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A Night Hunting Ghosts at Joliet Prison

Earlier this month, a group of paranormal investigators visited one of the spookiest sites in the state.

The Old Joliet Prison’s east cell house. The prison, which was built in 1858 and closed in 2002, recently reopened for public tours, a means of restoring parts of the complex.   Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

On a chilly Saturday earlier this month, a small crowd gathered at the gates of Joliet Correctional Center. The prison, which hasn’t been operational since 2002, had recently opened to tours for paranormal enthusiasts. Saturday’s group included Tom McNicholas, who held a small black bag of equipment, Dustin Sommerio, and Nick Mulae, who wore a black leather vest covered in patches of ghosts and crossbones. Stitched in green lettering across his back: “PARANORMAL INVESTIGATOR.”

Built circa 1858, Joliet is among the oldest prison complexes in Illinois. Most famous for its appearance in The Blues Brothers, the penitentiary has hosted such notorious criminals as John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck, and Adolf Luetgert, the original “sausage king” of 19th-century Chicago, who famously dissolved his slain wife in lye at his meatpacking warehouse. 


McNicholas and his buddies’ tour concerned whether such history can transmogrify in the present day. Ghosts, in their eyes, manifest not only visually, but aurally. During their visit, one guide told the assembled visitors there have been reports of indistinct crying and wailing at Joliet prison. In some cases, the guide said, predatory whistles have even crossed the liminal plane. 


Among the gear McNicholas had brought along to the prison: an electromagnetic frequency detector, an ultraviolet light, an electromagnetic voice phenomena recorder, a ”ParaScope” — used to detect static electricity — and a laser temperature gauge. 


The group first made its way to Joliet’s solitary confinement block, where McNicholas, Mulae, and Sommerio stepped into first cell. The space — just high concrete ceilings, a metal bed, and a toilet — was roughly the size of the Toyota Sienna the investigators had arrived in.


McNicholas deployed the UV light, which immediately flickered out; the battery was dead. Sommerio surveyed the walls for discoloration while Mulae addressed his Facebook live viewers. McNicholas then took out the ParaScope. It’s protrusive tubes lit up in green, yellow, and red in quick succession, indicating static electricity — or a presence in the room. 


“Are you here with us?” Sommerio asked. “Can you light it up again?” 


The tubes went dark. 


McNicholas shined his surface temperature gauge at the wall, hoping that might turn something up. 50 degrees, Fahrenheit.

A guide poked her head in and said, “This place has been so active,” then ushered the crew along. 


The tour proceeded to the courtyard. On one side, the guide ran a flashlight over the windows of a castle-like administrative structure, built of limestone, where a warden’s wife was murdered in 1915. (An inmate house servant known as “Chicken Joe” Campbell was convicted of the crime, on shaky grounds).


A siren went off in the distance. “No sirens going off last night,” Mulae said suspiciously.


Later, in the prison’s old gymnasium, the group found scattered glass shards beneath a shattered basketball hoop near an old set of weights. Further in, the hunters gathered in a communal shower room. A guide placed a Raggedy Ann doll in the middle for all to see; its hands lit up when prompted by a built-in EMF detector. 


The guide then offered the visitors the opportunity to ask the doll questions. A voice emerged from the darkness: Were you killed in this bathroom? Another asked, Did you die in the prison? Raggedy Ann’s hands briefly lit up then faded into darkness, prompting a low collective gasp. Others leaned into the promising line of inquiry. Were you murdered? Nothing. Were you here in the 1970s? Nothing.


“He’s a shy one,” a visitor surmised.


Later, in the hospital — the final stop — Sommerio flipped on his UV light to examine a room. It revealed, on the wall, some mysterious streaks of neon orange paint. Could it be DNA? Blood? 


“That has got to be blood,” he said. “Something happened here.”

Mulae inspected it closely. “No way,” he said. “It’s just splattered old paint.”

Sommerio eyed it again. “Okay, debunk that,” he said, disappointed. “It’s paint.”

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