Columbus 200: Nightmare on Spring Street
By Chris Gaitten , Mark J. LucasPublished November 1, 2012
High heels click down Spring Street. Wallets unfold and laughter echoes between the brick buildings. A multi-million dollar hockey stadium, a string of bars and nightclubs, a concert hall that brings in international acts, The Arena Grand Theater, Huntington Field and more restaurants than you could enjoy in a month. The Arena District is one of the crown jewels of Columbus because of its nightlife, but years before, that area was renowned for an entirely different reason.
The city, with good reason, doesn’t exactly play up the fact that its shining entertainment district is probably stacked five-feet-high with ghosts.
For residents newer to our area code, it might be difficult to imagine, but the Arena District was once home to the old Ohio Penitentiary, an immense prison.
A check on YouTube will reveal absolutely no History Channel clips on the prison. Save some inconspicuous plaques in North Bank Park, there is almost no physical trace of The Ohio Pen on the grounds. Most transplants are scarcely aware that there even was a prison there, and that it stood as recently as 1998.
“Ten thousand pages of History of the Ohio Penitentiary would not give one idea of the inward wretchedness of its 1,900 inmates,” wrote prison superintendent Dan J. Morgan in 1893. “The unwritten history of the Ohio Penitentiary is known only by God himself.”
Along Spring Street, behind a towering wall of stone and steel, topped with sentry posts, were housed the state’s most vicious criminals. The facility was a major employer and championed by Warden E.G. Coffin as a model of the U.S. prison system. It even became a tourist attraction for visitors, but its high walls kept dark secrets from the public.
In the beginnings of Ohio’s history, prisoners were kept in a stockade in Franklinton, along the river. Men, women, and children were whipped until their backs were exposed flesh, hot ash and coals eventually placed in their wounds. The facility held not only Ohio prisoners, but prisoners from the frontier as well, as we were then a western state.
In the 1830s, prisoners were marched from the stockades to complete construction of the Ohio Pen on Spring Street. It was designed to hold 1,900 prisoners, but exceeded that capacity within 50 years. At its peak in 1955, the prison held more than 5,000 inmates. Cholera tore through the prison frequently, killing 116 in 1849. Prisoners slept on hay mats on the floor, though beds were installed before the Civil War began.
Public executions were a form of entertainment in the 19th Century. They were conducted by Sheriffs outdoors, and people would come from all around to watch the condemned hang by the neck. Vendors sold food, and the whole affair was quite the dark carnival, one with a very gruesome headlining act. Mistakes – from nooses too tight to ropes too long – were regular and hideous, and almost all that swung soiled themselves in the process. Children were brought along and made to watch, a visceral warning for the fate of lawbreakers.
Eventually, executions were brought inside and another marvel of the times took the place of rope: the electric chair. “Old Sparky,” as it was nicknamed, was the second electric chair ever operated. For a while, it was considered a more humane way to execute prisoners. In all, more than 300 souls were claimed in this seat, which was located in what is now an office building off Arch Park.
Several famous inmates called the prison home over the years, such as Confederate general John H. Morgan, famed short story writer O. Henry, gangster Bugs Moran, osteopathic surgeon Sam Sheppard (supposedly the inspiration for the movie and television series The Fugitive), and two members of the Dillinger gang. A 24 year-old car thief was incarcerated at the Ohio Pen, and would later be released to start a very successful country music career. His name was David Allen Coe.
By the 20th century, the Ohio Penitentiary was operating wildly beyond capacity. This was bad enough, but a fire in 1930 showed the true consequences of beyond-capacity incarceration in this manner. Allegedly, three inmates started the blaze to create a diversion for an escape, just one day after Easter. The guards, unsure how to handle the problem, didn’t open the cells in time, dooming many to suffocation. In all, 320 inmates perished in the inferno. Not only was it the deadliest prison fire in American history, it’s considered one of the worst fires our nation has ever seen. (For more, see page 75).
