notes about the history and legends of the place. It’s great. The tour incorporates facts about the movie as well as alleged sightings and ghostly encounters that have occurred there.

For movie fans, you’ll see props and settings for popular scenes, like the hollowed-out Bible, or the slab of wood where Brooks etched his name. For history buffs you’ll hear how the architect wanted the prison to be designed like a castle, something that could maybe inspire the inmates. And for those who love the paranormal? There’s a few stories for you, too.

I was impressed with the sheer size of the place. Being six stories high was a bit dizzying for me, but there’s plenty of railings to hold on to as you walk down to the bottom. It’s a creepy scene, for certain. And especially when you visit places like the solitary wing, it’s hard not to think about how awful it would be to spend time there. Alone.

For the record, we saw nothing during our tour that we thought was paranormal. Even though we enjoyed it immensely, we didn’t see a thing that was abnormal. However, there were two separate times that I could swear I smelled cigar smoke — a sweet smell that seemed out of place. Let’s face it, most of the prison just smells like mold, or maybe a musty odor, something like your grandparents’ basement. I noted that both times when I smelled the sweet aroma, there was no one else around. The second time, my daughter smelled it, too.

Of course, as we made our way through, we took pictures on our camera phones. My daughter always hopes we’ll see something strange in the pictures, but I assure her that we will not. “I’ve never gotten anything,” I say. Of course, she doesn’t care what I say, so keeps shooting.

I find that the facts about a place are sometimes more interesting (or terrifying) than the legends. One story that did really happen at the Reformatory involves a couple of men who’d served their time, but came back for revenge on an allegedly abusive guard. In 1948,  Robert Daniels and James West has gotten out, but came back and paid a visit to the Reformatory’s farm and its boss, asking for information about the guard. When they couldn’t get the information they desired, they decided to kidnap and kill the farm boss, his wife and their daughter. The pair of killers were later found after a six-state manhunt — West was killed in a shootout and Daniels was executed in the electric chair.
But there are other strange-but-true tales.

A year after the murders, the wife of beloved superintendent Arthur Lewis Glattke was killed in his office when she reached into a jewelry box, and knocked a gun onto the floor. It discharged, injuring her, and the next day she succumbed to pneumonia. Nearly 10 years later, Glattke himself passed away from a heart attack in his quarters. In two other separate incidents, guards were killed during escape attempts.

As you see, the factual stories are fascinating enough. But when you add the paranormal to them, they get downright otherworldly. There are tales of Glattke’s wife wandering the halls, still confused by what happened to her. Some say they’ve seen ghost children playing peek-a-boo. And then there are the stories of a certain superintendent, one who liked to smoke sweet-smelling cigars. I didn’t know about that until after the tour.

“Oh yeah,” one tour guide told us. “That’s Art. He loved to smoke cherry cigars.”
Art, as in Arthur Glattke. The former superintendent, who was well-known for smoking the sweet-smelling stogies. Interesting.

My daughter follows my lead and likes to ask anyone — janitors, tour guides, cashiers — if they’ve had any strange experiences. It’s a good practice. You get great stories.
“I’ve had my phone battery drained for no good reason,” a janitor told us. “I once saw the outline of a man appear and seem to come at me. I screamed and ran away, I’m not even gonna lie. But I feel like most of the spirits kind of appreciate us because we’re taking care of this place now.”

Another tour guide offered this: “We were over in the West Cell Block and we heard footsteps following us. But we turned and no one was there. Later on, we heard other people say they’d had a similar experience. Well, the next week, we were having a party for all the volunteers and we all get to ghost hunt. People were still hearing footsteps and thinking they were being followed, so we decided we were going to check out the West Cell Block. I ended up going all the way down the hallway almost to the showers, and I could hear those footsteps behind me the whole way — but I could see my friends standing all the way back at the entrance. I knew something was following me.

So I decided I’d gone far enough. I started coming back, and I had my flashlight shining in front of me. So I turned and shined it behind me as I was walking, and directly behind me, I saw a black mass in the form of a head and shoulders walking with me for about three steps. It was something. We don’t know if it was from the prison or something from the Civil War training camp — some people have seen soldiers marching through the wall. But whatever it was, it was there.”

My daughter also asked the cashier at the gift shop if she’d seen anything strange and she also had a story for us. Turns out the woman happens to sit right in front of a large bank of screens that show all the motion-sensor monitors that cover the entire prison.

But one was frozen in time.

She told us that two nights prior, the monitor has fizzled out, just gone blank. They figured the batteries had run out or it just malfunctioned in some way. But later on, at about 2 a.m., something had triggered it — obviously some kind of motion — and it recorded one last image: A shot of a room, filled with furniture, but nothing else. No one was there. Not a small animal, and definitely not a human.

What had moved and caused the camera to go off?

It was all a lot of fun, and my daughter and I had a great time. We got a few knickknacks as souvenirs and left extremely pleased with our choice to come. But it was only after we got home and looked at our photos that we really got excited.

As I previously said, I never really see anything odd on these trips. Oh, I have stories: One time I’m pretty sure a ghost stole some pictures from my photographer’s camera, and another time I think I may have seen an orb, but I never have evidence, you know? Just possibilities.

The setting for the Shawshank Redemption (from the OSR website)

Still, when we got home my daughter wanted to go through our pictures. She wanted to bring them up on the computer, to pinch and zoom in, to look in all the dark corners for ghosts. 
“Sure — have at it,” I said, almost laughing.


So I went back to my laptop, working away at one thing or another.

And almost immediately, she came back. “What’s this?” she asked.

On her laptop she brought up a photo of us, taken by a lovely person on the tour. It showed my daughter and me posing in front of the massive, six-tier cell block. It looked normal. Then she zoomed in.

There, perfectly placed in-between our two heads, was … something.

“What is that?” I asked. “What IS that?”

I probably said it three or four more times. It caused my wife, who was only half-paying attention, to come over from another room and take a peek. She made a face. “I don’t want to look at that anymore,” she said, and she walked away.

I was shocked by the picture. From my perspective, it looked like the face of something peering out from an open cell. Was it spirit? Was it a demon? Was it merely a trick of the mind? I understand pareidolia, which is basically the science of seeing faces in everyday objects. And sure, that could be an explanation for what is there.

But what I found really odd is this: I have a similar photo, one I took that only features my daughter. Same exact spot. Same camera. Same conditions. The pictures were taken about one minute apart. But when you zoom in on the pic of her alone, you see nothing in that cell. It seems that just a minute prior, the facial image, or whatever it is, isn’t there.

Even a photographer friend of mine had to admit the image was odd. I’m still a little unnerved when I examine it. But it’s also pretty cool.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know for certain what it is. But it’s so strange and creepy. I do know that I really want to go back to the Reformatory. I want to take some more pictures — maybe even some video and audio.

As for my daughter, she’s pretty certain we captured a ghost. If anything, I’m happy because I definitively know this will lead to more hunts in the future. Will we get more evidence? We’re sure going to try.

“I think I’d like to come back here,” she told me after our visit to the Reformatory. “Maybe spend the night. That would be something, huh?”

Oh boy. I had to smile. I think I may have created a ghost-hunting monster.

For more information on The Ohio State Reformatory, visit www.mrps.org.

Ryan Clark writes for the NKyTribune, primarily covering the Covington Commission. To read more of Ryan’s work, visit his website: www.ForRyanOutLoud.com.

Related Posts

One Comment

  1. Betty Bond says:

    I would like to know when you do ghost hunts

Leave a Comment