DEER LODGE - The thing about the Old Montana Prison is that it's creepy even before you hear the stories about the murders, suicides and ghosts.
Along the dark, vacant street, its watchtowers and fortress-like stone walls seemed to appear out of nowhere, the architecture an unsettling mix of castle and mental institution. I caught myself looking for a parking spot a secure distance down the road.
Built in 1871 as an antidote to the unruliness of the Wild West, the prison was used until 1979, before it was converted into a museum. It seems the secrets and spirits that had inhabited its spaces for a century survived the transition. Visitors and staff members have reported all manner of paranormal activity over the years, from the benign - inexplicable shadows, footsteps and whispers - to the sinister - flying objects, sensations of being choked or attacked, and feelings of incredible dread or sadness.
I went there to spend the night.
For the past few years, museum director Julia Brewer has let the public participate in occasional "investigations," which she's conducted for eight years, with assistance from teams of experts specializing in paranormal matters. It's something she started looking into after smelling burning flesh in her office on a regular basis.
About 20 other individuals had gathered for the Saturday night excursion, and it quickly became apparent that their motives were far different than mine. In the prison's visitor center, they strapped on headlamps and rummaged through the gear they'd brought along. This included luminal, a chemical commonly used in forensics because it can detect areas where blood was shed; electromagnetic frequency detectors, a popular ghost-hunting tool used to pick up on any changes in the energy of a room; and standard digital recorders, since playing back over recordings can capture electronic voice phenomena, sounds that some believe to be of unearthly origin.
I should note that - at the time, at least - I was firm in my skepticism about the existence of ghosts. My concerns about the night extended no further than the foreseeable liability issues associated with opening up a prison full of uneven staircases and narrow catwalks in the dark.
We gathered in a basement theater so Julia could give us the ground rules.
"We respect the spirits here," she said. "They've already been sentenced and served their time."
That meant not calling them "rapists" or "murderers." If you politely introduce yourself, you're more likely to have a good interaction, Julia said. She also warned against Ouija boards and general witchcraft-type practices because they "open the door for something dark." Regardless, she said it's important not to let anything follow you home and, for that reason, she advised that we say a "prayer of protection" when leaving at the end of the night.
It was prime time for a ghost investigation. To begin with, experts say that April and October tend to be the months with the greatest amount of paranormal activity, Julia said, because spirits travel through various realms and they are closest to earthly levels at that time. On top of that, it was a full moon. And the museum staff was setting up a haunted house for Halloween on the ground floor of the cell house, which tends to stir the spirits, Julia said. By this time, it was close to 10 p.m. We had about five hours until the "witching hour" -3 a.m. to 4 a.m. - which is significant, at least at the prison, Julia said.
With that, we set out with Julia for a walkthrough of the grounds. She's told us before that she wasn't in the habit of sugarcoating things, and she was true to her word. Between her introductory talk and a four-page packet titled "Old Montana Prison Paranormal Investigation," we had a sense of all the gruesome things that had occurred within the rooms where we were standing - from a murder-suicide in the "Death Tower" to a suspicious inmate death in an underground "Steam Hole."
"He cooked to death and he lay there for hours and hours. Anyway, feel free to go down there," Julia said.
Julia seemed to have passed this frankness down to her teenage daughter, Jaime, who's grown up in the presence of the prison ghosts and their antics. Chewing bubblegum, she showed us the places where guards would inflict teargas or shred the hands of unruly prisoners. Then she took us to the "Hole," where obstinate inmates were housed, and pointed out a pipe from which one of them had taken his life.
"For some reason, he decided to hang himself," she said with the perky demeanor of a college tour guide. "I'm guessing because he was in the Hole."
Now that everyone had their bearings, we were free to break into small groups and explore. I followed along with Valerie Williams, the museum gift shop clerk, and her husband, David. Valerie has always been sensitive to the workings of the supernatural. It runs in the family - her sister is a medium.
There are a couple of ghosts she deals with in the shop on a regular basis: one she calls Stinker and another, Calvin, who was beaten to death in the area when it was still an industrial zone. She showed me the approximate place where it happened, now a corner of the gift shop that displays shelves of dolls.
She's had her share of experiences on the prison grounds as well. As we walked past a hallway, she told me she'd been choked there. She wouldn't follow me and David into the maximumsecurity wing of the prison because she's become physically ill when she's tried to go in. And her arms occasionally burn with visible scratches that doctors haven't been able to explain, though she has a theory: She used to work in law enforcement, she said, and this is the prisoners' way of taunting her.