Decades of alleged abuse by guards, deplorable conditions, and corruption would eventually come to a head in the summer of 1968. A group of inmates stormed the cafeteria, commissary, and prison hospital, taking nine guards as hostages. They demanded certain personnel be fired, that the rioters be given amnesty, and that their demands be delivered to the media. Negotiations fell out due to violence, with the prisoners threatening to burn the hostages alive and decapitate one of the guards. Authorities stormed the Pen, and rescued all nine hostages. Five inmates lost their lives during the event, which lasted two days.
The riot would mark the end of the Ohio Penitentiary. Lucasville Prison had been on the table for three years at the time and delays in its construction were lifted. Many of the inmates were transferred there when it opened in 1972. The last prisoners were transferred in 1984 and The Ohio Penitentiary closed its doors permanently. Until 1998, its haunting and formidable presence graced Spring Street and what is now the Arena District. It was a favorite site for urban explorers and was toured and used as a haunted house until it was razed.
Today, the area has a new hat. Shopping and music and diversion have been painted over the area’s sinister past, and nary a word is uttered about what once was. There are claims, every so often, of voices being heard around the arena. Someone’s office occupies the same space as a former death house, and where convicts were once hung, people now picnic.
Many areas of Columbus have a dark past, and yet, they’ve been transformed. The Short North was once the haunt of drug dealers and prostitutes. German Village was a collapsing ghetto. And if you didn’t know before, you now know that the Arena District was once an immense prison. It’s the spirit of our city not to necessarily forget the past, but to accept it and move on, to grow bright things in salted ground. That’s probably the reason we have such a unique sway in our step: the rhythm is secretly informed by the sound of history’s chains rattling.
A Fiery End
“Smoke rolled up from the burning cell block in black, fire-tinged waves … with the baking bodies of men trapped in its cells.”
– Chester Himes, prisoner #59623, “To What Red Hell,” Esquire
On April 21, 1930, at 5:20 p.m., a fire began burning an unfinished section of the Ohio State Penitentiary, quickly moving to cell blocks G and H that were inhabited by 835 prisoners. Warden Preston Thomas feared it was an escape plot and would not allow firefighters in until additional law enforcement arrived.
Columbus police officers, prison guards, National Guardsmen, and 500 troops from Fort Hayes fixed bayonets and aimed machine guns at windows as they surrounded the prison. Escaping prisoners were to be shot on sight.
Firefighters were allowed entry and were greeted by hell.
Guard Thomas Watkinson, the keeper of the cell keys, felt he had been ordered not to release prisoners, instead allowing them to burn to death in their cells. Guards Thomas Little and W.C. Baldwin wrestled the keys away from him and began freeing inmates as fast as they could.
In the prison yards, firefighters contended with convicts who were roaming the grounds. They threw rocks, started smaller fires, commandeered hoses, and attempted to ignite the gasoline supply wagon.
Other prisoners helped save their interred brethren. William Wade Warren broke the lock on a cell door with a sledgehammer to release 25 friends; “Wild Bill” Donovan made 12 trips into the burning building, carrying unconscious prisoners to the yard before being overcome by the flames.
As their cohorts succumbed to fire and smoke, some trapped inmates slit their throats or drowned themselves in water basins.
A prisoner named “The Deacon” had begun broadcasting the atrocity over the prison radio system, which was affiliated with CBS and being aired nationwide, saying at one point, “The campus of the prison is covered with men who have passed on.”
By the time the fire was under control at 9 p.m., 320 had perished.
The inferno was later attributed to three prisoners who set fire to an oily rag and were planning to use it as a distraction to escape. Two of the convicted inmates eventually committed suicide. A large portion of the blame fell at the feet of Warden Thomas – there were no regulations to prevent fires and he was more concerned with the supposed escape plot.
The six-story torch in the Columbus night sky is still the deadliest prison fire in American history.