Joseph F. Berenato
On prisons, peculiar events and paranormal activity
October may just be my favorite month of the year.
The air is cooler, the nights are longer and Halloween, my favorite holiday, is just a few weeks away.
Though I never really need one, the month of October affords me an excuse to watch my favorite horror movies as often as I want, adorn my house with skeletons and various creatures of the night, dress up in costume and enjoy both hearing and telling ghost stories.
And boy, do I have a good one. Although it doesn’t take place within the town of Hammonton, it did happen within a half hour’s drive from here, so I hope you’ll indulge me and enjoy it just the same.
Because it’s all true.
My wife and I like to visit old, sometimes spooky locales, particularly cemeteries. In the summer of 2019 we decided to try something a little different and made our way to the Burlington County Prison Museum in Mt. Holly.
Opened in 1811, the Burlington County Prison was designed to hold 40 inmates; when it closed its doors in 1965—at the time, the oldest continuously used jail in the nation—it housed more than 100.
It was the site of seven executions by hanging. A gallows still stands in the prison’s courtyard.
It is also allegedly very haunted, with the first specter being sighted in 1833 and continuing long after the prison became a museum in 1966—so many were reported, in fact, that the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders asked a team of paranormal investigators to pay the place a visit in the 1990s. Both they, and every team that has visited since, have reported unexplainable phenomena and deemed it full of spectral activity.
It’s creepy, is my point.
Naturally Robyn and I were excited to pop by and check the joint out.
Much of the structure is what one would expect from a 200-plus-year-old building: old brickwork, uneven floors and so forth. Because we visited during the day (night tours are available for ghost hunters, but no thank-you; we’re curious, but we’re not stupid), we weren’t expecting to really encounter anything otherworldly; we just wanted to see what the place looked like.
We first noticed something weird on the second floor.
One of the cells felt like it was acoustically dead, even though that’s highly improbable given the prevalence of bricks everywhere. Yet, there was no echo to our voices at all, and we felt a mild pressure in our ears, which extended to the rest of our bodies.
Not all of the cells, mind you. Just one.
In the sublevel—which they called the dungeon—some of the cells were pitch-black inside, and there was only a very small viewing portal through the doors, making it difficult to see inside them.
But there were sounds.
We didn’t stay down there long.
On the main level, we figured we’d be OK. There’s a gift shop, an information center and the warden’s office, among other rooms. This is the central nexus of the prison, so what could happen?
When we walked into the warden’s office, we both underwent an olfactory assault—and it was an odor I recognized immediately.
For a year and a half, I taught at South Woods State Prison. Though we had training to prepare ourselves for the job, there was one thing that nobody warned us about: the smell. It is the smell of long-unwashed men in close quarters, and it is everywhere. You get used to it, but you never forget it.
That is what we smelled in the warden’s office. It followed us from one end of the room to the other, and then it was gone.
We quickly went around the rest of the level to see if there could be some other source—some other explanation—but we encountered it nowhere else.
We exited the building to the courtyard, which is where we saw the gallows.
As we approached, we noticed that normal sounds of summer in the area disappeared. There were no bugs. There were no birds. Everything got quiet.
We took that as our cue to leave, which we did with all due haste.
We’re no strangers to ghosts, both at home and at our jobs, but our encounters have, by and large, been benign—and usually explainable as something else, if we want to try hard enough.
This was different. This felt malevolent.
We have not been back since.
The topic of ghosts is often a touchy one with people, one relegated for children or for this time of year alone, with people holding that you either believe or you don’t.
My view is a different one. Either you believe, or you’re wrong. I’ve encountered enough to support that view.
So when you walk by old houses or graveyards, or when you take a stroll on a particularly pleasant summer day, be wary. If you feel a chill or other sensations; if you see something move unexpectedly; when the lights are off and you think you see a figure in the shadows—why, just pull yourself together and remember that, after all, there are such things.
Joseph F. Berenato holds a Master’s in Writing from Rowan University and has been writing for The Hammonton Gazette—to varying degrees—since 1997. He is a trustee with the Historical Society of Hammonton and a caretaker at Oak Grove Cemetery. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on social media at @JFBerenato.