The corner stone of the Wyoming Frontier Prison, at the time known as the State Pen, was laid in 1888, but due to funding issues the doors wouldn’t open for occupancy until 13 years later. In 1901, the prison opened for business and was certainly no resort, suffering from a lack of electricity and ineffective heating. Overcrowding was a near-constant battle. According to the prison’s official history, “approximately 13,500 people were incarcerated, including eleven women.”
The prison is so notorious for the legends of inmates who never got their afterlife parole, famous ghost hunters have made the prison one of their most sought-after investigation locations. Ghost Adventures from the Travel Channel had a special episode set in Rawlins with some of the most compelling evidence the crew ever caught, when a camera moved seemingly of its own volition and sounds were heard in parts of the prison where no living humans were walking.
Apparitions are frequently reported to be seen out of the corner of visitor’s eyes. In various cells throughout the cell blocks, unseen presences are felt and disembodied voices are heard. An angry, crazed presence is said to threaten anyone who dares to enter certain sections and the reflection of an apparition of a man wearing a brimmed hat has been seen in the room where men were executed.
The prison’s dark history also includes the usage of a gas chamber on location as well as the infamous Julian Gallows, a horrifying Wyoming invention. The goal of the gallows was to remove the act of taking another man’s life from the conscience of many a prison guard. Instead of a lever to pull, the gallows used a system of water that began when the condemned stepped onto the gallows. Many say that those who lost their lives in the prison never left.
Another gruesome tale that is set with the prison as its background, an infamous highwayman named Big Nose George was pulled from the prison after a failed escape attempt left a guard with a cracked skull from George’s shackles. The towns folk strung him up by a telegraph pole, but that wouldn’t be the end of George’s story. His remains were found in a whiskey barrel in the 1950s, missing the top of his skull that had been used as an ashtray by a local doctor. Most horrifying, however, was what was done with his skin– It was tanned and turned into a doctor’s bag and a pair of shoes, the latter of which is still on display in Rawlins.
One of the most enduring urban legends about the Frontier Prison is that of the “Pie Lady,” a story also covered by Ghost Adventures. Legend has it that a Rawlins woman took a motherly role among the inmates of the prison shortly after it was opened. She would bake pies for the men and bring them by the prison weekly. One unknown inmate was released on parole, and legend has it that he found the “Pie Lady,” raped and murdered her, thus earning re-admittance into the prison.
The prisoners who had grown attached to the Pie Lady exacted swift justice, hanging the perpetrator over the balcony on the second floor. They say that the scene plays on a loop in the prison, and if you catch it at the right time, you can watch the man being punished for his crimes by fellow criminals.
If you’ve watched the Ghost Adventures episode about the Frontier Prison, you may be aware of the terrifying ghostly activity that goes on, even in a slow night at the prison. Former and current employees each have their own story about an apparition or strange events that left them wondering who was still trapped behind the infamous walls.
The Wyoming Frontier Prison now offers special haunted houses in October, but now you may be wondering if all of the ghosts you see are just for fun, or if they’re remnants of a dark history.
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Born in Death Valley and raised on the prairie, Deborah is a Wyoming-based paranormal researcher and a senior at the University of Wyoming, studying Communication. Her interests lie in folklore, history, rhetorical analysis and research. With an obvious love for ghost stories, frequently those interests combine with her work on Ghostlandia.