At a glance:
- Actively haunted and easy to access prison from 1875
- Site of a deadly riot
- Famous prisoners and an infamous isolation cell
I’ve made countless trips across the California and Arizona desert, entering and leaving Los Angeles. On one of these trips, I ended up taking a very southern route that passed me through Yuma, Arizona. Even just briefly seeing the micro city from Interstate 8, I was immediately taken by its beauty. Trains traversed the Colorado River via aged bridges, huge sand dunes formed the horizon, surrounding the historic western town.
I thought to myself immediately, “I need to find a haunted location here and get back as soon as I can.” To my surprise, the work was done for me pretty quickly. Turning on an episode of “Ghost Adventures,” I could tell from the first establishing shot, “They’re in Yuma!” Sure enough, the episode was about the Yuma Territorial Prison (season 12, episode 8), a captivating, haunted structure that’s 36 years older than the state of Arizona itself.
Soon, I was making my own pilgrimage, heading south from Los Angeles and tip-toeing along the US/Mexico border to make my way to the wild west era prison.
The Yuma Territorial Prison (now operated by the State Park system of Arizona) is open year-round to visitors for a minimal fee (check out the operating hours prior to your visit here: http://www.yumaprison.org/hours-fees-parking.html).
The site is intimate. You are given a brochure at the visitor’s center and told to enjoy. And with that, you are off! The prison was surprisingly well attended considering 1) it’s Yuma and 2) it was a typical day, with temperatures reaching well into the triple digits. That said, there was still plenty of opportunities to explore the grounds alone as most visitors spent their time indoors. The main yard looks out over a canal and to the site of another place that merits future investigations – the location of a revolt of the Yuma/Quechan tribe that resulted in the destruction of two missions and the death of every European male, including the mission’s leader, Padre Graces, in 1781.
It’s hard not to think of the site of a failed Native American revolt that I investigated in Santa Barbara, which yielded the most drastic cold spot I’d ever personally recorded:
The prison, colorfully, and accurately, nicknamed “Hellhole Prison,” saw a tremendous amount of history and colorful characters pass through it’s doors despite only being in operation for 33 years (1876-1909). Those very first inmates were put to work immediately, helping complete construction of their still unfinished new home.
The most iconic feature of the prison is the solitary confinement cell, aka “The Dark Cell.” Prisoners found themselves confined within a strap iron cage, in the middle of this this dark cell. The only light came from a small ventilation pipe directly overhead. It was not uncommon for a prisoner to find themselves in the dark cell multiple times. Just check out the rap sheet for attempted murderer AA Stewart, who was sentenced for 4 days for insulting an officer, then another 10 days for disobeying an officer and threatening him. One might think spending a full month in solitary after an escape attempt would break his will, but the rebel had spirit, escaping and disappearing into the desert two months later.
Today, there is talk of a spirit of a child haunting the dark call. In addition to people not feeling alone there, there are reports of being touched by a small, cold hand. See a short video “tour” of the cell at AZCentral here: http://azc.cc/1RS0Nwv
The most infamous single incident at the prison happened in 1887 during an attempted prison escape that left four prisoners dead, three wounded and the superintendent of the prison suffering from multiple wounds from a butcher’s knife that were so severe, the man, Thomas Gates, eventually committed suicide to escape the pain. A detailed step-by-step retelling of the escape attempt can be found here: http://westernamericana2.blogspot.com/2010/06/yuma-territorial-prison-1875-1909-by.html along with a write-up of one of the more famous prisoners, “Buckskin Frank Leslie,” who was once a co-worker of Wyatt Earp at the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone.
Present day, the scene of the blood bath is around the main, green, courtyard. One can even stand in the guard tower, in the footprints where sharp shooter Benjamin Hartlee took aim and gunned down attempted escapees Villa, Lopez, Bustamante, Vasquez. Likewise, you can stand in front of the sallyport where Gates was held at knife point as the skirmish unfolded around him. It was from here that Gates gave the signal to the guard tower to open fire.
For as much as the prison was considered harsh, largely due to the landscape, climate and predatory wildlife of the area, it was actually quite comfortable for the day. The building even had hydroelectric electricity by 1884, a full nine years before people saw streetlights for the first time at Chicago’s 1893 world’s fair.
An interesting blurb in the “Cochise Review” (as re-reported by the “Phoenix Herald”) in 1900 even mentions how successful the prison was at helping criminals rehabilitate from “the morphine habit,” citing the positive change felt by famed female stagecoach robber Pearl Heart.
Indeed, the prison did house a number of the most ruthless female prisoners one could dream up including 16 year-old Maria Moreno, who killed her younger brother with a shotgun blast to the face over an insult and Elena Estrada, who literally cut out her lover’s heart when she caught him cheating.
We see the energy over 3,000 inmates brought into the prison over the years, the hardships they experienced on site and we haven’t even mentioned that over 100 inmates died in prison due to illness (mostly tuberculosis) or other non-violent maladies. You can easily imagine the location being haunted.
I casually asked a very official-looking state employee if he believed in the tales of the site being haunted. He was almost angry at how casually I asked the question. “I hear voices and shouts…. hear my name called to me almost every night when I’m working here alone.” It’s so often that employees of a haunted site, or someone in an official or authoritarian position, will downplay paranormal claims or experiences. It also comes off suspicious to me if an employee is glamorizing the haunted history of a site, as if it’s part of their marketing pitch. In this case, it was neither of those things. It was matter of fact – this place is actively haunted
The Ghost Adventures team caught a particularly engaging vision of a full band performing on stage in the on-site theater. This was captured live by the Infrared, body-mapping Kinect camera. While what they caught was jaw-dropping and the figures truly seemed to interact with the commands the team was giving, it should be noted that the theater was a recent addition, a room built specifically for tourists to watch an informational video. While this doesn’t mean the room can’t be haunted, prisoners were not performing on this stage in the late 1800s/early 1900s, as the show insinuates.
The nearby 115-body cemetery lacks any kind of individual grave markers, merely piles of rock over each body. There isn’t even a plaque listing the names. One has to wonder if this lack of individual recognition is leading some of the dead to continue to make their presence known. That alone, coupled with the residual hauntings that are undoubtedly continue at this historic prison, leads this place to be something of a paranormal gold mine. Phantom talking throughout the cell blocks, the metal clanging sounds of cell doors opening and closing by themselves are not uncommon occurrences.
The prison’s history continued after being a correctional institution. The campus become Yuma’s High School, a fact they continue to celebrate today with a wonderfully themed school shield and their team name being the Yuma Criminals. Then, one of the structures was converted into the county hospital. Later, during the market crash, countless homeless persons relocated here to live. So, even after the prisoner’s had moved out, there was still ample possibility for “new” hauntings to take hold.
A visit to the Yuma Territorial Prison is a can’t miss adventure for anyone interested in history, the wild west or haunted locations. It should also be noted that the women’s cells were destroyed in 1923 when the Southern Pacific Railroad expanded into the area. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if there are additional hauntings here, just outside of the current walls.