Every once in a while we come upon certain places that just fascinate us. For some reason, I often seem to be drawn to places with a bit of a dark history. In Michigan, I love exploring the old mental hospital in Traverse City, taking in the frozen images and picturing its history. In Mansfield, Ohio, there’s the Ohio State Reformatory; an old prison with quite the story, that is open to the public for tours.
In 1886, this prison was built on the site of a Civil War training site. During its time of operation from 1896 to 1990, the facility saw over 150,000 prisoners- including some noteworthy ones like author O. Henry, Confederate Army General, John Hunt Morgan, and former Detroit Tigers player, Gates Brown. And, as is the case with many historical sites, the Ohio State Reformatory has its dark secrets: prison uprisings, escapes, murder, hangings, torture…
Today, the prison is more well known for being a filming site for many famous movies, most notably The Shawshank Redemption. It is open for guided and self-guided tours, as well as private events and ghost hunts. If you’re in Ohio and looking for a fascinating and spooky place, you’ve got to stop by.
Ohio State Reformatory Museum
The first part of the Ohio State Reformatory you’ll walk through is a small museum filled with artifacts from the prison’s operational days. There are old dining trays, guards uniforms, an almost-finished clarinet hand carved by a prison inmate, and even an old dentist’s chair.
Perhaps the most interesting artifact in the museum is the actual electric chair used for executions at the prison. Prior to the invention of the electric chair, hangings were performed at the Ohio State Reformatory. An inmate by the name of Charles Justice designed and built the electric chair. In 1897, the electric chair replaced hanging as a means of execution.
After being released on parole from the Penitentiary, Charles Justice was found guilty of first degree murder, and was returned to the prison to become the 38th person executed by his own invention. In 1963, the Penitentiary saw its last electrocution with the chair, and in 2002 the use of the electric chair was eliminated as a method of carrying out the death penalty in the state of Ohio.
Prison Administrative Rooms
Next stop on your tour will be to view the old administrative rooms. Going up the grand staircase will lead you to the warden’s quarters. The rooms are in various states of disrepair. The paint is peeling off the walls. Years of dust is caked into the corners of the windows. The wooden floorboards creak eerily. Layers of wallpaper peel back to reveal the original paint.
One of Many Ghost Stories…
One spooky story that is associated with the warden’s quarters deals with the wife of Arther Glattke, a former Superintendent of the prison. It is said that in November of 1950, Helen Glattke was reaching for her jewelry box on a high shelf, when she accidentally knocked a pistol out of its hiding place. When the gun landed on the floor, it fired, killing her.
It is said that Helen loved gardening and that roses were especially her favorite. Many visitors to the wardens quarters have reported smelling a flowery scent when entering Helen’s bathroom. Perhaps she’s still there, greeting the guests that walk through.
Shawshank Redemption Filming Sites
Next, you’ll walk through additional administrative rooms that are more repaired. This is because they were used as filming sites for the movie The Shawshank Redemption. There are figures of the two main characters of the movie around the prison for photo opportunities.
If you’re a Shawshank fan, like myself, this portion of the tour is definitely one of the highlights. You should’ve heard my girly squeals as we entered the Warden Norton’s office, with the old safe cracked open and Andy’s brown work shoes tucked behind the desk.
Another squeal-worthy filming site was the hotel room the prisoners stayed in when they were released from prison. Turns out this set was built within the Ohio State Reformatory too. The rafters above the chair still maintained the carvings “Brooks was here…so was Red.” Other exciting filming locations within the Ohio State Reformatory are the Parole Board office, still set up like in the movie, and Andy’s office, where he kept the books for the Warden.
Another noteworthy piece leftover from the filming of The Shawshank Redemption is the famous hole that Andy digs through the wall. I was sad to discover it was not actually a hole in the wall, but rather a tube made of concrete. Nevertheless, super cool to see.
The Prison Chapel
Once you’ve made your way through a number of old rooms and filming sites, you’ll find yourself at the base of this old staircase:
If you haven’t felt the chills of spookiness crawl up your spine yet, they’re coming soon.
