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December 31, was the supposed to be the official closing of the Ohio State Reformatory in 1986 but somehow, the ramshackle structure hung on until 1990. Better known to people today as the Mansfield Reformatory, the gloomy, gothic structure looms on the outskirts of a small Ohio town. Designed as a prison for criminals who were too old for the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster and not hardened enough for the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, the reformatory saw untold thousands of prisoners during its years of operations. Once applauded as a place that could humanely reform first-time offenders, the conditions deteriorated to the point that it became known more for abuse, torture and murder than for its early successes.
It’s been closed down now for many years, but those who cross the threshold of this place today can assure you that the prison is far from empty.
The campaign to build a prison in Mansfield began during the years of the Civil War but it was not until 1884 that the state legislature actually approved the creation of a prison that would serve as an “intermediate” place of incarceration for Ohio lawbreakers. Using land that had served as one of Mansfield’s two Civil War camps, the city raised $10,000 to purchase the land and the state acquired the more than 150 acres that adjoined it. The cornerstone of the prison was placed on November 4, 1886 and marked a day of great celebration in the city. A crowd of more than 15,000 turned out for the event and it featured a parade that started in Mansfield, which was decorated with flags and bunting, and ended at the new building site. A number of dignitaries were present for the celebration, including former President Rutherford B. Hayes, Senator John Sherman, Governor J.B. Foraker and General Roeliff Brinkerhoff, the man who led the drive to have a prison built in Mansfield. Cleveland architect Levi T. Scofield was hired to design the reformatory, which was expected to cost about $1.3 million to build. According to reports, he based his design on sketches of castles in Germany.
Numerous funding problems in the years that followed caused so many delays that the reformatory was not able to accept its first group of inmates until 1896, a full ten years after work at the site began. The prison officially opened on September 17 when 150 inmates were transferred to the news facility from the Ohio Penitentiary. The transfer drew almost as much attention as the original groundbreaking did. Large crowds turned out in Columbus to watch the inmates, dressed in prison stripes, march from the penitentiary to the train station. The prisoners, entertained by the attention, waved and made jokes to the crowds as they passed. Men along the route even passed out cigars to the inmates as they walked by them. The train was greeted by another large crowd when it stopped in Galion, before continuing on to Mansfield. People in town cheered as the men were unloaded at the northwest corner of the reformatory and were taken directly to their cells. The inmates were immediately set to work. The reformatory was still far from finished and the convicts were used to complete the sewer system and other parts of the structure. Construction was not fully completed until 1910.
Because the reformatory was an intermediate prison, designed for young offenders, it had few famous inmates during its history. At least one of them went on to great notoriety, however, proving that reform was not always possible with some offenders. The most famous former inmate was Henry Baker, one of the men convicted of pulling off the famous Brink’s heist in 1950.
Some of the inmates at Mansfield didn’t just commit crimes to get into prison, or after they got out. Some of them actually carried on criminals operations while they were still incarcerated. On August 21, 1921, two reformatory inmates, King Williams, age 18, and John Kmetz, age 17, were charged with carrying on a counterfeiting operation while behind bars. The plot came to the attention of the U.S. Secret Service from the superintendent of the reformatory, who acted on a tip from a trusty. The two young men had apparently been creating counterfeit bills and passing them to reformatory guards, who circulated them throughout the area. Assistant Superintendent Rowe had actually caught Williams in the act, putting the finishing touches on a bogus $5 bill. Williams and Kmetz were paroled in late 1921 and were immediately re-arrested by federal authorities, who charged them with counterfeiting.
But darker crimes have occurred in the history of the reformatory, as well. Two corrections officers have been murdered in the line of duty at the Ohio State Reformatory. On November 2, 1926, a paroled inmate named Phillip Orleck returned to the prison to try and help a friend escape. The attempt was unsuccessful but in the course of it, Orleck shot a guard named Urban Wilford outside the west gate. Wilford was killed and Orleck was arrested two months later. He died in the electric chair at the Ohio State Penitentiary the following year.
The second officer was Frank Hanger, who died after being beaten with an iron bar. Hanger tried to stop an escape attempt by a dozen prisoners in October 1932 and paid for it with his life. Two inmates, Merrill Chandler and Chester Probaski, were charged with the guard’s murder and were sent to the electric chair in 1935.
Perhaps the darkest days in the history of the Ohio State Reformatory came with the parole of two inmates, Robert Daniels and John West – who would forever be immortalized in newspapers as the “Mad Dog Killers.” In the summer of 1948, just days after being released from prison, the two young men went on a killing spree that ended with seven people dead, including a guard at the reformatory and his wife and daughter. They started the spree by killing a Columbus tavern owner named Earl Ambrose on July 10, followed by Frank Frech, an elderly tourist camp operator on July 11. After that, they drove straight to Mansfield and the Ohio State Reformatory. Robert Daniels, interviewed after he was captured stated that they had gone to the prison looking for a guard named “Red” Harris, but when they didn’t found him, they went to the home of another guard, John Niebel.
