While researching our book Haunted Asylums, Prisons, and Sanatoriums (available for purchase online—links in the bio blurb at the end), co-author Sam Queen and I had a wish list of the best ghost hunt locations in the United States. Due to budget and time constraints, not every location we wanted to visit could be included. Below, I list our top 10 picks for public ghost hunts that didn’t make the book.
I would also encourage readers to explore the websites of each location to discover a variety of non-ghost hunting activities that might appeal to you. Very often, these locations are nonprofits operated by foundations for the purpose of conserving the historic buildings. An easy and worthwhile way for the public to lend their support is by taking a historic tour, photography tour, or attending a class offered at the facility. Now that I’ve said my piece, get your ghost gear strapped up and let’s go hunting!
10Rolling Hills Asylum
East Bethany, New York
A former workhouse, with the oldest part of the building dating back to 1828, Rolling Hills has seen its share of unfortunate residents—it also served as an insane asylum. At some point, it was turned into a nursing home, before finally being shut down in 1974. This was the first ghost hunt Sam and I ever attended, and it sparked the idea for our book. We experienced crawling shadows rushing towards us on the second floor hallway, collected EVPs, and saw flashlights turning on and off on their own. This is an extremely famous and well-documented facility and ghost hunters will have full access to the building—and even get to spend time in the morgue. Think about those poor souls kept in there throughout the winter, unable to be buried until the ground thawed.
One of Rolling Hill’s most famous former residents is Roy Crouse, who was institutionalized by his family when he was around 12 years old, and who died there at the age of 52. Roy is thought to have suffered from gigantism, and his 2.3 meter (7.5 feet) shadow has been seen throughout the building. While I do not believe I saw Roy, I did have two weird experiences that possibly involved him. The first was during a tour of the facility. No one was behind me, yet I felt something pinch the meaty piece of flesh behind the back of my left arm. A few hours later we were in the Green Room, where the owner, Sharon Coyle, was showing us how to use a piece of ghost hunting equipment called Frank’s Box, designed to allow communication with the dead. I posed the question, “Roy, did you pinch me upstairs?” A response immediately came through the radio: “Green jacket. Midget.” I was wearing a green jacket, and I am just over a meter-and-a-half (five feet) tall. Obviously a midget in Roy’s eyes!
Dating back to 1896, Peoria Asylum is now open for historical tours, paranormal excursions, and ghost hunts run by the Save The Bowen Foundation. We never made it out for this one, but it’s still on our wish list.
One of my favorite stories about Peoria comes from Michael Kleen’s book, Haunting Illinois, which recounts the tale of A. Bookbinder (“Old Book”), a patient there in the early 1900s. Assigned to work on the burial detail by resident Dr. George Zeller, the story goes that Old Book mourned for every soul he interred. When Old Book finally passed himself, Dr. Zeller wrote that 400 patients and staff witnessed his ghostly image “mourning at his own funeral.” The asylum was recently featured on the TV show “Ghost Hunters,” and an apparition was even caught on camera walking through the cemetery. Did they capture the spirit of Old Book?
8Old South Pittsburg Hospital
South Pittsburg, Tennessee
This was the second notoriously haunted location Sam and I investigated. The hospital is more of a research facility, rather than a place for thrill-seekers to come in and ghost hunt. One of the things that is really sets Old South Pittsburg apart is the old hospital rooms specifically set aside for investigators to use throughout their stay—you will have to bring your sleeping bag, but at least they have a bed for you to sleep on! I highly recommend that you bring other people with you, but keep your group small to maximize your weekend experience here. I was particularly drawn to the third floor, around the operating rooms and the psych ward. Some of the best stories coming out of this facility concern recordings of invisible entities holding conversations amongst themselves about the ghost hunters. Don’t forget to ask to see the car that’s parked inside the hospital.
7Eastern State Penitentiary
This is the former home of Al Capone, and his old cell is still dressed up in his honor. Eastern State opened its doors in 1829, and housed each prisoner in their own cell. Though intended to be more humane, this model actually ended up driving many inmates completely insane. Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842 and made the following entry in his journal: “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay”.
Couple this with the “typical” murders, tortures, and suicides, along with the prisoner’s belief that if you die in prison your spirit becomes trapped there, and you have the makings of a haunting. Gary Johnson, a locksmith at Eastern State, has openly spoken about his terrifying experiences there, including witnessing shadowy figures dart back and forth between cells.
Spring City, Pennsylvania
Pennhurst Paranormal Association just opened the Mayfair Building for public ghost hunts in 2013. This notorious children’s home was finally shut down in 1987, after a number of court cases and a television expose by Bill Baldini revealed the scale of the abuse perpetrated behind its doors. Because of the horrific conditions that the children there were exposed to, it isn’t hard to believe that there is plenty of bad residual energy remaining in the building. What’s truly disturbing is to imagine the children’s spirits being trapped there still. The e-zine Weird N.J. recounts the tale of a paranormal investigation group comprised of a police officer, a firefighter, and a marine (not exactly occupations renowned for their flights of fancy). All three men claimed have seen a full-body apparition of a woman wearing a nurse’s uniform. Pennhurst is not just the place where things go bump in the night. People have walked out of the Quaker building with fresh scratches on them, and there are accounts of objects being thrown.
