Ghosts of the Prairie
ghosts of the yuma territorial prison
The first seven inmates entered the Territorial prison at Yuma, Arizona on July 1, 1876. They were locked into cells that they had constructed with their own hands. In the coming 33 years, a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, lived in the prison. Their crimes ranged from murder to polygamy, with grand larceny being the most common. During that time, 111 of the prisoners died, mostly from tuberculosis, but even so, the stories say that some of them never left this place, even in death.
Despite the reputation of the Yuma prison being a brutal place, the punishments here were very humane for the time and mostly consisted of the “dark cell”, a place of isolation for the rule breakers, and a ball and chain for those who tried to escape. It was considered a model institution and the prisoners had regular medical attention, access to a good hospital and even the opportunity to learn to read and write while incarcerated. The prison housed one of the first “public” libraries in the territory and visitors were charged a fee to tour the prison and to check out books. One of the earliest electric generating plants in the western states furnished light and ventilation for the cell blocks.
But all was not perfect and by 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded. The convicts constructed a new facility in Florence and the last of them were transferred away from Yuma by September 1909.
From 1910-1914, the former prison buildings were occupied by the Yuma High School and after that, empty cells provided fee lodging for hoboes and drifters who were riding the rails across the country. The Great Depression of the 1920’s saw the prison in use once more as homeless families took up residence, seeking shelter from the elements.
In the years that followed, the prison grew smaller and smaller as local residents saw the stones as free building material for homes and projects. This theft, along with fires, weather and railroad construction destroyed most of what was left of the place. Today, only the cells, the main gate and the tower ... and the ghosts.... remain.
Author Antonio Garcez, who wrote an article on the prison for Ghosts of the Prairie and featured it in his book on Arizona ghost stories, collected many stories of strange incidents and hauntings. Reported by park rangers and staff members at the historical site, the stories often spoke of the “dark cell”, the place of punishment for prisoners unable to follow the rules.
Linda Offeney, a ranger at the prison site, told Garcez about an incident when she sensed a presence in the cell that frightened her. She also told him of a photo that she had in her files that was taken of a female tourist in the 1930’s. While the woman in the photo does not appear out of the ordinary, there is a clear image of a ghostly man behind her and just inside the opening of a cell. This cell, which has since been walled up, was where insane prisoners were housed before being moved to other facilities.
She also told about a writer from the magazine Arizona Highways who came and wanted to do a story about the prison. The writer stated that she wanted to spend two days and nights in the “dark cell”, chained by the foot and with nothing but bread and water to eat and drink. The staff provided her with these things and then placed a heavy blanket over the cell door to keep out all of the sunlight, just as it would have been when the prison was in operation. The writer didn’t last for very long! Within hours, she was calling for help, claiming that “someone” else was in the cell with her!
While no records ever mention that a prisoner died while incarcerated in the “dark cell”, the prison reports do mention that at least two prisoners did leave the cell... only to be transferred immediately to an insane asylum in Phoenix. Could the presence be one of these prisoners, still lingering behind?
In addition to the prison itself being haunted, the offices and museum have also seen their share of strange happenings. Things are often moved about, lights turn on and off and on one occasion, coins from the cash register in the gift shop literally flew into the air and landed back in the drawer!
Some believe that the spirits of prisoners past remain here, perhaps trapped within the walls of the prison itself. For some men, whether it was a humane facility or not, being chained up and jailed was a fate worse than death. Are they now reliving it for all eternity?
(C) Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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