By Greg Johnson, Cowboy State Daily
Creepy creaks, unexplained footsteps, whistles and even capturing a full-body apparition on night vision video are all signs some believe bolster claims the historic Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie is haunted.
For many, though, the clincher is the smell of cigar smoke.
“People say there are footsteps, creaks and whistles – you know, you hear someone whistling when there’s no one there,” said Renee Slider, curator at the state historic site and herself part of a paranormal investigation team.
“We’ve experienced some interesting things,” Slider said about what was once home for some of the most notorious and genuinely evil men in the West. “We’ve heard a female laugh, almost like a singing, when there’s nobody there.”
People who visit the popular tourist draw also have reported hearing noises coming from the prison’s second floor, which housed the mess hall and areas where much of the at-times harsh discipline was meted out, Slider said.
Those who smell the cigar have perhaps come closest to meeting the prison’s only ghost.
The Murderous Cigar Maker
History knows him as Julius Greenwald, a 38-year-old cigar maker from Poland who found a brisk market around the region for his high-quality cheroots. As an unwilling resident of the Wyoming Territorial Prison, he was simply prisoner No. 338.
He’s also one of only two of the estimated 1,000 prisoners kept there during the facility’s time as a penitentiary from 1873-1901 who died while incarcerated, Slider said. The other was a convict who came to the prison suffering from leprosy and died a short time later of pneumonia.
Now known as its lone ghost, Slider says she doesn’t disbelieve Greenwald’s spirit haunts the halls of the prison. But she’s also not a believer.
She wonders why he would haunt the prison, referencing Greenwald died of natural causes (a heart attack) and his body was sent to his sister in Utah, so his spirit shouldn’t be tied to his remains.
Maybe he still has some unfinished business with what landed him in one of the frontier West’s most infamous prisons, Slider said.
One day in 1897 while on a sales trip selling cigars, Greenwald visited his favorite brothel in Evanston and was shocked to find his wife, Jennie, working there. Enraged, he shot her on the spot.
Convicted of second-degree murder Sept. 25, 1897, he was sentenced to life doing hard labor. In prison, he persuaded the warden and guards to allow him to continue making cigars.
In 1989, his was one of a number of cells that were removed during a major renovation of the historic site, and one theory is the noise and elimination of his cell riled up Greenwald’s spirit.
Built in 1872 and taking in prisoners the next year, the Wyoming Territorial Prison quickly became known as a hard place for Western outlaws to do time.
From the start, prisoners were held to a restrictive behavior code where they weren’t allowed to talk, had to wear black-and-white-striped uniforms and were called by numbers, not their names.
And the punishments for violating the rules were equally stiff, Slider said.
Speaking while working would get a prisoner put in isolation and on bread and water, while anything that rubbed the warden or guards the wrong way could mean cuffing someone to his cell door for days.
Perhaps the most-punished prisoner was Kinch McKinney, the charismatic leader of a crew of cattle rustlers who continually ran afoul of authorities, Slider said. He also may have been one of the first American bad boys to have groupies.
“He was just a cocky guy,” she said. “He was a cattle rustler and a very confident guy. One of the newspapers at the time reported how if his jury had been all women, he would’ve been acquitted. Women were lining up for his trial.”
Sentenced to eight years in 1892, McKinney spent much of his time behind bars in trouble.
• He was cuffed to his cell door for eight days for threatening guards.
• He was cuffed to his cell door for 10 days when he brutally beat a guard and participated in a prison riot, then was forced to wear a ball and chain for 14 weeks.
• After an escape and recapture, he was locked in “the dungeon” for 16 days and wore a ball and chain for 12 weeks.
• Twice he was put in isolation on bread and water for stealing food and talking while working.
• And for another escape attempt, perhaps his most brutal punishment was five days in the dark cell (completely blacked out) cuffed to the ceiling.
“Yeah, they could be pretty bad,” Slider said of the punishments prisoners were put through.
But Is It Haunted?
As a former prison from a time before there were many laws protecting prisoners from cruel and unusual punishments, there are plenty of other incidents that could lead someone to believe the Wyoming Territorial Prison would be haunted.
One recounts how a prisoner once smuggled a large rock in with him, then one day put the rock in one of his socks and assaulted a guard with it, Slider said.
Then there was the prisoner who was allowed to be a barber and took advantage of a guard’s inattentiveness. When the guard turned his back on the prisoner, he slashed the guard’s neck.
“Luckily, he missed his jugular and the guard survived,” Slider said.
In fact, during its active prison years, there were plenty of assaults on guards but none killed, she said. And two natural deaths were the only inmates who didn’t finish their sentences alive.
Whether the prison site actually is haunted remains a mystery, Slider said, but not for lack of trying. A number of paranormal investigative teams have scoured the grounds over the years, including one Slider’s a member of, ParaFPI.
“Stuff has happened here while we were here, for sure,” Slider said.
The most convincing evidence is a grainy image captured on a night vision camera that shows what may be a shadowy male figure in the prison when nobody was there.
“It’s a pretty definite apparition,” Slider said. “Full body of someone standing behind one of the glass doors upstairs. The door is open, and behind it you can see it, and there’s nobody (physically) there at the time.
“There’s a pretty good outline of a person, you can see a head and shoulders.”
While reports of unsettling things happening at the prison “have all been pretty consistent,” Slider won’t go so far as to say the prison definitely is haunted.
She also won’t say it’s not.
“It’s up to you to decide if it’s haunted or not,” she said. “I don’t want to be pushing my opinions about whether it’s haunted or not. I think there’s a possibility, but I don’t want to say for sure. But we have certainly found some things scientifically.
“Can we say it’s haunted or it’s not? We’re not sure.”
Decide For Yourself
The historic site is open for tours year-round and has a gift shop, but those who want to explore the spookier side of the prison can try to find a place in one of two annual Dark Cell Tours at the prison.
Conducted at night by lantern light, the most graphic and often untold stories of the prison are shared as people explore the prison’s dark cells, reserved for the harshest punishments. This year’s Dark Cell Tours are this weekend and sold out.
But there’s plenty of time to get in on one of the more family friendly Ghost Tours on Oct. 27, 28 and 29.