Standing just outside Mansfield, the Ohio State Reformatory is one of Ohio's greatest historic buildings. Appearing out of nowhere, as if transported to the Heartland from a village in Transylvania, the dark, brooding building has been home to dangerous criminals, violent deaths, Hollywood movies, and, according to many, more than a few specters and spirits.
Constructed between 1886 and 1910 on the site of Camp Mordecai Bartley--a Civil War training camp--OSR was intended as an intermediate penitentiary to house mostly young, first-time offenders who might still be reformed. Even the building's architecture, conceived and implemented by Levi Scofield of Cleveland and intended to invoke a Cathedral-like feeling and atmosphere, was designed to inspire inmates to repent and rehabilitate. In September of 1896 when prisoners were first moved into the facility, the Richland Shield and Banner proclaimed the opening as "Mansfield's Greatest Day," and even the inmates seemed to relish the idea of moving to the Dracula's castle structure.
"The men were in the best of humor and tossed little jokelets along the route," reported the Columbus Evening Press. "Many of the prisoners had been given cigars by people who lined the route of the march" of the men from their former incarceration facility to the train station en route to Mansfield.
Prisoners built the majority of the facility, including the 25-foot stone wall that surrounded the complex and the sewer system. The hand-carved woodwork and detail in the wardens' quarters and administration building was even constructed in OSR's woodworking shops. Construction continued throughout OSR's history, and construction was not completed until 1910. OSR still boasts the world's largest free-standing cell block--six tiers high, twelve cell ranges, and 600 cells.
Although OSR was celebrated as one of the best prisons of its kind during the first 50 years of operation, overcrowding became a problem as early as 1933, and the outcry over conditions peaked in 1978 when a coalition of civic and church groups filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the 2,200 inmates of the prison (it was designed to hold 1,200) charging "brutalizing and inhumane conditions." OSR was closed completely in 1990. A portion of the facility was demolished to make way for construction of the current Mansfield Correctional Institute, and the remaining buildings were placed in the custody of the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Sociery in 1995. MRPS continues to administer, restore, and revive the facility today.
Steel Bars and Cavernous Cellblocks
Nothing prepares OSR visitors for the sheer size and scale of the prison. Six levels of imposing cell blocks tower over you, and the open stairwells and upper cellblock catwalks bring an overwhelming feeling of vertigo. The 6' x 8' cells, built to house two inmates each, are stacked in seemingly-endless rows, giving the prison's ranges a hive-like feeling. It seems impossible to imagine feeling both claustrophobic and at the same time lost in an immense expanse of space, yet that is the feeling one gets while walking anywhere in OSR's prisoner wings.
Solitary confinement cells--"The Hole"--are smaller, darker, and danker, and even the prison's informary and chapel feel at once tiny and overwhelming. Group shower facilities in the basement are nothing more than overhead pipes with occasional spigots--a Borgian soaking hose for society's weeds.
Guard quarters and facilities are larger and marginally less foreboding. The wardens' quarters (one side of [sic] the warden and his family, the other for the assistant warden and his brood) are expansive with detailed woodwork. Though the entire facility is in severe disrepair--MRPS continues to renovate and restore as funding allows--visitors can visualize the grandeur of the main buildings, making the contrast to the hellish prisoners conditions even more striking.
Hooray for Hollywood
OSR might well have been completely destroyed if Hollywood hadn't recognized its glory and grandeur. The prison was made famous when it served as Shawshank State Prison in 1994's Shawshank Redemption, and the visitor's center and gift shop area hold an array of autographed memorabilia from the Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman movie. Other productions with scenes shot at OSR include Harry and Walter go to New York (1976), Tango & Cash (1989), and Air Force One (1997).
Canton-born Brian Warner--aka shock-rock god Marilyn Manson--has used OSR for promotional photography shoots and grunge rockers Godsmack shot the video for 2000's "Awake" at the facility. OSR has also been the subject of many travel and paranormal investigation shows including Scariest Stories on Earth, Scariest Places on Earth, and Ghost Hunters.
Ghoulish Haunts and Ghost Hunts
No prison is without its haunted and horror stories, and OSR is certainly no exception. Death is part of prison life, and Mansfield has its share of murdered inmates, dead officers, and even suicidal staff.
