The Haunted Lorton Reformatory

You can listen to this episode here.

Hey, y’all, and welcome to Southern Macabre. I’m Aeryn and I am so glad that you could join me today for the paranormal episode. I know I always say this, but I have a really good story for y’all today. 

Now, I know I told y’all about a haunted prison a few weeks ago, but I warned y’all that I really wanted to talk about Lorton Reformatory in Lorton, Virginia. It’s just a little ways south of D.C. Tuesday was International Women’s Day and I feel that ties in with the history of this now-defunct penitentiary. Also, before we get into today’s story, I want to tell y’all that I use prison, reformatory, and penitentiary interchangeably. I’m talking about the same place.

Lorton Reformatory opened its doors in 1910 for the District of Columbia. Why was it in Virginia? There wasn’t enough room there for what Teddy Roosevelt wanted, a model prison that would shape the penal system in the United States. 

They used Revolutionary War patriot William Lindsay’s 1790 estate, Laurel Hill, as a residence for the reformatory superintendent. In addition, a farmhouse was built in 1937, known as the Stempson House, for a prison officer. It was built by inmates and the bricks used in the basement, walkways, and chimneys were made by inmates as well as part of their rehabilitation. It was later converted to a security office, but today it is a residence owned by Fairfax County.

From 1911 to 1977 the reformatory had its own railroad, The Lorton and Occoquan Railroad. It was used to move prisoners, building materials, and other things from Occoquan to Lorton and back as well as moving things around Lorton Prison.

The original idea behind Lorton was to teach men a trade and educate them so that they could rejoin society after a few months. There was a dairy farm, orchards, a garden, chickens, and turkeys that the inmates were responsible for. In time, a machine shop was added to teach the inmates welding and metal fabrication.

Approximately 168 nationally recognized suffragists were housed here from June through November 1917. Most of them belonged to the National Women’s Party and were arrested for picketing in front of the White House. Most experienced mistreatment at the workhouse, like being force-fed through a tube when they initiated a hunger strike. The “Night of Terror”, on November 14th of that year, the suffragists were tortured, beaten, and abused. You can see a rendition of these events in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels, which shows the history of the National Women’s Party along with portrayals of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns who spent time at Lorton.

Prisoners constructed the penitentiary buildings of the 1930s using clay from the Occoquan River and kiln-dried on the property. In the beginning, only the maximum-security portion was fenced, but fences were added to the other area thanks to local politicians raising the alarm over prison escapes and threatening to close the prison.

The Youth Center, which housed 18-22-year-old prisoners, opened in the 1960s. At first, the inmates wore suits and ties and were taught a trade. At some point, older inmates were also housed here and it became the murder capital of Lorton, which is really saying something given its history.

By 1989, Lorton was severely overcrowded and inmates became agitated and furious – a deadly combination. Inmates burned down an administration building, vandalized the prison, and stabbed one inmate to death. Twelve were injured. The vocational building burned to the ground, the culinary unit had minor damage, and a dormitory had smoke damage and had to be closed temporarily. It started because the power went out, which was never supposed to happen. There were two backup generators, but they never turned on. Local politicians argued over whether or not it was a true riot or just a demonstration of the inmate’s anger and frustration. I’ll let you decide.

One documentary stated that most prisons have a problem with inmates making and possessing knives, but at Lorton the inmates made swords. As I said, part of their rehabilitation included learning a trade and there was a machine shop on the premises where they would learn to weld. This is where they got the metal and possibly where the fabrication began.

There are walkways around the dormitories where inmates would gather and hang out, smoking marijuana. They weren’t supposed to have drugs, but somehow it made its way in and some say there were more drugs in Lorton than in DC. These walkways used to have blood on them from all of the stabbings that occurred. It wasn’t unusual for one inmate to stab another because they stole their food, but one inmate stabbed another because he kicked a cat that was on the walkway.

