Old Idaho Penitentiary 

There are spirits who walk the cell blocks and entertain those lucky enough to sense them with glimpses of their shadows. Is this the spirit of Harry Orchard, convicted of murder? He served 46 years at the prison, trying for parole numerous times but being turned down. Then, when he was finally offered parole, he refused, only to die in prison at the age of 88. Or could this be George Hamilton, who designed the dining hall and was so distraught over having been ordered to leave Idaho after his release that he committed suicide the same day that he was released from the prison? Did he come back to the prison, calling it home in life and in death? Maybe it’s the inmate who hung himself in 1971 with a rope made from his pants while on death row in maximum security. The penitentiary was built in 1870 when the Idaho Territory was only about 10 years old. It began as a single cell-block and grew into the several buildings that are now on the property. Sandstone was used to construct the walls, and many of the building materials were mined from the local area by inmates sentenced to hard labor here. Throughout the years, it held approximately 13,000 prisoners, 215 of which were women. The prison closed on December 3, 1973, because of riots resulting from the conditions of the prison. It is one of only four territorial prisons still standing in the United States. In the main courtyard, you can see where buildings were burned in the riots, yet the first and oldest cell blocks still stand. The prison has been investigated by Idaho Spirit Seekers on multiple occasions. Driving up Old Penitentiary Road gives you the feeling of having stepped into the past. The road is graveled and narrow. Still standing are the warden’s house (1902), the bishop’s house (moved to the site in 1975), the guard house (1912), and oddly enough, the cell block that held the women’s ward (1906) sits outside of the main walls. The rose gardens inside the complex were tended to by inmates, and there have been reports of ghostly prisoners still tending to the roses they loved so much. The women’s ward is the first building you see when you approach the complex. It is also open to the public. The ward was built in 1920 after a female inmate, who was housed in the main section of the prison, became pregnant. The ward is surrounded by a sandstone wall and has an open walkway into the yard of the cell block. The cell block itself is very small. It does not take long before you feel some of the loneliness that these women must have felt being imprisoned there. I have sensed this on my many visits to the prison. The cells are cramped and cold. Just inside the courtyard there have been reports of cold spots, the feeling of being watched, and an apparition was seen standing by the door going into the front of the building. The prison was a lonely place for a prisoner, and conditions were harsh back when it was built. There have been 10 executions at the prison—all were by hanging, and all were punishment for the inmate having committed murder. Past and present staff have reported smells, voices, shadows passing by, cold spots, alarms that have been deactivated and dismantled going off, and the sound of footsteps in the cell blocks. The most recent investigation of the Old Pen conducted by Idaho Spirit Seekers took place on November 27, 2004. Two team members were touring the maximum security part of the prison when one member took a picture with her digital camera and saw that she had an orb. Her batteries for the camera had been fully charged before they entered the building, and when she snapped this picture, her battery drained to zero. The other member was doing EVP work at the same time and when he got home that night to review his tape, he discovered that he had captured what appears to be someone saying “I’m here,” when asked if there are any spirits present. We look forward to returning to this location in the future with the hopes of obtaining more evidence of paranormal activity.

Written by — Marie Cuff and Kelly Winn Idaho Spirit Seekers

TEL: 1 (208) 334-2844


Encyclopedia of Haunted Places -Ghostly Locales from around the World – Compiled & Edited by Jeff Belanger – Copyright 2005 by Jeff Belanger