Leavenworth, Kansas – Its guest list reads like a who’s-who of infamy, full of swindlers, gangsters, murderers and monsters. The gargantuan structure is at once a beautiful piece of architecture and an imposing sentinel on the land. In fact, from the outside, it looks almost like one of the many halls of government in Washington, D.C. But the people who stay here aren’t guests of their own free will. They don’t make laws. In fact, they broke a few. And inside, where penance is paid and cells are overcrowded, there are a few inmates who have stayed longer than most. In fact their sentences were up long ago, finished at the ends of their lives.
Prisons, all of them, are prime locations for potential hauntings. Take a good long look at what goes on within the walls, and you’ll see what I mean. Violence, anguish, death, disease…they mark even the most benign of places. Put them all together in a place of concentrated emotional turmoil, and you wind up with some of the most disturbed places on earth. Most prisons, in addition to being depressing places in and of themselves, have an oppressive air about them, as if they can’t wait to get someone in their cages to break their will. It’s almost as if, after more than a hundred years of absorbing the rage and suffering of so many, the buildings have taken on a spectral life of their own.
Almost fifty years after the fort named for Colonel Henry Leavenworth began construction, the government decided that it needed a military prison on its grounds. Within a year, the new facility house more than three-hundred inmates in cramped quarters. It took twenty years worth of violence and overcrowding for the government to realize that a new prison, this one federal and not military, needed to be built, and construction on the mammoth cage began. But there were no construction crews or hired contractors. Then Warden James French marched prisoners two and a half miles to the site of the new prison, where thy worked long hours building what would become their new home.
Even before the first brick was laid, violence erupted, resulting in the known death of at least one corrections officer. There are no records prior to 1901, but one assumes there were more deaths as the prison was well known for being a rough place, even by today’s standards. There were numerous escape attempts, each marked by violence. In 1898, one such attempt involved seventeen inmates who were working on the new prison. As they were walking away from the construction site, they attacked two guards, beat them down, and stole their weapons. They were all recaptured shortly thereafter, but it demonstrated just how easy it was to escape the old prison. The new one would not be so slight.
While construction would continue through the next twenty-five years, the first prisoners, more than four hundred of them, took up residence at the new penitentiary in 1903. More than twenty years later, the first real monster took residence. Carl Panzram was a notorious burglar, rapist, and serial killer. He was quoted as saying “In my lifetime, I have murdered twenty-one human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons, and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than one thousand human beings. For all these things, I am not the least bit sorry.” He was also quoted as saying “I’ll kill the first man that bothers me” when he was sentenced to Leavenworth. He made good on the threat in 1929 when he bludgeoned the foreman of the prison laundry with an iron bar. Panzram also holds the distinction of being the first man executed at Leavenworth, even telling the hangman “Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could kill ten men while you’re fooling around!”
Over the years, the list of notably naughty people who occupied cells in Leavenworth included George “Machine Gun” Kelly, “Boss” Tom Pendergast, and “Bugs” Moran. It has been the scene of multiple riots, murders, and gang-land antics involving the Aryan Brotherhood, Bloods, Crips, Mexican Mafia, and others.
With the amount of death and destruction that’s been housed in these walls, it’s little wonder the prison is haunted. While few of the ghosts have been identified, they’ve been reported by not only inmates, but guards as well. Some of the more interesting hauntings surround the towers that surround the buildings. Towers four, six, seven and eight have all been the scenes of weird events, including the sounds of phantom doors being opened and closed, boots climbing the staircases, and, in a few cases, someone trying to force their way through the trapdoors where the guards sit. In every case, even when backup has been called, the towers were reported empty. Tower eight, which reportedly has no power and has, in fact, been bricked shut, regularly makes telephone calls to the control station. Tower eight is the reported site of a suicide of one of the guards.
Other interesting phenomena center around building 65, which was, at one time, he prison hospital. Reports of screaming from the elevator shaft, and also reports of a third-floor specter of a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a friend. The wheelchair ghost has been responsible for many inmates waking up, going down to the guard station, and informing the guards that the “wheelchair guy” woke them up.
There have also been numerous reports of “shadow people,” cold spots, and strange noises throughout the prison. Whether or not any of the ghosts have been positively identified is unknown, but there is little doubt that something still wanders the halls.
The prison was converted from a maximum to a medium security facility in 2005. It remains today much the same way it was when it was first built, with obvious updates to plumbing, wiring, and security. It currently houses around 1,900 inmates in its main buildings, with an additional 400 in an adjoining minimum security camp. And, despite all the violence that still plagues it, the inmates are encouraged to take advantage of the prison’s education and job training programs. They also operate an inmate-run furniture factory, textile factory, and print shop, all to make money and make the prison self-sustaining. As for the hauntings, they reportedly continue, with many prisoners and guards reporting movement in empty towers and lights in buildings with no electricity.
There really isn’t a “best time” to visit Leavenworth, as it is inhospitable, even to those visiting inmates. There are stringent screening methods for anyone attempting entry, and it isn’t likely the administration would allow for ghost hunting among the general population. But if a person were desperate enough to look for ghosts in the oldest continually working prison in the United States, I suppose all they’d have to do is commit a crime heinous enough, and they’d find themselves in the haunted halls.
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