New Castle, Pennsylvania
The Lawrence County Home for the Aged opened its doors in 1926. Now known as Hill View Manor, this location has been featured on some of the most popular paranormal TV shows, and is the site of a number of mysterious patient deaths (including 12 suicides, some that involved patients leaping to their deaths off the roof). Visitors can still visit the cemetery out back.
Owner Candy Braniff has openly shared her personal experiences with spirits at Hillview, and has even said that she has been followed home by ghosts. Currently, she is planning to open a museum in the old building.
One of the most interesting stories I have heard about Hillview came from a “Ghost Adventures” investigation, which used a PX device to try to contact a ghost. After a long night with no hits on the device, they suddenly heard the voice of a man by the name of Eli Saari, who was trying to tell them the story of how he died. Apparently, Saari had left jail and wound up in the basement of Hillview, where he died of intoxication. If this is true, it would be both hopeful and frightening that spirits may be able to communicate the details of their deaths—imagine how helpful it would be to solve crimes.
The Preston School of Industry opened its doors in 1890 and was supposed to be a place of rehabilitation for young male offenders. J’aime Rubio’s Behind the Walls: A Historical Expose of The Preston School of Industry, reports that the pupils were subjected to abuse and torture at the hand of Superintendent O’Brien, and there are even allegations of flat-out murder. In 1923, an investigative reporter named Leon Adams infiltrated the castle and wrote an expose entitled “Youths Kept in Dark Basement.” One superior court judge is reported to have taken the report to heart, but nothing much changed.
By the 1950s, the school was housing violent offenders, and a female housekeeper named Anna Corbin was said to have been found brutally murdered in her office. Her killer was never caught. The school was closed in 1960 but the on-site cemetery continues to be maintained. Anna’s restless spirit may be still trying to communicate and bring her killer to justice.
3Old Idaho Penitentiary
If you are too chicken to go out for a Fright Night or ghost hunt event at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, then don’t fret—you can still see the gallows and solitary confinement cells during daylight hours. The prison was built in 1872, and claims to have held some very bad people in its time. Along with the usual suspects, there was Lyda Trueblood, a serial killer who got rid of four husbands via arsenic poisoning. Believe it or not, she was not executed, serving a sentence of 10 years before dying of a heart attack in 1958.
Around 110 people are thought to have died here, only 10 from actual executions. The hangings that were completed took place in the rose garden—which is still much the same today. Conditions at the pen were brutal, and they didn’t even have plumbing until the 1920s. Today, guides cite solitary confinement cells nicknamed “Siberia” and “The Cooler” as paranormal hotspots. Two of the possible lingering spirits are Raymond Snowden (referred to as Idaho’s Jack the Ripper) and George Hamilton. Hamilton was convicted of highway robbery in the late 1800s, and it is said that he committed suicide on the night of his release because he didn’t want to leave Idaho.
2Wyoming Frontier Prison
When Wyoming opened its prison in December 1901, there was still no electricity or running water. In 1912, inmates set fire to the prison broom factory, which must have warmed things up somewhat. Death row inmates were housed in a separate building, along with a gas chamber after 1936, when it replaced hanging as the preferred mode of execution. To me, one of the most chilling stories about the prison involves inmate Annie Bruce, who was sentenced to four years at the tender age of 14, after killing her father via a poisoned pie. She is quoted as saying: “While I was in the act of making the pies, a feeling or a wish came over me to kill someone and this feeling, I could not resist.”
The Frontier Prison claims to be the site of 250 deaths, 14 of which were by execution. The prison had a dungeon, and solitary confinement cells that are likely hotspots for investigating paranormal events. The Punishment Pole was a unique method of torture, where misbehaving inmates were tied to a metal pole and beaten with rubber hoses.
1Old Charleston Jail
Charleston, South Carolina
If we write a follow up to Haunted Asylums, Prisons, and Sanatoriums, this location will be Chapter One. We visited the Old Charleston Jail in March 2013 and were able to make arrangements for a private event. This location showed a lot of physical evidence on a recent episode of “Ghost Hunters.” While we did not experience any scratches ourselves, we did leave with some EVPs. The Old Charleston Jail claims to be the site of the execution of America’s first female serial killer—Lavinia Fisher, who continues to be the subject of debate as to her guilt or innocence. Bruce Orr’s book, Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher, is a well-researched piece, which questions everything we have heard about Lavinia and her husband, who the justice system may have failed miserably. What if they were executed and were completely innocent?