The Ghost Whisperer of Jacktown, Michigan

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Prisoners pose for a photo outside the West End Wing. The mural is from an archival photo. Author’s collection. Photographer; Jon Tulloch; muralists, Hector Trujillo and Jean Weir; historian, Judy Gail Krasnow.
Prisoners pose for a photo outside the West End Wing. The mural is from an archival photo. Author’s collection. Photographer; Jon Tulloch; muralists, Hector Trujillo and Jean Weir; historian, Judy Gail Krasnow.

Quick, someone call John Walsh: there’s a culprit on the loose. We’ve got strange sightings, unexplained sounds, and curious glowing orbs. Not to mention crimes long unsolved and legacies of abuse, all taking place in an abandoned prison. That’s right, crime fans—it’s time for an episode of Michigan’s Most Haunted!

We jest, but in fact, we don’t jest at all. More than anything else, we tip our hat to brave author Judy Gail Krasnow, who tells the story of one of the most infamous correctional facilities in American history, the first Michigan State Penitentiary in Jackson, MI. After all, to Krasnow, “Jacktown” isn’t just a tourist destination. It’s her home.

This postcard shows the West Wing, Administration Building and East Wing of the prison. It includes a written message. Courtesy of the Jackson District Library.

Krasnow’s book: Jacktown: History & Hard Times at Michigan’s First State Prison is fascinating for many reasons. First, it’s an in-depth account of a place of extraordinary misery, where the harsh conditions alone killed inmates by the hundreds, if not the thousands. But like our exploration of Missouri’s jails, it’s also a story of remarkable resilience, where those same inmates found ways to combat their desperate circumstances—most famously, perhaps, by training the oversized prison cockroaches to serve as couriers for their cigars.

Yes, you read that right.

Human ingenuity was used to gain a small amount of pleasure, as in the story of the cockroach and the cigar in The Night Keeper’s Reports. Courtesy of Jackson Historic Prison Tours.

But perhaps most interesting of all is not what happened while Jacktown was open, but what happened after it closed in 1934. Its life as a prison now over—the state built another, larger facility elsewhere—it reopened for World War II as an armory and remained that way until 1996. It wasn’t until the late 2000s that a movement began to reopen it as an artist’s residential colony: the Armory Arts Village. Learning of the conversion by happenstance, Krasnow packed up her former life in Florida and set out to take part in this ambitious, some might say crazy, project—which is right when she met the ghosts.

A seasoned researcher and historian, Krasnow isn’t one to make up strange sightings lightly; the research she’s done for her book is partly an attempt to determine where these appearances and voices in her new home have come from, and her results are, to say the least, eerie. As she writes:

“Several dogs in the building still bark vociferously for minutes at a time at things their owners cannot see. They stop as quickly as they start, when whatever excites them departs. A repairman who had worked on the building during its renovation informed me that he’d signed up for night duty as a watchman with another worker. After three days, in spite of the high pay, the two quit. They heard screams echoing from the tunnels underneath, dogs barking where no dogs existed, whips lashing and the sounds of footsteps behind the but only the empty night when the men turned around…

Photos reveal hundreds of pure orbs in the old West Wing cellblock, now the Grand Gallery. Orbs, as seen in the accompanying image, have been photographed in the former solitary area. An artist hung her paintings on the wall over her mantel. Constantly, one of them—the same one—kept flying off the hook upon which it hung. She took a photo. In that exact spot, her camera snapped a pure orb. She photographed the wall behind the other paintings hanging over the mantel, but they revealed nothing.”

A particular painting, hung the same way as the others, kept flying off the wall. This artist’s photo shows a pure orb at the exact spot where this particular painting hung. Courtesy of Armory Arts artist Jennifer Redensky.

That’s just a starter to whet your appetite. For the full stories of what Krasnow experienced when she moved in—of objects moving without her touch, of silent music boxes that suddenly played at random, and of uniformed apparitions manifesting on her television, despite it being turned off—you’ll have to read the Ghost Whisperer’s book, or better yet, rent an apartment in Jacktown yourself…

…if you dare!