The tiny cells have been empty for more than three decades, and jailers no longer patrol the halls. Still, the building feels alive. It is as if those who made their homes here never left, and those who died here cry out for vengeance, or perhaps justice. Did the high walls keep them in? And, if so, do prison sentences last into the afterlife, or even for eternity? Or do those hands which built the high walls still stay, tied to the building through their sweat and blood? Walking through the building, you can feel eyes on you, crawling across your flesh, taking your measure. You may be on a self-guided tour, but to whatever lurks behind, you are nothing more than meat.
There are certain types of places that lend themselves to being haunted. Places where emotions ran high, where anger or hatred reigned supreme, or where the highest commodity was in pain. Some of these places, such as hospitals, harbor souls in pain and in need of pity. Other places, however, are home to something else, as dark as the living being who once walked within. Walking through the halls provides insight into an age gone by, and how the prisoners were treated. But in some areas, these places don’t need guides or written story cards hung on walls. All one really needs to do to learn about the past is to open his heart and mind, and listen to the whispering souls describe their pain.
Less than ten years into the life of the Idaho territory, the public realized that they were in need of a prison. In 1870, a single building was constructed to hold the vile and unrepentant. The building soon filled to capacity, and more buildings were needed. The inmates mined sandstone from a nearby quarry, building an imposing wall around the structure. Still, it could not keep up with the rapid influx of prisoners.
Over one hundred years, more than 13,000 inmates called the “Old Pen” their home, including 215 women. The rowdier of prisoners were sent to “Siberia,” the common name for solitary confinement. Quite a few were also sent to the third house, where the hangman waited at the gallows.
In 1971, the inmates had enough of the living conditions, which had not improved in a hundred years. In fact, up until the day it closed, the prison still did not have internal plumbing. A riot broke out, in which several inmates were killed. Another occurred in 1973, prompting the closure of the facility, and the transfer of all those incarcerated within to other, more modern, facilities. The penitentiary was soon placed on the National Registry of History Places, saving it from the wrecking ball and developers’ plans.
There are few who can deny that an empty building can be creepy, especially if that building is an old prison. But there’s more to that feeling if you’re in the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. True, there are feelings of dread in every corner, but the visitors and staff tell stories that let even non-believers in the supernatural know that something remains. To begin with, there is the oppressive feeling that follows people throughout the building. It grows strongest near the solitary confinement areas and the room where the executioner stood.
Another commonly-reported phenomenon is the sensation of being touched or pushed. Several paranormal investigative teams have had the experience, letting them know it was time to leave. Still others claim to have heard heavy footsteps on the floor above them and on the stairs leading up to the offices. A few have even claimed to have heard voices. There have also been reports of fast-moving shadows and full apparitions, though the identities have never been determined.
Once the prison closed in 1973, it was almost immediately named an historic site. It is currently owned by the Idaho State Historical Society, and functions as several museums. In one, visitors learn about some of the more notorious inmates, such as Hary Horchard, who assassinated a governor in 1908 and died in his cell in 1954, Lyda Southard, who murdered five of her husbands, and even Jack Davis, who was acquitted of murder just moments before his scheduled hanging. Other exhibits include an impressive collection of inmate-made weapons and tattoos.
The buildings themselves, however, were left exactly as they were at the end of the 1973 riots. From the smoke and fire-blackened stone walls to the calendars that still hang on the cell walls, walking through the cellblock is enough to give anyone a serious case of the creeps. Little wonder, then, that many report the feelings of being watched. Still, there are numerous sightings and experiences every year from everyone from visitors to the staff and guides. One employee even refuses to enter “Siberia,” the solitary confinement cells, unless he absolutely has to.
Apparitions appear throughout the year at any given time of day. However, the facility is usually open to the public. For a small fee, visitors can venture through history, examining what life was like in an old prison. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the prison is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., while the rest of the year will find the prison open daily from noon to 5 p.m. Once inside, it is the visitors choice whether he wants to be accompanied by a guide, or whether he just wants to wander on a “self-guided” tour. Either way, there are enough displays to let people know just what they’re looking at, and there are enough memories embedded in the stone walls to remind people just where they stand, and what was there before them.
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