The last prisoner was moved in 2001 and the prison was sold to Fairfax County on July 15, 2002.

I like to think that I know a lot about Lorton because my dad worked there from the time I was two until I was a teenager. He performed maintenance on the cell blocks, one of the most dangerous jobs, if you were wondering. He had to take a toolbox into the cell blocks in order to make repairs, which meant he had screwdrivers, hammers, etc around a whole bunch of inmates. When he could, he would get one of two inmates he trusted to watch his back and his tools. 

He was injured once, but it was an accident. Some inmates took a metal wire and wrapped it around the bars before shoving an end into an electrical socket. Dad went down there to fix the door, not knowing about the trap, and was minorly electrocuted. It wasn’t intended for him, but his boss. He laughed because they didn’t get along, and probably because the inmates kept apologizing that he could have gotten hurt, but he still watched them take it down.

My dad told me once that he never believed in ghosts until he worked at Lorton and threatened to quit if they ever made him go down into the basement. I tried looking up what’s down there and it was a bomb shelter during the Cold War and my dad swore there were bodies buried in it. I can’t find proof online so I don’t know who told him that, but they may have been trying to scare him.

I can’t ask my dad because he passed away a few years ago so I’m kind of doing this story for him, but also because I find it interesting. While I tell my dad’s stories please take them with a grain of salt, he was an amazing storyteller who could weave a web of tales that sounded completely true but may have been exaggerated or made up entirely. 

His shift ended at 3:30 every evening and he came home because he did not want to be there after dark. He had a shop on the property that had to remain locked and it was kind of his sanctuary. An inmate who was an artist befriended my dad and learned that he loved Mickey Mouse so he drew pictures for him. Those pictures hung in my dad’s shop and some he brought home and Mom put them up in my room and on the fridge. Sadly, only one of those pictures remains.

I remember him coming home one time shaking because he was in an empty block and a cell door opened by itself. He had made sure it had locked because he had just finished fixing it.

He also told of hearing voices and footsteps behind him when no one was around. It is a big place made of brick, concrete, and iron so I’m sure sound carries, but that’s still a scary feeling.

Lorton had an electric chair, but I don’t know if I ever knew where it was. My dad saw it a few times and said if any place in the prison was haunted, it was the chair. It was off, obviously, but he said there was an aura around it and he could almost hear the men screaming. That didn’t stop him and his buddy from daring each other to have a seat in it, but neither did. 

There is a small cemetery across from the old prison that was used to bury inmates without friends or family from 1910 until the 1960s. I included an article in the credits so you can look at pictures if you want, but I’ll say it was eerie to me. My dad didn’t like going out there, but he still did sometimes. I remember him saying it wasn’t a scary place, but it was very, very sad because no one went out there to put flowers on the graves or say anything to these men.

Today, parts of the Lorton Reformatory have been repurposed. There’s the Lucy Burns Museum, an arts center, and some of the old dorms have been converted into $1,700 per month apartments. The quad is now a swimming pool and the chow hall is a recreational facility. Single-family homes and townhouses selling for $550,000 to almost $900,000 have been built overlooking cell blocks and guard towers. This new development is ironically called Liberty.

I can imagine what my dad would think after working at Lorton for almost twenty years, “I wouldn’t live there with all them ghosts!” Personally, I’m glad that they’re doing something positive with a place that saw so many negatives. I still don’t think I could live there, though, knowing that so many died there through sickness, violence, and serving their sentence.

After talking to my mom, she said she knows someone who bought a house there, and not only have they experienced strange things but so have their neighbors. They hear footsteps, disembodied voices, and doors will slam shut. I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t want to live in a house haunted by murderers. I wouldn’t mind going there, even at night, but I’m not going to sleep there.

Thank y’all so much for listening today! I love and appreciate, y’all. Please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or Goodpods and make sure you’re following on your favorite platforms so you never miss an episode. You can reach me via email, Facebook, or Twitter – I will put the links in the description.

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