Two corrections officers lost their lives at OSR. In 1926, a former inmate who was attempting to break a friend out of the facility shot guard Urban Wilford to death. The gunman, Philip Orleck, was executed in Ohio's electric chair the following year for the crime. Officer Frank Hanger died in 1932 when prisoners in the solitary confinement ward beat him to death with an iron rod, and inmates Merrill Chandler and Chester Probaski were electrocuted by the State for that crime in 1935.
In 1948, two former OSR inmates, Robert Daniels and John West, kidnapped the prison's farm superintendant John Niebel and his wife and daugher and murdered them in a nearby cornfield. West died two days later in a shootout with police, and Daniels met his fate in Ohio's electric chair the next year.
On Nov. 6, 1950, Helen Glattke, wife of then-Warden Arthur Glattke, died a controversial death. The official story was that Helen accidentally knocked a loaded .32 automatic pistol off a high closet shelf while attempting to remove a jewelry box from the shelf. The gun went off when it hit the floor and the bullet struck Hellen killing her instantly. The unofficial story is more intriguing, suggesting that the Glattkes had been experiencing marital difficulty, and that the warden may have chosen to eliminate his wife rather than go through a messy divorce.
A decade later, Warden Glattke died of a heart attack in his office. It is believed that the ghosts of both Glattkes haunt the Reformatory. At certain times, visitors report feeling cold rushes of air move over their bodies. Strange anomalies are regularly reported in the administration wing. Photographic orbs and equipment failure are common. The now infamous pink bathroom is also in the administration section. Visitors to the pink bathroom reportedly smell fresh flowers and perfume scents, and some report having heard the Glattkes arguing in Helen's room.
The Chapel is another area of the prison where strange events are often reported to occur. Video cameras and other electrical equipment mysteriously fail and shadows seem to move in the darkness. There are rumors that the Chapel room was used as an execution chamber years before it was turned into a Chapel, and that inmates were tortured and hung from the rafters. There are reports of a spirit peeking around the doors into the room, pulling away after it is noticed. It is believed that the Chapel, with all of its eerie occurrences, is a main source of the haunting.
There is a hospital infirmary directly above the Chapel. Inmates were treated for and died from horrible diseases like influenza and tuberculosis, as well as patched up from violent incidents and outbreaks on the cellblocks. Visitors now report feeling strange energies in the air and invisible entities that rush past them and down the stairs. Clusters of orbs can be photographed and EMF detectors can go off the chart. Many of the inmates who died in the infirmary may still haunt the Reformatory as ghosts.
Inmate deaths and murders include an inmate who hanged himself in his cell, one who burned himself to death using turpentine and paint thinner stolen from the prison furniture shop, and an infamous incident in "The Hole" where two convicts were left in a single cell overnight--in the morning only one emerged, and the other was found stuffed under the bunk, bloodied nearly beyond recognition. Many visitors to OSR report feeling this murdered inmate haunting that cell.
Visitors to OSR can ghost hunt for themselves at more than a dozen "Ghost Hunts" sponsored by MRPS. Beginning in April and ending in November, ghost hunt participants are free to explore the prison, and to bring devices such as tape recorders, video cameras, magnetometers, and other paranormal hunting devices.
The "Ladies" of 3NE
During the ghost tour in April, one of the tour guides, as part of the orientation portion of the hunt, mentioned that the cell block on the third tier of the northeast wing--3NE--was "the ladies wing--and I don't mean women." Typical of most prisons, gay, transgendered, and crossdressing prisoners were housed together and often separated from the general population. Who were these men, what were their crimes, and what was life like behind bars for them?
Until 1972, consensual sodomy was illegal in Ohio, and men who had sex with men were often convicted of charges including "sodomy," "unnatural acts," or "crimes against nature." These crimes could include anal intercourse, oral sex, any sex act with a person of the same gender, and bestiality. Research at the Ohio Historical Society reveals hundreds of prisoners convicted of sodomy and incarcerated at OSR during its operational history.
