The history of the Ohio State Reformatory began in 1861, when the field where the reformatory would be built was used as a training camp for Civil War soldiers.
Later, the site was elected for the placement of the new Intermediate Penitentiary (the original name before it was changed to Ohio State Reformatory, intended to house young first-time offenders. Construction began in 1886 of the building that would feature three architectural styles: Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne. In 1891, the name was changed from Intermediate Penitentiary to Ohio State Reformatory.
The exterior of the building, which is built from brick and concrete, is designed in the Romanesque style giving the frontage a castle-like appearance. On September 15, 1896 the reformatory opened its doors to its first 150 offenders. These prisoners were brought by train from Columbus and put immediately to work on the prison sewer system and the 25-foot stone wall surrounding the complex.
The Reformatory remained in full operation until December 1990 when it was closed via federal court order resulting from a prisoners’ class action suit citing overcrowding and inhumane conditions. The closing date was moved to 1990 due to delays in constructing the replacement facility, which still stands to the west of the old prison.
Most of the grounds and support buildings, including the outer wall, have been demolished since the closing. In 1995, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society was formed. They have turned the prison into a museum and conduct tours to help fund grounds rehabilitation projects and currently work to stabilize the buildings against further deterioration. The East Cell Block remains the largest free-standing steel cell block in the world at six tiers high.
What of the 154,000 inmates who passed through its gates? A packed house of criminals with a 94-year run is bound to have seen its share of violent ends.
The bloodiest single incident in the prison’s history occurred in 1948 when the Reformatory’s farm boss, his wife and daughter were kidnapped and shot to death by two parolees bent on revenge. A six-state manhunt for the so-called “Mad Dog Killers” ended in a shootout that left Robert Daniels in custody and his partner, James West, dead. Daniels was electrocuted at the prison on January 3, 1949.
One year later, in 1950, the Warden’s wife dislodged a pistol from its hiding place while reaching on a closet shelf. When it hit the floor, the gun went off, inflicting a fatal wound. Within the decade, the widowed Warden suffered a heart attack and died in his office in the prison.
The death toll at the prison has never been accurately tallied, but records reveal that at least one inmate managed to hang himself, another set himself on fire and more than one body was found stuffed beneath a bunk in the overcrowded tomb-like cells over the years. And those are only the incidents that the guards bothered to record. 215 of Mansfield’s victims, whether of violence, disease or the rare natural cause, lay unclaimed just outside its gates, while others are said to still inhabit its cell blocks.
Mansfield was the site where the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” was filmed. While some of its contemporary visitors are movie fans who come to see the leftover props, it is more commonly the destination of those researching its paranormal activity. Countless ghost hunters have passed through its gates and it has been featured on most of the ghost hunting shows. Almost all who pass through its lonely paint-peeled walls confess to feeling the lingering energy of inmates who still remain confined to its metal cages.
Spending a few days doing the Frank Lloyd Wright tours and House on the Rock in Wisconsin was a nice buffer between Vallisca and The Mansfield Reformatory. With everything that happened at the Axe House, I was a little apprehensive going to the old prison in Mansfield, Ohio; this, however, turned out to be a different experience.
The rain that had tormented us in Iowa followed us to Ohio. When you pull into the parking lot, the first thing you notice about this place is the amazing architecture. The outside of the building looks imposing, but doesn’t have a sinister feel to it, even taking into account all the hardship that has taken place inside. I wasn’t sure I was ready for this; after all, it was just a few days after Vallisca. Considering we may not make it this way again, we grabbed our things and went inside.