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The Wayward Ghosts of the Ohio State Reformatory

One prisoner wanted out so badly, he burned himself to death in his cell.

ohio state reformatoryPhoto credit: Tom Hart / Flickr

From its idealistic conception to its ignominious demise and beyond, the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield has always been an iconic structure. Although it once represented a brighter path for thousands of wayward young men who passed through its corridors of stone and steel, despair and violence play an equal role in its legacy.

The cold stares of prisoners long removed from their cages seem to follow visitors as they walk the stark, desolate cellblocks. Decades after their sentences were complete, a number of inmates linger on in the form of Mansfield’s many ghosts.

OSR opened for business amid much local fanfare in September, 1896. On December 31, 1990, it was closed by a federal court order due to “brutalizing and inhumane conditions.” Over 154,000 inmates passed through its gates over the years, but more than 200 never checked out, victims to disease, murder, accidents, and suicide.

Built with an idealistic eye toward the rehabilitation of young, first-time offenders ⎯ the middle cog in a “graded” state penal system between the juvenile Boys Industrial School and the hardcore Ohio Penitentiary ⎯ the Reformatory was intended to be much more than just a warehouse for convicts. It was a self-contained city featuring a working farm, a tailor shop, a cannery, a shoe factory, a furniture factory, and a print shop, the whole of which doubtless contributed to the improvement of its more improvable denizens over the decades.

ohio state reformatoryInterior, cell-block windows of the reformatory

The castle-like structure, reflecting Romanesque, Victorian Gothic, and Queen Anne influences, was designed by famed architect and Freemason Levi Scofield of nearby Cleveland with the lofty goal of leading young delinquents to a “rebirth of their spiritual lives.”

Sadly, within a few decades OSR had gained a reputation as one of the country’s more beleaguered prisons, plagued with overcrowding, violence, disease, and federal civil rights violations, living up to the popular inmate nickname “Dracula‘s Castle.”

Not surprisingly, a number of murders and suicides erupted out of these conditions. Most spectacularly, a 22 year-old inmate named Lockhart immolated himself in his cell in order to escape the confines of the Reformatory in 1960.

The tumultuous past of the prison includes the murder of two guards, and the killing of the Reformatory’s farm boss and family, who were kidnapped and shot to death by vengeful parolees in the middle of a “Mad Dog” killing spree in 1948. But by far the most perplexing death at the Reformatory was that of Helen Glattke, wife of longtime Superintendent Arthur Glattke, who died as the result of a gunshot wound in 1950. Though ruled accidental, questions surround her death and her spirit is thought to be one of the most active at the prison.

The visually striking, 250,000 square foot stone structure ⎯ which boasts the world’s largest freestanding steel cellblock ⎯ has been the setting of numerous TV and video productions, and feature films The Shawshank Redemption, Air Force One, Harry and Walter Go to New York, Fallen Angels, Tango and Cash, and The Dead Matter.

The facility has been operated since 1995 by the non-profit Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, whose members work tirelessly to keep this piece of history alive, giving the Reformatory new life as a historical landmark and world-renowned paranormal hot spot.

MRPS has worked to remove debris, replaced roofing, and restored the Superintendent’s Quarters and central guard room between the East and West cellblocks, funded by tour and ghost hunting fees. Paranormal investigators and thrill seekers have flocked to OSR in droves for sold-out public overnight ghost hunts since 1998.

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THIS EXCERPT FROM America’s Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places WAS PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION.


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Photos: Tom Hart / Flickr [CC]; Wikipedia; Cover of America's Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places: Penguin Group