It’s hard not to gasp the first time you see the Preston School of Industry. The massive red brick structure in Ione, California is also known as Preston Castle, and it’s easy to understand how it earned the nickname. Considered one of the most striking examples of Romanesque Revival architecture in the country, the Preston Castle looks like something straight out of a movie.
Yet haunting the darkened corridors of this crumbling structure are dark tales of mystery and murder.
Opened in 1894 as a reform school, the Preston School of Industry was initially home to seven wards—minors under the guardianship of the state of California—who were transferred there from San Quentin. Hundreds of troubled youths passed through its doors over the years, including a few who would become well known later in life. Among them: musician Merle Haggard, poet Neal Cassady, writer Edward Bunker, and Tony Cornero, a rumrunner during Prohibition who later built the Stardust Resort & Casino in Vegas.
The red-bricked building was vacated in 1960 after a new facility was constructed to house its inmates; the institution itself finally closed in 2011. Present-day visitors to Preston Castle often compare it to the haunted mansion featured in Stephen King’s TV miniseries, Rose Red. And while the house that appeared in the show was actually Thornewood Castle near Tacoma, Washington, the Preston School of Industry may have more in common with King’s spooky locale than an imposing brick façade.
It seems that Preston Castle has a history of paranormal phenomena being reported in and around its walls. In addition to the usual stories of strange noises, cold spots, and feelings of dread, the site is said to be home to the ghosts of several former wards, as well as a housekeeper, Anna Corbin, who was bludgeoned to death in the Castle in 1950.
Though there were a handful of unexplained deaths among the wards of the institution over the years—and there is said to be a lost cemetery on the grounds that contains the graves of 23 former inmates—it is the murder of Anna Corbin that represents the Castle’s most enduring mystery.
Accounts of the grisly crime vary, even among newspapers of the time, but most agree that Anna Corbin was found brutally beaten to death inside a locked room in the Castle. Some accounts say that she was found in the kitchen, while others claim she was killed in the “mattress room” or near the “disinfecting pool” in the basement, while still others maintain that she was found stuffed in a padlocked closet.
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Though all 657 wards of the school at the time—along with the staff—were questioned in relation to the death, and there were three trials, no one was ever convicted. A 19-year-old ward named Eugene Monroe was considered by many to be the prime suspect. Though he confessed to the murder and rape of a pregnant woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma a year later and was sentenced to life in prison, he remained adamant in his denial that he had anything to do with the death of Anna Corbin. To this day, her murder remains unsolved.
Given its dark history, it’s no wonder the Preston Castle has been featured on a variety of paranormal television shows including Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, The Othersiders, and My Ghost Story. On the Ghost Adventures episode, the show's host Zak Bagans claimed to be partially possessed by a spirit, possibly the ghost of Anna Corbin.
Books have also been written about the history and hauntings of the abandoned reform school, including Behind the Walls by J’aime Rubio, a historical journalist who conducted an extensive investigation into the life and death of Anna Corbin.
Today, the Preston School of Industry is a California Historical Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The non-profit organization Preston Castle Foundation, maintains the building, opening the Castle to the public and hosting various events.
Dying to conduct your own investigation into Preston Castle's haunted history? The Preston Castle Foundation offers paranormal nighttime tours throughout the year. In October, the Castle transforms into a haunted house Halloween attraction.