OPERATION TIME: 1896 to 1990
SECURITY LEVEL: Medium
STATUS: Open as tourist location
The Ohio State Reformatory (also known as OSR and Mansfield Reformatory) is located in Mansfield, Ohio and is noted as one of the most haunted places in the world. Work on the prison began on November 4th, 1886, when the first cornerstone was placed.
The campaign to build the prison had been a long one, running from the end of the Civil War up until 1884, when the state legislature approved the prison’s creation. It was to serve as an intermediate step between the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster and the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.
In order to purchase thirty acres of land for the prison, the city raised $10,000 to continue building. For $20,000, the state had acquired 150 acres of adjoining land. The chosen site had served as one of two Civil War military camps. The celebration of the prison’s construction was massive, with guests such as former President Rutherford B. Hayes, Senator John Sherman, Governor J.B. Foraker, and General Roeliff Brinkerhoff (who led the prison campaign). November 4th, 1886 was declared “Mansfield’s Greatest Day” because of the building of the Ohio State Reformatory.
Levi T. Scofield, an architect from Cleveland, was hired to design the prison, which would cost about $1.3 million to build. Scofield based his designs after sketches of Old World castles in Germany. It wasn’t until 1896 that the prison was able to accept prisoners, as financial problems caused several construction delays.
On September 17th, 1896, the prison officially opened, and 150 inmates were transferred from the Ohio Penitentiary into the Ohio State Reformatory. The Columbus Evening Press wrote about the event, and described the prisoners as if they were celebrities. Many of the prisoners had even been given cigars.
Being moved from the Penitentiary to the Reformatory via train, crowds watched as the prisoners were unloaded into OSR directly into their cells. However, the prison was still far from being finished, despite being open. The inmates were sent to work on building the sewer system, and they built 25-foot stone walls surrounding the 15 acre complex.
In 1908, the east cell block was completed. Due to the fact it was an intermediate prison, it held young, first-time offenders, as well as a few famous inmates. Some of the convicts would later go on to perform bigger crimes, including one prisoner, Henry Baker, who would go on to pull off the famous Brink’s robbery of 1950.
On November 2nd, 1926, a paroled inmate returned to the Ohio State Reformatory and shot Urban Wilford, a 72-year-old guard, outside of the west gate in an unsuccessful attempt to help a friend escape the prison. Philip Orleck, the gunman, was arrested two months later, and he died in the Ohio Penitentiary’s electric chair a year later.
Six years later on October 2nd, 1932, Frank Hanger, age 48, was beaten with an iron bar to death during an escape attempt made by twelve inmates. In 1935, inmates Merrill Chandler and Chester Probaski were found guilty of the murder, and were killed on the electric chair.
When it first opened, OSR was considered the best prison of its kind. However, it began to gain criticism for its overcrowded conditions from as early as 1933. A research group made up of educators and penologists investigated the prison in the same year, and called it “a disgrace”, particularly taking note on the fact that the reformatory had no rehabilitation for the inmates.
Ohio State Reformatory’s darkest day was July 21st, 1948, when two former inmates kidnapped the prison’s farm superintendent, John Niebel, his wife, and his 20-year-od daughter from their home and murdered them in a cornfield off of Fleming Falls Road.
The two killers, Robert Daniels and John West, got trapped two days later in a roadblock near Van Wert. West died in a shoot-out and Daniels was captured. The Niebel murders were a part of a two-week crime spree that involved West and Daniels killing six people. Daniels confessed to the murders, stating that it was merely an act of revenge. He died in January of the following year via electric chair at the Ohio Penitentiary.
Arthur Lewis Glattke, who was the superintendent from 1935 to 1959, was respected by professionals and inmates alike. He was appointed directly after his work on the Martin Davey political campaign. In order to keep inmate morale high, he played music throughout the cell blocks.
One fateful day in November, 1950, Arthur’s wife, Helen Bauer Glattke, accidentally discharged a handgun while reaching into a jewelry box in the family quarters. Three days later, she died of pneumonia because of the accident. Arthur died in his office on February 10th, 1959 of a heart attack.
One of OSR’s prisoners went on to become a celebrity. Gates Brown from Crestline, Ohio served in the prison from 1958 to 1959 for burglary, but he went on to play for the Detroit Tigers from 1963 to 1975. He earned a reputation as one of baseball’s best pinch-hitters.
Another prisoner was already famous when he was sent to prison. Kevin Mack, who was the star running back for the Cleveland Browns, served a month at the prison during 1989 for drug charges.
Forty years later in the 1970s, a nine-member evaluation team came to study the vocational programs offered at the Ohio penal institutions. They recommended, replacing the OSR with several smaller institutions that would hold no more than 500 inmates.
The prisons deterioration came to a head in 1978, when the Counsel for Human Dignity, which was a coalition of civic and church groups, filed a federal lawsuit on the behalf of 2,200 inmates at the prison. The suit stated that the prisoner’s Constitutional rights were being violated since they were forced to live in inhumane conditions.
In 1983, the lawsuit was resolved, resulting in a consent decree in which the prison officials agreed to improve the conditions while prepping to close the cell blocks by December 31st, 1986. The closing date was extended by the court due to the construction delays of the Mansfield Correctional Institution.
The final years of the OSR somehow attracted movie makers, as only then did movies start using it as a location. Celebrity actors started coming to the prison, such as James Caan, Elliot Gould, Diane Keaton, Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, and Kurt Russel.
The prison remained in operation up until December, 1990, when the federal court shut it down with the Boyd Consent Decree. A number of “extra” buildings were demolished afterwards. In 1995, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society (MRPS) was formed in hopes of restoring the prison for recreational use. The prison then turned into a museum, and tours were added to help fundraise for restoration projects.
At six tiers high, the East Cell Block is the world’s largest free-standing steel cell block. The prison is haunted by many of the inmates, a few guards, and the wife of one of the superintendents, Helen. Over 200 inmates and guards died at OSR.
In Popular Culture
- The Ohio State Reformatory gained most of its attention from the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, when it served as the “Shawshank Prison”.
- The OSR was used in a number of other movies, even while it had inmates. These movies included Harry and Walter Go to New York (1975), Tango & Cash (1989), Air Force One (1997), and Fallen Angels (2007).
- In 1996, Marilyn Manson did promotional photography at the OSR.
- Godsmack’s music video for “Awake” was filmed there in 2000.
- The Travel Channel created a documentary on the reformatory.
- SyFy Channel’s series Ghost Hunters investigated the prison in 2005.
- In 2004, rapper Lil’ Wayne featured the prison in the music video for “Go DJ”.
- WWE created a promotional poster with the Triple H for their 2008 Judgement Day event using the OSR.
- An episode of Ghost Adventures investigated the OSR in 2009.
- Miss May I’s music video for “Relentless Chaos” was filmed at the facility.
- The hip hop group The Purple Smoke Project’s music video for “Calm Down” was filmed there in 2011.
- The OSR was featured on an episode of Travel Channel’s Most Terrifying Places in America.
- Forgotten USA. “The Reformatory,” www.ForgottenUSA.com
- MRPS. “Ohio State Reformatory,” www.MRPS.org
- Wikipedia. “Ohio State Reformatory,” www.Wikipedia.org
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