As late as 1970, OSR's Inmate Handbook offered newly-incarcerated men the following admonition in a section entitled "Perversion" (pp 17-18):
"The practice of perversion (unnatural sexual activity) is disgusting and repulsive, and it would seem unnecessary to warm [sic] anyone against it. It is against nature, religion, and all laws. There are, unfortunately, some men in institutions who do resort to such practice, some of whom, in fact, are serving sentences for this very crime. Do not become a dupe of these depraved persons. Do not believe stories that abstinence from sexual activity is harmful to your physical well being. Such stories are far from true and are dreamed up by immoral individuals whose only interest is to use you as a partner in some unnatural act. The truth of the matter is that nature will solve the problems for you. You can remain a decent person while here as easily as you did before you came. Keep your thoughts clean; no not dwell on your sexual problems, and you will have no difficulty in this area. Do not allow others to talk to you concerning such practices nor let your curiosity lead you into trying anything so shameful. Above all, should anyone make an indecent suggestion, simply have nothing more to do with that person. Sexual perversion of every description is strictly prohibited. Anyone found practicing such acts, caught in a compromising position, or in bed with another inmate, will be disciplined by being placed in the correction cells, assessed lost time, and placed on the discipline block for an indefinite period or possibly on the range forthe Homosexually inclined people who tend to be a detriment to the general population. Also possession of love notes or communicating the same with other inmates casts undoubtful suspicion of Homosexual activities on the inmates involved and will be disciplined accordingly."
The Officer's Handbook for the same period mentions "sodomy" and "unnatural acts" as offensesthat should be reported, but gives no further detail in writing.
Many of the photos that accompany this article were taken from the point of view of cells in 3NE, giving a glimpse into these men's view of their world. Inmate writings include references to 3NE, including these excerpts:
"The thing I used to laugh about most was my cellie (cell mate), when we were new, asked one of the girls on 3NE why there were so many guards walking with them when they went out. The inmate said, 'They are afraid we will get pregnant.'" --Inmate #72569
"If you got caught with a one dollar back in those days, it was an automatic 60 days lost time, 60 days grace. If you got caught having any type of sexuality or homosexual behavior, it was automatically a year lost time and a year grace. If you got caught with any type of drugs in your possession, you went behind the Screen [to solitary confinement] and it would be six, seven months before anybody would see you again...if you get caught having sex with a homosexual here, you do seven days in The Hole.... On the range in the east cell block, you had six range on each side, 1 South up to 6 South, 1 North all the way up to 6 North. 3 North was called the Fag Range. Fag Range meaning the Homosexual Range. At that time, they separate the homosexual, those who was known homosexuals, from the rest of the population...[Sometimes we would find out that prisoners from 3NE] cut hair [in the] officer's barbershop. They was the Warden's house boy, shoe shine man, things like this. Now these guys really had it made in the prison system.... This was one of the most important jobs in the Institution, working for somebody who had a position." --Inmate incarcerated from 1958.
In 1972, Ohio repealed its sodomy law. From Summary of Am. Sub. H.B. 511 - The New Ohio Criminal Code, published by the 109th Ohio General Assembly, 1972:
"The principle on which the first group of offenses [sexual assaults and displays] is founded is that sexual activity of whatever kind between consenting adults in private ought not to be a crime...Distinctions of sex [meaning gender] between offenders and victims are generally discarded. Sexual conduct is defined to include vaginal and anal intercourse, cunnilingus, and fellatio...again, without regard to the gender of the participants."
One can but wonder how many men were imprisoned, subjected to abuse, assaulted, and stigmatized for simply loving other men. A visit to 3NE makes very clear to GLBT tourists how very recent, very near, and very terrifying such laws are to us.
A Short Drive, An Amazing Experience
Whether you're hunting ghosts, a history buff, a movie fanatic, or a gay prisoner's advocate, you simply must visit the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield. The architecture, the aura, and the atmosphere offer something for everyone. Proceeds from tours, ghost hunts, gift shop purchases, and facility rentals (yes, you can rent the guard's room for receptions and events) go to continued renovation and restoration efforts, and will ensure that this piece of Ohio's past and America's imagination will keep it's [sic] rightful place in history well into the future.
The Ohio State Reformatory is located at 100 Reformatory Road, Mansfield, Ohio 44905. Driving time from Columbus is about 90 minutes, and local hotels offer packages for ghost hunters and tourists. The Richland County Conention and Visitor's Bureau offers packages including the reformatory and other enjoyable day trips and outings, and we will review these in our Spring Travel issue of Outlook. In the meantime, visit www.mansfieldtourism.com to learn more.
Mansfield Reformatory references: Forgotten Ohio: www.forgottenoh.com/OSR/osr.html, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction: www.drc.state.oh.us/web/history osr.htm, Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society: www.mrps.org. Sodomy law references: www.sodomylaws.org/sensibilities/ohio.htm, www.publicsafety.ohio.gov, and www.disastercenter.com/crime.