It’s that time of year when we actively seek out things that go bump in the night. But for many, the spooky season lasts all year.
Beginning each spring, the Old Montana State Prison in Deerlodge hosts overnight ghost hunts led by experienced paranormal investigators Lisa Garcia and Jenn Keintz.
The events are held at least twice a month on both Fridays and Saturdays, starting in March and run through the end of October. Guests arrive at the OMSP at 9 p.m. and stay locked in until 3 a.m.
“It’s a great event. We have people travel from all over the United States, and sometimes further, just to experience what they see on TV,” Keintz said. “There’s nothing like sitting quietly in the dark, waiting for something to make a noise, or reach out and touch you.”
For the first few hours, guests stay with the guides. It’s a combination of a history tour of the most haunted locations, as well as a few vigils in those hot spots, to see if the spirits will come out and communicate. Around midnight, guests can then roam the prison on their own, or they can take one of the guides with them if they are too nervous to venture out by themselves.
“We are often asked to accompany people after we’ve set them free. Either they are still a bit scared of the area, or they just aren’t sure what to do. I don’t mind going with them at all, although that doesn’t guarantee anything will happen,” Keintz said.
That is one point emphasized often by the guides–there is no guarantee that anything will happen, but if something does happen, guests can be assured that it is real, and they haven’t been “set-up” by the hosts.
“We want to keep our integrity intact, so we don’t fake anything,” Keintz said. “We would be fired if we actually tried to intentionally scare someone. We would rather absolutely nothing happen, and people just had a good time seeing if anything was out there, than fake something and have it not be real.”
And things do happen. Guests have been touched, scratched, had their hair pulled.
“I’ve heard an audible growl come from the end of a long hallway when no one was in the building except the few people I was with. I’ve seen hats get pulled off people’s heads, and wallets picked out of pockets from ‘inmates’ who you can’t actually see. I’ve had someone breathe heavily in my ear that I heard live and I have on recording. I’ve seen lights turned on, recorded an unknown voice finish the song we were singing, and been told to leave by a disembodied voice. I’ve been whistled at, and I’ve had my hair pulled. It’s active, that’s for sure.”
Not only is the prison known to be haunted, it has some pretty infamous prisoners, as well. One of the most colorful characters is Paul Eitner, or Turkey Pete as he was affectionately referred to. Arrested for murder in 1918, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. A model inmate, he was assigned to watch the prison’s turkeys at the farm down the road in Galen. However, he sold the entire flock one day to a rancher passing by for 25 cents a head–thus earning him his nickname. He was also called Shorty (he was only 5’2”), and the “Champ” for his love of boxing–he was the prison team’s manager–and would shadow box each match. He was also the mascot for the prison band, and when the band was allowed to leave the prison walls to perform, he was known to dance with the ladies. After serving his time, Eitner was denied parole because the parole board was afraid he would not be able to adjust to the outside world. Thus he essentially had free reign of the prison until his death in 1967, often sleeping outside the Warden’s office, and reading the Warden’s morning paper before he arrived for the day.
Even though paroled, Eitner remained within the prison until he was 89, as he suffered from dementia in his last years, believing he owned diamond mines as well as the prison itself. Inmates printed fake checkbooks for him, so on Fridays, he would “pay” the employees their weekly wages from Eitner Enterprises. He also “bought” families’ groceries, sent checks to the President for the entire defense budget, and once sent $12.5 million to Brazil when the coffee crop failed.
He served 49 years in the prison, and his cell, cell #1 in the 1912 cell house, was retired and never reassigned after his death. He was the only prisoner to receive a funeral within the prison (in the Clark Theater) and over 600 inmates, guards, and community members were allowed to attend. His tombstone was purchased by the guards, who also served as his pallbearers.
“Turkey Pete is probably the most famous prisoner, and one we are asked about more than any other,” Keintz said. “Is he here? I’m not really sure to be honest. I don’t think so. And if he is, I wouldn’t be afraid of him. Sometimes we think he shows up in the theater, and in administration, but he’s not a menacing or scary presence. Some mediums have claimed he’s here, and they’ve communicated with him, but I personally believe he has moved on.”
