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Haunted big house

(Originally published on Oct. 31, 2001) From its foreboding Tower 13 to the dimly lit death row, ghosts apparently have the run of Old Folsom Prison. The historic joint seems a perfect place for ghostly superstitions to flourish.

High granite walls cast shadows longer and deeper than any haunted house. Death has been present throughout its history from the 93 hangings of inmates to the vicious killing of a warden.

Ghostly apparitions are said to walk the third floor of a medical clinic where the insane once were housed. And a specter called the Folsom Phantom marches along a catwalk on foggy mornings.

Prison staff concern has been acute enough that the Roman Catholic Church has intervened.

"On a few occasions we have blessed the rooms," said the Rev. Thomas Maguire, chaplain of Folsom State Prison. "We have asked God to cast out anything evil."

Maguire's prayers dedicated the sites to doing good. "For example if it is an area where medical help is rendered, we ask that it be dedicated to relieving pain."

Folsom was a maximum security prison was for 114 years, until it was made a medium security lockup in 1994.

Correctional officers are well-acquainted with tales of unexplained goings-on at the prison through the years. Some openly scoff at the notion of ghosts inhabiting the prison, while others withhold judgement.

Folsom Prison Lt. Tom Ayers has worked the graveyard shift, allegedly ghostly prime time. He helped explain the proliferation of ghost stories at Folsom and provided thumbnail sketches of the most "haunted" parts of the prison during a recent tour.

"If you think of it," said Ayers, "we are 121 years old. We have very violent history. A lot of men have died here.

"Are ghosts feasible? I can't tell you 'yes' or 'no.' Nothing has been proven scientifically. But it's funny. In certain places at midnight here, the hair stands up on the back of your neck."

It is as though somebody unseen is standing next to you or somebody is watching you from the shadows, he said. The spirited tour this week by Ayers, a prison spokesman and historian, began with a fortress outpost for guards and ghouls:

* Guard Tower 13, a three-story edifice where officers look over the American River. It is said that "something" walks the stairs at night.

On the first floor, a dungeon of old cells once housed recalcitrant inmates. Correctional officers at their posts on the third floor have heard what sounds like creaking cell doors beneath them.

"This is a weird tower," said Correctional Officer Bill Webster. "At times it sounds like the holding cells on the bottom are opening even though there is no wind."

* Building 5, Folsom's oldest cellblock. Legend has it that four specters lurk in the shadowy stone building. More than one person has told of a "laundryman" inmate walking down the 1880-era cellblock. He turns into the same cell each time - only to disappear.

* Old Death Row. Ninety-three men were housed and hanged here between 1895 and 1937. They moved up one cell closer to the gallows each time a fellow prisoner was hanged. Eventually each inmate reached cell No. 1, which was only steps from the noose.

The men were not allowed to speak to each other in the 13 cells. Prisoners whispered to each other to communicate.

And today a whispering can be heard, a sound Ayers dismisses as hissing coming from a steam pipe.

* Prison clinic. Some staff are uncomfortable about going into the third floor of the clinic after midnight, Ayers said. There is a "chilling sensation."

At one end of the clinic third floor, a staff member in a heavy frock is said to walk the old psychiatric unit, where the criminally insane were kept in a series of cells. At the other end, where inmates died on the operating table despite the efforts of medical staff, long dead convicts make a racket at night.

* The old prison morgue. Inmate bodies were stored here until burial. "You hear whispering there today," Ayers said.

* The catwalk at the front gate. On foggy days, the Folsom Phantom, the ghostly image of an officer killed in the 1927 riot, walks along the top of the granite walls.

Ayers said the phantom story can probably be traced to the 1930s, a prevarication started by "valley" kids - the children of employees who lived in houses on prison property.

Ayers said staff is reluctant to talk about odd experiences in the old prison, lest they be branded as a bit odd themselves. But prison lore keeps spectral tales alive.

"I've heard all the stories," Ayers said. "The only strange thing I've ever seen happened on graveyard shift. I thought I saw somebody walking down a corridor in a suit and wearing a hat."

But upon closer inspection, Ayers found that there was nobody there.

"Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me," he said.