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Mansfield Reformatory

Many a driver finding themselves on the outskirts of Mansfield, Ohio, for the first time has had to keep from driving off the road when they catch a glimpse of the enormous gothic structure that seemingly rises up out of the mist. The fact of the matter is that even though it’s no longer in operation, the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield still manages to attract attention.

Even before the Reformatory existed, the land that it was to stand on had already seen its share of action. During the Civil War, Union forces used the area as

a training camp to prepare soldiers for battle. During the years it was in operation, Camp Bartley, as the facility was known, close to 4000 soldiers came through its doors. But by the 1890s, little of the camp remained as Cleveland architect Levi T. Scofield surveyed the property as he began planning the creation of his “spiritually uplifting” masterpiece.

The original purpose of what would become the Ohio State Reformatory was for it to serve as a home for “middle of the road" criminals; those too old for the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster and not "hardened" enough for the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. Taking that into consideration, the general consensus was that these inmates-to-be could still be rehabilitated. In other words, the goal was not so much to punish as much as it was to reform. With that in mind, Scofield was said to have modeled the building after Old German castles, which featured "spiritual and uplifting architecture."

By the summer of 1890, even though construction was far from complete, the Intermediate Penitentiary, as it was originally called, had already created quite a stir among the community. Unlike today, where there would be protests over a new prison facility being erected in the area, the people of Mansfield flocked to the site, often bringing picnic lunches and frolicking alongside the immense structure. In September of 1896, the building now officially known as the Ohio State Reformatory, swung open its doors and admitted its first inmates, who were immediately set to work completing the facilities sewer system and other parts of the building. Construction would not be completed until 1910.

Even though the Reformatory was not home to many hardened criminals (the most famous being Henry Baker, who would later gain infamy for taking part in the great Brink’s Robbery of 1950), the building still had its share of violent episodes. In November of 1926, Urban Wilford became the first officer killed in the line of duty at the Reformatory. Philip Orleck, a parolee, had returned to the Reformatory and shot Wilford to death while trying to help another prisoner escape. Orleck was eventually captured, tried and convicted. He was sentenced to death and was executed in the electric chair at Ohio State Penitentiary a year later.

On October 2nd, 1932, Reformatory guard Frank Hanger was beaten to death during an escape attempt by several prisoners. Chester Probaski and Merrill Chandler were convicted of Hanger’s murder and, like Philip Orleck, met their fates in the electric chair.

July of 1948 marks the date of one of the strangest and saddest events in the history of OSR. On July 21st, in an act of revenge, two former inmates, Robert Daniels and John West, snuck back onto the property surrounding the prison and kidnapped OSR farm superintendent John Niebel, along with his wife and daughter, all of whom resided in a small farmhouse near the facility. Daniels and West took the family out to a nearby field and killed them all. Several days later, Daniels and West were cornered by police and a shootout took place. In the ensuing firefight, West was shot and killed while Daniels was taken into custody. It was then that it was learned that West and Daniels had killed three other individuals while they were at large. Daniels was convicted and sentenced to death. He died in the electric chair in January of 1949.   

But not all the despair at Ohio State Reformatory was the result of men’s violence against their fellow man. Some of it was a result of the conditions they were forced to live in. By the time the Reformatory was celebrating its 40th anniversary, it was already being accused of having inadequate facilities. Cries of overcrowding and inhumane living conditions were being heard far and wide. The inmates weren’t complaining, though. Because they knew if they did, they were buying themselves a ticket to visit one of the worst areas of the Reformatory––The Hole.

Solitary confinement, “The Hole”, was the one place no inmate wanted to end up in. When you were placed in solitary confinement, you were placed in a tiny room all alone…in the dark. As to when you came out, well, that was up for the guards to decide. It’s no wonder that stories abound of prisoners going insane while they were in solitary. Some are said to have attempted (and in some cases, succeeded) in hanging themselves inside the cells. One allegedly even set himself on fire.

The darkest incident associated with The Hole came in 1957. In response to a prison riot, Reformatory officials sentenced over 100 prisoners to 30 days in solitary confinement. The only problem was that The Hole was only equipped with 20 cells. Nevertheless, the prisoners were all jammed inside. This may have been the incident that gave rise to the stories of The Hole being haunted. Over the years, footsteps and muffled voices have been heard coming from solitary confinement, even though there is no one else in the area. If the area is indeed haunted, one can only attempt to imagine the pain these tortured spirits must be feeling. In life, they were forced to live in isolation. And now, not even death has brought them freedom.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, the state had already declared that the Ohio State Reformatory no longer met the guidelines and standards for correctional facilities. Beginning in the 80s, prisoners and employees alike were being shipped or reassigned to other facilities. As the 80s came to a close, so did the career of the Ohio State Reformatory as an active prison. In 1994, demolition of the outer wall and some of the outbuildings began to take place. But not before Hollywood came calling.