For most of the night, my experiences were the opposite of hers. I'd been warned about maximum security, told that people often sense evil there and can't bring themselves to walk inside, but as I stood there in the dark, listening to David ask the ghosts questions in his civilized northern-London dialect, I didn't feel that there was any reason I shouldn't be there. I found it almost peaceful to walk through the silent, narrow hallway on the third floor of the main cell block, peering into the barred enclosures and looking out at the night through distant windows.
But I admit that I expected one of our fellow investigators to join us in the room where inmate riot-leaders Jerry Myles and Lee Smart were found dead. I'd heard footsteps coming up the stairs, but didn't see anyone as I was walking down them. Throughout the night, Valerie showed me orbs captured on her digital camera, particularly around the gallows that have been moved into the W.A. Clark Theater, which had been deliberately set on fire in 1975. The small spheres of light indicate that there is energy in the room, she said.
She and David conducted various recording sessions as we stopped in destinations around the prison, later telling me that they heard strange voices and sounds while listening back through them, but needed to investigate further.
Still, I didn't sense that I'd experienced anything unusual until we went to the automobile museum adjoining the prison gift shop. Valerie has spent a lot of time there, along the rows of more than a hundred classic cars. It is not part of the prison, but it's considered haunted nonetheless. Valerie has seen apparitions there, heard car doors slam when nobody was around and frequently interacts with a young spirit named Billy. She said a paranormal team had recently been through the museum and got a little girl ghost to play with a flashlight. Valerie wanted to try for herself.
She set an electromagnetic frequency detector and a small Maglite flashlight on the ground, then flipped on her digital recorder, starting the session the way she always did - introducing the three of us before telling any spirits that might be around that they could talk in the digital recorder or walk in front of the electromagnetic device if they wanted. This time, Valerie added that the spirit could turn on the flashlight to indicate that she was there.
We all stared down at the floor in silence. The flashlight turned on.
For the first time that night, a shiver ran down my spine. I tried to rationalize what I'd just witnessed, but before I could start to comprehend it, I heard Valerie telling the ghost to try turning the flashlight off this time and watched as the beam of light flickered, as if the little girl were struggling with the task.
"If that's too hard, why don't you try moving this chain over here?" Valerie said.
When I looked over at the chains cordoning off the shiny cars, I noticed that it was swinging back and forth. I wondered how I was supposed to react.
Valerie asked a few more questions of the ghost and then told her we were going to leave her alone, but made sure she knew that she was allowed to follow us or touch us to let us know she was there. I started to feel uncomfortable about the darkness.
It seemed like a fine time to call it a night and head home, but Valerie wanted to have one more go. We had yet to hit the Administration Building, which had ended up being the most active site of the night. Valerie had heard someone hissing at her when we'd walked through on our initial tour; Julia and Jaime were growled at there and captured some inky black shadows on camera.
The building has its fair share of grim history. In 1908, two inmates attempted to escape, killing a warden and seriously injuring another. The prisoners were hanged. During riots 50 years later, a deputy warden was shot and killed in his office. As we walked through the night air, I couldn't help but think that it was nearly 3 a.m. and the witching hour was about to begin.
This didn't seem to be of any particular concern to Valerie, who sat at the old desk in the deputy warden's office, turned on the recorder and jumped into a series of questions. David snapped photos. I stood tense, waiting for anything.
The room was cold and I heard footsteps in the hall. Valerie invited whomever it was to come inside, but nobody appeared. She kept following dark shadows with her eyes and, even though I couldn't see them, I was apt to believe her by this point in the night. The flashlight flipped on from its resting point on the desk. I noticed it before Valerie and David did, but I didn't want to say anything.
Valerie asked the unseen being in the room to turn the light off again and, this time, it did. I'm not sure why, but I felt compelled to commend the ghost for this effort. Then Valerie said she was feeling uneasy and I agreed, perhaps too eagerly, that it was time to leave.
As we walked away, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I kept shivering. Valerie said she sensed that somebody was behind us. She turned around and snapped a photo with her digital camera. A hazy mist appeared on the screen.
"We were being followed," she said, smiling.
I was struck by the difference in our perception of this situation. I was, decidedly, freaked out. She was enjoying herself. But I also understood why. The history of this prison - history in general - is full of unknown motives and shadowy theories. A lot of people accept that there are a lot of questions that will never be answered once the people involved are gone. But Valerie and Julia and the rest of the people who'd come for this investigation believe there are still ways to get answers.
I can't explain everything I saw and heard that night. I don't know whether it was enough to make me rethink me belief in ghosts. But I do know this: As I walked out the front door of the museum, I heeded Julia's advice and whispered a prayer of protection. I said that nothing could follow me home.
Reporter Allison Maier: 447-4075 or email@example.com