October 29, 1999
In Pursuit of Spirits Doing Time in the Afterlife
Halloween is coming. And while we could celebrate by renting "The Blair Witch Project" or reading aloud H. P. Lovecraft's horror stories, we decided we wanted to go ghost hunting. The Ghost Hunting 101 manual, which we found on the Internet, advised against beginners seeking out ghosts on their own. So we contacted the author, the New Jersey-based ghost hunter Dave Juliano, to ask how we should proceed.
Juliano is the creator of a Web site devoted to the paranormal (www.theshadowlands.net/south jersey) and the co-director of South Jersey Ghost Research, a ghost-hunting club with 35 active members and dozens of affiliate clubs around the country. Its members identify places with possible hauntings (cemeteries, old houses, historic battlefields) and organize investigations using audiovisual and other equipment. Their goal is to bring back proof that ghosts exist.

On the Shadowlands Web site, the club receives about 400 queries a week from people who think their homes are haunted. "This is a busy time of year for us," said Juliano. "We're booked through January for every weekend."

October is busy for the ghost business in general. A ghost-hunting group in Los Angeles has been charging people to participate in an "investigation" of a haunted theater on Hollywood Boulevard. And the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance has been holding sold-out seminars on "the what, why and where of the spirit realm" in a historic haunted mansion.

On a recent Friday night, we accepted Juliano's invitation to join his club in its investigation of the Burlington County Prison in Mount Holly, N.J. Before the prison was closed in 1965, guards reportedly had seen cigarettes floating in midair in one of the supposedly empty cells. As for the rest of the ghostly activity, Juliano said it was best to keep us in the dark until we arrived.

Driving toward Mount Holly on the New Jersey Turnpike, we wondered how we would respond if we actually saw something. What if a transparent apparition, dragging a rusty ball and chain, walked up to one of us and tried to bum a smoke?

Shortly after exiting the turnpike we found ourselves on a road lined with old red-brick mansions with columned porticos. In the darkness we felt as if we had passed through a portal and entered an early-19th-century village. The prison was hard to miss. It is a handsome gray stone building with iron bars over its windows. Out front we spotted Juliano, a stocky 31-year-old with a shaved head, directing a group of about 15 people laden with equipment.

Each ghost hunter wore a photo identification badge with name and rank, "investigator" or "team leader." A few had crucifixes carefully positioned outside their shirts, and many were dressed completely in black. If their ID's hadn't read "South Jersey Ghost Research," Juliano and his crew members might have been mistaken for a bomb squad.

As the ghost hunters filed through the heavy, oak-paneled front doorway, we took a moment to admire the building. Above the entryway "prison" is chiseled in stone, flanked on each side by a carving of skeleton keys surrounded by chains.

Scheduled to open as a museum in March, the prison is being restored to look as it did when it opened in 1810.

From Prison Museum Association members, who were observing the proceedings, we learned that the Boston strangler once spent the night here and that executions were performed in the prison's backyard. Some people consider the building to be haunted, and South Jersey Ghost Research was given three hours to see what it could find.

Juliano, a refrigeration and heating technician by trade, came well prepared.

His metal briefcase was packed with equipment: tape recorders, digital cameras, red-beamed flashlights, electromagnetic field detectors (or E.M.F.'s), temperature gauges, walkie-talkies, extra batteries and laminated cards with a prayer to St. Michael asking for his "protection against wickedness and the snares of the Devil."

Inside the chilly stone walls, cells with doors of iron lined each of the prison's three floors, and a team of investigators was designated for each floor. Juliano's team set up its equipment on the third floor in a central cell with a vaulted ceiling and a high, tiny window -- the death-row cell.

"There are legends that you can hear people screaming and wailing," asserted Karen Smith, the coordinator of capital projects for Burlington County.

"The people who spent their last days here were shackled by leg irons to a bolt which is embedded in the floor." Among the tales that Ms. Smith has heard is one about the persistent spirit of a man

executed in the mid-1800's for killing his wife by bludgeoning her with a table leg. The stories of hauntings began immediately after the murderer was hanged from the prison scaffold.

With the lights on, Juliano's team set up a night-vision camcorder in one corner of the death-row cell. Electronic sensors, including a motion detector and temperature gauge, were placed strategically around the infamous bolt. If a ghost were even to blink in here, it would be busted.

When the ghost hunters finished setting up their equipment on each floor, the team leaders conferred on walkie-talkies and, in one weird instant, the lights went off throughout the building. "O.K.," said Juliano. "Let's see what happens."

In the dark the ghost hunters quietly began patrolling the corridors. Some carried E.M.F. detectors, others cameras, others tape recorders. There was even a documentary film crew from Bard College videotaping the search.

Outside it began to rain, which added to the creep factor.

"Did you see 'The Sixth Sense'?" asked Juliano in the gloom. "When the little boy in the movie says, 'You know when your hair stands up on the back of your neck? That's them.' That's exactly how I feel when I know something's around. I call it my spider sense; it's a tingling."

We accompanied Juliano and an investigator, Anne Perlegruto, as they slowly headed from the death-row cell down the right cell block. Juliano's spider sense soon became activated and it appeared we were stalking something, though we were not sure what. Passing a line of tiny cells with stone walls, Juliano stopped periodically and quietly said, "Flash," eerily lighting up the whitewashed hallway and grated cell bars with his digital camera.