While OSR was in operation, several movies used the facility as the setting for some of their scenes, including 1976’s Harry and Walter Go To New York and 1989’s Tango and Cash. However, it wasn’t until 1994 when the film crew for a little movie called The Shawshank Redemption showed up that Hollywood really began to take notice to OSR. The Reformatory was heavily featured in The Shawshank Redemption with close to 30 scenes being filmed inside the facility or on the grounds itself. And several years later, scenes from Air Force One were also filmed at OSR, including ones where the production crew erected an enormous fake wall. More recently, music video producers have turned their eyes on OSR and the building has been featured in videos by Godsmack and Lil’ Wayne.

As part of an effort to save OSR, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society was formed and when Ohio leased the land to the city of Mansfield, they turned around and leased it to the MRPS. Today, steps are underway to restore the remaining structure to its original “spiritually uplifting” self. The building has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and the Reformatory’s 6-tier East Wing is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest free-standing steel cell block.  With all that going for it (and ghosts, too), it’s no wonder that there are those who say the allure of the Ohio State Reformatory is so strong that some people can’t ever bring themselves to leave… even in death.

Several ghosts are said to haunt the prison––too many to properly catalogue. The most common occurrence seems to be voices around the old superintendent's quarters. Regular ghost hunts are held here during which participants are allowed to roam freely throughout much of the prison, unsupervised, taking pictures and trying to make contact with the other side.  Some claim to have succeeded.

Though it's still rough and unrenovated, with no plans to turn it into anything else, the Reformatory is not, strictly speaking, abandoned most of the time. It does sit empty through the winter, but for the rest of the year there's usually somebody looking after the place, doing research or conducting the regular tours. Unlike so many other historic landmarks in Ohio, this one looks like it will be around for a while.

Even After Death, Inmates Still Can’t Escape Mansfield Reformatory

I’m a graduate of Ashland University in Ohio. About half an hour away from here is an abandoned prison known as the Mansfield Reformatory. This place not only has an incredibly gruesome history of tragedy and murder, but it is well known as a spot where ghosts and unexplained phenomena occur regularly.
I first visited the Reformatory my sophomore year at Ashland. A few of the kids who lived on my floor took a trip out there with a 30 pack. While it was nice to be able to drink ourselves silly without worrying about our RA catching us,

I never was able to get over how incredibly eerie the entire place was. I left the drunks to their Milwaukee’s Best and went exploring all over the grounds. There were cell blocks, offices, and even a chapel all laying there left to crumble away. As I wandered around, looking into cells, finding files on the ground, and finding offices which looked like they were worked in that very day, I couldn’t help but feel like I was being watched. It’s very hard to describe the feeling I got, but not once did I feel alone, even though I had ventured far away from the group. I know for a fact that something otherworldly was present at all times.

I made my way back to the group after about an hour and we headed back to Ashland. For weeks I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind. Finally I decided to find out all I could about Mansfield. I began researching the place with every spare minute I had, and I found out that the prison was just as scary in operation as it was in its abandonment.

Numerous deaths have occured there over the years. Disease absolutely ravaged the place. One inmate hung himself, one lit himself on fire. One inmate murdered his cellmate. These however, are all relatively normal to a prison setting. What happened to the warden’s family within the walls of Mansfield was anything but normal.

The first tragedy to strike happened in July of 1948. Two men who had been parolled, James West and Robert Daniels, returned to the prison grounds seeking revenge for their time at Mansfield. They kidnapped the Warden’s daughter and shot her to death. Both were caught and fried in the electric chair. A year after that the Warden’s wife was in his office when she bumped into a shelf. A gun fell off of it, went off, and killed her. Ten years after that, the Warden died of a heart attack in the same office.

Mansfield is a place of evil and death. This is best evidenced by the graveyard of unclaimed bodies which still lies on the grounds. Over two hundred inmates and employees of Mansfield are buried in this field, still unclaimed.

If you ever get the chance to visit the Mansfield Reformatory, be warned--there are spirits trapped within the walls, and they are not nice. They are the spirits of murderers and criminals. They are the spirits of a family ravaged by tragedy. And they are not the sort of spirits that will leave you alone. I know, as I’ve been back dozens of times and always feel their presence.  –Tina Jagadowski

Weird Ohio


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