Deer Lodge, Montana
Passing outside the high stone walls, visitors feel a chill. There, but for the grace of God, go they. It wasn’t so long ago that within these same walls, the worst of humanity thrived, their cycle of crimes continuing against their fellow inmates instead of the defenseless. But still, all that is in the past, isn’t it? Why, then, are there still cries heard from inside, punctuated by what sounds like the dull thud of a body dropping from the gallows, it’s neck stretched and life stolen? To whom do the footsteps down the halls belong? And why is it that in certain cells, visitors are met with cold hands pushing them away and voices warning them away? While some say a trick of the mind, others believe that the evil committed by those once incarcerated here lives on, it’s greasy stain left upon the high stone walls and iron bars.
More than almost any type of structure, prisons are notorious for holding the emotions of those once trapped within their walls. From the small county jails to the more famous sites like Alcatraz, prisons hold their inmates long after they’ve completed their service, or even passed away. Like most prisons from the time, The Old Montana State Prison has seen more than its share of tragedy and suffering. And, like most prisons from the time, it also bears the distinction of being haunted.
During the mid 1800’s, Montana was awash with prospectors seeking fortunes that most would never find. With those hoping to carve an honest wage came thieves, gamblers, murder and other vice. For a long while, it was common for groups of vigilantes made themselves responsible for dispensing justice at the end of a loaded pistol and a short rope. However, by 1860, it became apparent that something a bit more respectable had to be done. The government approved the building of a prison in Deer Lodge, resulting in the massive structure seen there today.
From the beginning, the prison was built not by contractors paid for their labors, but by the very prisoners it was meant to house. Over the years, it has been estimated that the inmates hand-made more than 1.2 million bricks in the construction of the prison that many would call their home for the rest of their lives. On July 2, 1871, the prison took in her first “guests.”
While guards watched from high catwalks and turrets, the worst criminals of the age began pouring in, carving out their own niches in the prison world, and rapidly overcrowding the facility. Such pressure began to evidence itself when numerous riots broke out, resulting in the deaths of many inmates by brutal violence and fire. According to historians, there is not an atrocity to which the prison walls have not borne witness. It closed in 1979, emptying it’s cargo of human refuse to another prison five miles away. A year later, it reopened as a museum complex, where the curious could see what life was life in the brutal pen.
Since the day it reopened, there have been numerous encounters, sightings, and phenomena recorded all over the prison. Visitors often ask if the place is haunted, then relate things that happened to them down the hallways. Over the past few years, paranormal investigative groups have come in to have a look to see if all the stories held water. It seems, however, that the investigators and guests have come to the same conclusion: Something still lingers within the walls. From murder to planned executions by hanging to riots to other unspeakable acts, the more than twenty thousand inmates who lived incarcerated in the tiny cells left enough behind to haunt several prisons.
Among the most common phenomena recorded are disembodied footsteps along the cell-block corridor. They sound like heavy boot steps, the type worn by the inmates in the prison’s early years. There are also the disembodied voices to be considered, many of which have been caught on tape by paranormal groups such as Tortured Souls Investigations and WSPIR. The source of one voice has been accredited to a woman named “Nancy.”
There have also been numerous claims that something lurks inside “The Hole,” what was the common name for Solitary Confinement. Although there has, as of yet, been no documented evidence, there have been multiple claims that something in The Hole attacks people, shoving them out of the darkened space and whispering to them in a voice too soft to hear. Almost as many people reputedly died in The Hole as did those who were sent up on the gallows to meet their deaths.
Perhaps the most interesting haunting comes also from the most interesting, and humorous, characters in the prison’s colorful history. Incarcerated in 1918 and sentenced to life in prison, Paul Eitner, also known as “Turkey Pete,” was the first and only person to occupy his cell in the lifetime of the prison. During his stay, he went a little mad and “sold” the entire flock of the prison’s turkeys to an inmate for twenty-five cents per bird. The other inmates liked Pete, as did the officials, so they were allowed to print “money” from the prison’s press to barter with him. After a while, he amassed so much of the bogus dough that he was allowed to “buy” the prison and run it from his cell. Using his version of money and checks, he “paid” all the prison expenses and guards, and was regarded as a loveable old kook by everyone within the walls. When he died in 1967, his was the only funeral ever paid for and held by the prison system. His cell was retired and turned into a barber shop, most who work there claim the cell is still his.
The sprawling complex is now home to several museums, including the prison museum and an antique and classic car museum. The prison museum section holds displays containing guns and restraints, work shoes, and other artifacts of life in the cage. There are even examples of forms with which inmates could request permission to grow moustaches. Visitors can request either a guided or unescorted tour.
There has recently been another addition to the tours, it seems, in the form of a walking ghost tour of the building. There have also, within the past year, been overnight ghost hunts scheduled with groups, though whether or not those will be done again are anyone’s guess.
Because of the location in Montana, it might be best to heed the summer hours of the place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Though there have been phenomena reported year round, it seems logical the a warmer time of year might make this place more enjoyable. However, keeping an eye on the prison’s blog at http://www.pcmaf.blogspot.com might be a good idea for the early head’s up.
See you in two weeks!