We ended up in the corner cell, where he got on his walkie-talkie and announced, "Third floor, right wing, last cell, orb photo in the right-hand back corner, where I observed a man walking down the hallway and into the cell." Drat! He had just seen the evening's first ghost, and we missed it completely. Maybe we lacked Juliano's arachnid sensibilities. We eagerly studied the orb photograph, now stored on his digital camera, which showed a tiny bright dot -- or orb -- floating in the dark cell. Was this the glowing end of a cigarette?

On past investigations Juliano and other club members have collected reams of such supernatural evidence (the best of it is posted on their Web site), including photographs of "ectoplasm" (misty vapor), audiotapes of ghost voices (saying things like "help me") and readings of rapidly dropping temperatures (known as cold spots). "I'd rather have a reading on the E.M.F. detector, a temperature drop or a picture than just me saying I see a spirit standing there," said Juliano. "When you can get all of this evidence together, that's as good as you're going to get short of a ghost going on 'Larry King Live' and saying, 'I'm dead, but I'm here talking to you.' "

Juliano's determination to prove ghosts are real comes from personal experience. When he was growing up, he spent years seeing ghosts in his parents' house -- a glowing, childlike apparition, small black imps, an enormous face speaking from the wall -- but no one believed him. "I was terrified," he said. "When this stuff happens to you, you're always questioning your sanity. There was no one to come in and say, 'Yes, there is something happening here, but you don't have Satan living in your basement.' "

Later in the hunt we observed something strange. In the cell next to death row, we noticed that an antique prison cot made of canvas and brass had been moved.

When we first saw it, it had been propped up against the wall.

Checking again, we found the cot down on the ground as if ready to be slept on.

Hurrying out of the cell, we shared our discovery with the team members stationed on the floor. All denied moving the cot and no one recalled hearing it fall. Blame was quickly shifted to the spirit world. "Objects being moved is very common," explained the team leader, Tome Wilson, in the dim light of the corridor. Wilson, 21, a fine arts student at York College of Pennsylvania, has had plenty of experience with this phenomenon.

He roomed with a poltergeist for a few months, he said: "It was classic. Doors would slam. Small glass objects would explode. Pictures would come off the walls. Kitchen objects would throw themselves around."

After agreeing that moving a cot is more likely the act of a benign, sleepy spirit than an angry, vengeful one, we marched back into the cell with an E.M.F. detector lent to us by Juliano. We scanned the cot, but got a normal reading. Strange. We theorized that if there were a ghost here, it had floated off to a quieter place for a nap. Perhaps it was disturbed by the cacophony of two-way radio transmissions and motion-detector alarms accidentally being tripped every few minutes.

We decided to do a little exploring on our own. Heading down steps into a long passageway, we found ourselves in the offices of the future museum. After wandering around in the dark for an hour it was a relief to be in a well-lighted room. The first thing we saw was a perfectly rendered miniature gallows -- complete with a tiny noose -- displayed on a table.

From that cheery scene, we headed back into the dark and down to the basement where there had been a flurry of activity. We met up again with Wilson, who told us he had observed a pinkish cloud hovering in the darkness near the doorway to a cell. And when he took flash pictures there with a digital camera, he said, a crescent-shaped ball of light showed up on the images.

The club's other co-director, Jon Williams, 19, showed us a digital orb photograph taken in that area and then told us that an E.M.F. detector stationed in the basement had recorded a highly unusual reading. Apparently the club's psychic investigator, Hildred Robinette, who is retired, had also felt things. She was upstairs where a two-degree drop in temperature in the death row cell had been recorded.

We went up to investigate. Unlike the other club members, Ms. Robinette did not carry any equipment. She said she had seen ghosts all her life and could even carry on conversations with them. She said she had seen the ghosts of three men in the basement and that one had told her his name, Andrew Morrison.

"There's a lot of anguish here," she said.

Even though she seemed a little shaken by her experience, she finally entered the death row cell just before 11 P.M., and quickly rushed out. "I could see him crouching down," she said, agitated. "He said, 'What are you looking at?' He was real teed off and he didn't want me in there. Then he started cussing at me. He's really a nasty person. I don't like him." We peered into the dark, cramped cell, but received no greeting, nasty or otherwise.

Although Ms. Robinette seemed to have received a strong impression, we were not the only ones wondering where all the ghosts were. When the three-hour ghost hunt was up, we asked Wilson how he would rank the ghostly activity here on a scale of 1 to 10. He said: "With 10 being blood dripping from the walls and chandeliers spinning, and 1 being nothing? This place would be a 2."

Packing up at the end of the evening, Juliano was a bit more optimistic. After all, he considered this simply a preliminary investigation. "I know I saw things and we've heard some stuff, but we have to see what we've captured on video and audio," he said.

We bid adieu to the intrepid ghost hunters and their spectral quarry, and ran from the dark walls of the prison to the comfort of our car. Although our first ghost hunt did not entirely convince us of the existence of the spirit realm, we agreed to keep an open mind. As we prepared to drive away, we noticed that the documentary makers were videotaping our car. Was a ghost making a jailbreak and hitching a ride with us?

On our drive back we mulled over the incident of the cot, the pinkish cloud, the words of the psychic and the mysterious orb photographs. The rain began to pick up even more and finally came down in sheets. Ghosts or no ghosts, we had to admit: it was a dark and stormy night. . .