Not only does Keintz investigate the prison during the summer and haunting season, but she also helps out local paranormal group Tortured Souls Investigations, and has been helping with the Blaze Radio Station’s annual Halloween Ghost Hunt for the last six or seven years. This year, both teams paired up to investigate the abandoned Montana Children’s Center in Twin Bridges, Montana, a location only investigated by three paranormal groups–Travel Channels Ghost Adventures, in November 2016, and Destination Fear, which will air Nov.6, 2021.
The Twin Bridges Orphanage opened in 1894 as a haven for innocent children. It was designed to prepare children to become productive adults by segregating them and providing them with food, education, vocational training, and a rigid structure. The campus is over 100 acres, and in its prime, had separate girls’ and boys’ dormitories, a hospital, a school, a gymnasium with a swimming pool, a working farm, and a grand Victorian mansion at the center. It was essentially a self-contained town, and for the most part, a highly successful institution.
Children were brought to the orphanage for a variety of reasons, most stemming from the poverty in Montana after the mining monies dwindled, as well as true orphans without families to care for them. While some children had lost their parents, others were dropped off because their families could no longer afford them and the orphanage gave them hope for a better life. As many as 400 children lived at the orphanage at one time, seeing the highest number of children during the Great Depression. After Montana established a foster care system, the numbers dwindled and the orphanage officially closed its doors in 1976.
Not everything was rosy within the walls of the orphanage. Many former residents claim regular beatings, abuse, neglect and sadness during their time spent in the home. These claims have lead to the numerous rumors of the hauntings at the home, leaving many paranormal investigators dying to get in.
Current owner Leslie Adams bought the orphanage in 2007 and planned to restore the buildings. She purchased it from a man who had planned to turn it into a grand business venture, but then Black Monday hit, and he essentially just locked the doors, fired everyone and did nothing until she purchased the buildings in 2005.
She doesn’t feel the land is hers, necessarily, but more that she is a care-taker of history until the next owner comes along. Restoring the buildings is a huge undertaking, and has essentially consumed her for the last decade.
“I had been building in this area for a bunch of years before walking into this, and dragging my folks all through crazy places like this. So I’m ok with it not having any using, I’m just reducing the barriers for developers,” Adams said.
When she first moved in and they began to work on the buildings, there was quite a bit of paranormal activity, though she now feels comfortable there day or night.
“There was a lot going on here in the beginning. And when we were demo-ing, you know, doing the roofs, and when you disrupt, it gets busy. So we would hear things–singing and stuff,” she said. “But it was never scary.”
Not surprisingly, the ghost hunt went as expected–Keintz’s group, which included five Big Sky journalists–experienced the most activity, while the two adult groups didn’t find too much.
“At least once during the night, we had all of our equipment go off–multiple times–except the music box,” Keintz said. “I was most excited to use the music box, so that was a little disappointing, but other than that we seemed to make quite a few connections.”
The group had multiple encounters throughout the night–a door shutting on them, the cat toys and the mel meter going off in response to questions, and one person actually getting pushed.
Senior Kendall Toye, who was pushed in the nursery around 3:30 a.m., gave the experience a “10 out of 10” saying it was “a lot of fun and I’m so glad that we got as many experiences that we did. I’m looking forward to the next one!”
The students were able to attend as reporters, and also to work on an hour-long documentary about the haunted locations in Montana which will air at the Big Sky Film Festival in February. The same group was able to visit Deerlodge over the summer months as well.
“I personally got a lot more paranormal experiences from Twin Bridges than the prison. Back at the Montana State Prison, when we went ghost hunting for the first time, I was honestly kinda skeptical and my skepticism didn’t change after we left,” Senior Gwen Fleming-Campbell said. “Then we went to Twin Bridges Orphanage, and let’s just say, I definitely believe in the paranormal now.”
Senior James Bivens said, “It was a lot of fun working with the Blaze and the energies of the other groups. Deerlodge was a lot scarier for me than Twin Bridges because of the history of the inmates. The children at Twin Bridges made me a lot more sad. Except when we were in the Nursery. Almost all ofour devices were going off at once and Kendall getting pushed definitely gave me a spook.”