The staircase opens up into this huge room that was once used as the chapel for the prison. The once-peaceful blue paint peels off the walls, exposing old brick. The dusty tiled floor is littered with mouse droppings and bird feathers, as the animals have moved into the building. Dark wooden pews where convicted felons were once required to sit, still face the front pulpit. The Chapel was also one location where prisoners began digging through the wall, in hopes of escape.
Penitentiary Cell Blocks
From the chapel, you’ll make your way to the piece de resistance of the prison: The Cell Blocks.
The Cell Blocks are divided into two sections on either side of the prison. The East Cell Block of the prison is still the largest free-standing cell block in the world, standing six floors high with 600 cells total. The West Cell Block stands five floors high, with only 350 cells. However, these small cells would sometimes hold up to 4 people.
Many of the cells are open, and you are free to step inside to take a look. There are a handful of cells that are made up to appear as they would have in the prison’s operational days. The majority of them, however, are left in their decaying state.
One of the things that struck me the most was seeing the state of the cells. Paint peeling from the walls. The sinks and toilets broken or missing. The smell of mold as you walked past. It’s hard to imagine that everything is in such bad shape, when the prison hasn’t even been closed 30 years. It really makes you realize the terrible conditions that the prisoners were kept in.
Prison Inmate Story
Lockhart’s cell is the only cell that is specifically labeled within the Reformatory. I originally thought maybe it had something to do with the prisons’ past filming history. However, I did some research after returning home and learned this was not the case at all.
As it turns out, Lockhart was a prisoner at the Ohio State Reformatory. After becoming fed up with being locked away, he doused himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He burned to death in his cell, and past inmates report watching the guards drag his singed body down the hall.
The Hospital and Library
As you continue through the Ohio State Reformatory, you’ll find yourself in a spacious room with a large desk in the middle. This was once used as the prison hospital, then later turned into the prison library.
There are some smaller rooms off of this one, including a small classroom, a bathroom, and an almost empty room believed to have been used as an operating room. The quietness of such a large space is incredibly eerie.
One of the last, yet darkest and most powerful places you’ll visit within the Ohio State Reformatory is solitary confinement, also called “The Hole.” This area was used to inflict a harsher punishment on inmates who did not respond to normal disciplinary action within the prison. People were placed in cells where it was either 24 hours of constant darkness, or 24 hours of constant light.
There were once cells built for a punishment called the “Eight and eight”. This is where they were forced to stand for 8 hours straight, then lay on the concrete floor for the next 8 hours. Eventually, this punishment was ruled as cruel, and the special cells were removed.
One story that circulates around Solitary Confinement comes from a prison riot which sent more prisoners to Solitary than they had room for. Some people were forced to share the tiny confinement cell, and in one case, only one prisoner came out of the cell alive.
Not surprisingly, many visitors report feeling their hair tugged, hearing whispers, or getting sharply poked in the ribs while walking through Solitary Confinement. Even as I walked through, I began feeling very nauseous, only to have it clear after leaving the area.
What to Know Before Visiting The Ohio State Reformatory
A visit to the Ohio State Reformatory is perfect for Shawshank movie buffs, history buffs, and those who are drawn to spooks and ghost stories. Before you go on your trip, here are some helpful tips to know.
- Watch The Shawshank Redemption – Even if you’ve seen it before, the refresher will serve you well on your trip through the Reformatory. You’ll be able to quickly place the filming sites with scenes in the movie, and perhaps even recall some of the dialogue.
- There are limited restrooms – There are bathrooms outside, on the side of the building. Use these before going in, because the next set of toilets won’t be until your tour is almost done…
- Wear comfortable walking shoes – A self-guided tour can take 1.5-2 hours constantly on your feet. Make sure to wear good shoes for walking a lot and going up and down stairs.
- Check out Groupon for deals – If you’re just going for a general admission, self-guided tour, check out Groupon for any deals. I was able to snag one and it saved me almost $20!
For more information on visiting the Ohio State Reformatory, including tours and ghost hunts, please visit their official website.
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