Daniels and West arrived at the Niebel home around 1:30 a.m. and knocked on the door. When Niebel answered, they told him that their car had broken down and they wanted to use the telephone. He let them inside, but did not recognize the two men at first. It was not until Daniels pulled out a gun that Niebel realized the horror that he had allowed into his home. While West held a gun on Niebel, Daniels went upstairs forced Mrs. Nolana Niebel, and her 20-year-old daughter, Phyllis, to come downstairs. The family was forced into a light-gray automobile and was driven by Daniels and West through Mansfield, around Central Park, and then out of town to Flemings Falls Road. As they traveled, Daniels forced the Niebels to take off all of their clothes and throw them out the window.
Finally, the car was stopped and the family was forced out into the lonely cornfield that would become their death site. Daniels marched them through the knee-high corn and then, forcing them to stand in a line next to one another, shot each of them in the head with an old Mauser automatic.
Daniels and West fled the scene and abandoned the car they were driving. A few hours later, they were captured when they attempted to shoot it out with police and sheriff’s deputies at a roadblock north of Van Wert. The blockade was set up as part of what became one of the greatest manhunts in the state’s history. The newspapers called the killing spree a “13-Day Reign of Terror.” The killers claimed their last two victims just before they were caught, driving a stolen truck that was being used to haul four brand-new automobiles. James J. Smith, a newlywed farmer from Tiffin, was shot through the head when he refused to give up his driver’s license. Less than an hour later, the body of another man, Orville Taylor, a truck driver from Niles, Michigan, was found in a roadside park near Tiffin. Taylor was believed to be the driver of the automobile truck that the killers were driving when they were stopped. Shots were exchanged at the roadblock and Daniels and West managed to wound a Van Wert policeman named Leonard Conn and Frank Fremont, a conservation division employee, during the gunfight. It ended with West being shot dead and Daniels being taken into custody.
While in jail, Daniels bragged about his exploits and when he was bought outside to pose for news photographers, an angry mob gathered and demanded that he be turned over to them to be hanged. Officials managed to get him safely back indoors but not before Daniels cursed the police, the photographers and the crowd. He was later tried and convicted for the murders and took a well-deserved seat in the Ohio State Penitentiary electric chair in January 1949.
In other cases, inmates at the Ohio State Reformatory were killing each other – or themselves. In 1955, a guard discovered the body of an inmate who had hanged himself in his cell. A few years later, another inmate poured a can of turpentine over himself and lit a match, setting his clothing on fire. After a prison riot occurred at the reformatory in 1957, 120 prisoners were confined to a solitary confinement area known as “the hole.” This was a dank, pitch-dark place of confinement where it was rumored that several inmates had gone insane. Because there were only 20 rooms in the hole, many of the men had to be locked into the solitary cells together for 30 days. During this time, at least one prisoner was alleged to have been murdered, his body hidden by another inmate under some bedding for several days.
Some blamed the condition of the prison on the mental state of some of the inmates. By the early part of the 1930s, the reformatory was already being criticized for being overcrowded and offering inhumane living quarters for the prisoners. As the years went by, the facility deteriorated even more.
In the 1970s, the state declared that the Ohio State Reformatory no longer met the standards and guidelines for correctional institutes. Public outcry about the state of the prison was led by the Counsel for Human Dignity, a coalition of civic and church groups. In 1978, they filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the 2,200 inmates at the reformatory, claiming that the prisoners’ Constitutional rights were being violated because they were forced to live in “brutalizing and inhumane conditions.” The lawsuit was finally resolved in 1983 with the filing of a consent decree in which prison officials agreed to improve conditions while preparing to close the cellblocks by December 31, 1986. The closing date ended up being extended for a few years, but by 1990, the reformatory was closed for good.
During the final years of the prison, the only people who seemed to appreciate the crumbling prison were Hollywood moviemakers. While the reformatory was still in operation, two movies – Harry and Walter Go to New York in 1975 and Tango and Cash in 1989 – used the prison for some scenes. However, it was not until 1994, when the film crew for The Shawshank Redemption arrived, that film crews began to realize that the Ohio State Reformatory was the perfect setting for prison films. The facility was widely featured in the film with more than 30 scenes shot in the prison or on the grounds. Several years later, scenes from Air Force One were also filmed at the reformatory. In recent years, there have also been a number of music videos produced at the prison, as well.
The reformatory continued to decline for a time after it closed but then, in an effort to save the place, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society (MRPS) was formed. Today, steps are under way to restore the remaining structure to its original condition. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places and the reformatory’s six-tier east wing is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest free-standing steel cellblock. The MRPS continues its work today by offering guided tours and numerous events and they have received several awards for their efforts to save this piece of Ohio history.
Since the closing of the reformatory in 1990, stories have circulated that the prison is haunted by the tormented spirits of former inmates, guards and prison officials who have simply never left. According to the legends, they are trapped here behind these decaying stone walls and rusted iron bars by the violent and painful events of their individual pasts. The horror and death of years past seems to be replaying itself behind the gates of the Ohio State Reformatory. Visitors who come here today become quickly aware that the cellblocks and corridors of the prison are not as empty and silent as they first appear to be.
One of the most tragic events to occur at the reformatory took place on November 5, 1950, in the administration wing of the prison. One section of this wing contained the home and offices of Warden Arthur L. Glattke, his wife, Helen, and their sons, Arthur, Jr. and Teddy. On that Sunday morning, Mrs. Glattke was in her bedroom alone and was getting dressed to go out. It was believed that she reached up into a high shelf in her closet, trying to get her jewelry box, and moved a .32-caliber pistol out of her way. The gun had been placed in the residence for the family’s protection. Dr. P.A. Stoodt, the attending physician, believed that Helen may have dropped the pistol and as it slipped out of her hands and hit the floor, it went off. The bullet struck her in the chest and penetrated her left lung.
When Warden Glattke heard the shot, he ran to the bedroom and discovered Helen bleeding on the floor. He summoned the reformatory physician, Dr. J.V. Horst, who, unable to treat her on site, had Mrs. Glattke rushed to the General Hospital. She never regained consciousness and died during the early morning hours of Tuesday, November 7.
In 1959, Arthur Glattke died of a heart attack in his office. It is believed that the ghosts of both Mr. and Mrs. Glattke haunt the reformatory. At certain times, visitors have reported feeling cold rushes of air in the administration wing and equipment failures are also common here. The “pink bathroom” located in this wing is a spot where the ghost of Helen Glattke is said to make her presence known through the smell of perfume and the scent of fresh flowers. Mrs. Glattke may also be the ghost who has been seen in the old prison library. A number of psychics have experienced the vision of a woman in the prison and several visitors have also gotten a glimpse of her in this room.
The hospital’s infirmary is another area of the prison where strange experiences often occur. It was here that inmates were treated for influenza, tuberculosis and a legion of other ailments and diseases caused by the poor conditions and inadequate food and medical care offered to the prisoners. A number of men died of these illnesses during the years of the reformatory’s operation and some believe their ghosts may linger at the last place where they suffered during their lifetimes. It has often been reported that video cameras, recorders and electronic equipment behave erratically in this area and that shadows are often seen here, moving about in the dim light. It is a part of the prison where few want to venture alone.
The prison’s chapel is located just above the infirmary and it has its own tales of ghosts and hauntings. The most commonly reported incidents there seem to involve a man who has been seen peeking around the doors and peering into the room. He always ducks away when someone notices him. At first, visitors believe this is a real person, or someone from their own group, hoping to play on trick on them. But when they check the other side of the door, they discover that no one is there.
The prison’s cellblocks have their own dark stories to tell. It was in these cells where the inmates lived, suffered and sometimes died. Prisoners committed suicide, mutilated themselves and committed horrific acts on one another. Beatings, stabbings and rapes were not uncommon and a brutal attack might be visited on another inmate for something as trivial as looking at someone the wrong way. Life in the reformatory could be agony, filled with hate, violence and insanity. Many of these men carried these emotions with them to the grave and their spirits, trapped within these walls, are still manifesting these feelings in death. The doors to the cellblocks may be standing open these days, but the spirits of the men who were once locked behind them remain imprisoned behind the rusted bars.
The lowest levels of the reformatory are perhaps the most frightening to visitors who come here today. The basement is a maze of dark, twisting hallways and rumors persist that inmates were sometimes brought here to be beaten and tortured by guards. A number of people claim to have seen the ghost of a young inmate, allegedly beaten to death, wandering the dark hallways of the basement. The boy always vanishes, or runs away, after he is noticed.
But perhaps the most sinister location in the old prison is the infamous “Hole.” There is no record of just how many prisoners were subjected to the terrifying conditions of this part of the prison, where they were jailed in total darkness and forced to sleep on bare, concrete floors – or how many of them may have been left behind as restless spirits. The Hole is a place that saw the darkest side of human nature and the most violent acts carried out within the reformatory’s walls. One does not need to have any psychic abilities to feel the intense energies of this area. Those who visit The Hole say they feel goosebumps, cold chills and, on many occasions, become violently sick to their stomachs. Is it merely their imagination, sent into an overactive state because of the bloody stories that are told about this place? Perhaps, but if so, how do we explain the strange cries that have been recorded in these cells, the tapping footsteps and the unshakeable feeling of being watched? The history that has been imprinted on the stone walls of The Hole seems to be making its presence known to a great many people who dare to come to this spot.
The Ohio State Reformatory can be a physically and mentally exhausting place. There are seemingly miles of rooms, offices, corridors and cell blocks to be explored and it’s not a place for the faint of heart. Unexplained occurrences are common here and give evidence to the fact that sometimes escape simply isn’t possible – even after death.
Troy Taylor’s book DEAD MEN DO TELLTALES
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