“The groaning of the prisoner”—Kentucky State Penitentiary

Kentucky State Penitentiary
266 Water Street
Eddyville, Kentucky

For he hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the Lord behold the earth;
To hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death.
–Book of Psalms, Chapter 102, Verses 19-20 (King James Version)

In his marvelous book, Hauntings of the Kentucky State Penitentiary, Steve Asher recounts a number of experiences he and other staff members had within the walls of this grim institution. A guard working in the late 1980s had a frightening encounter while inspecting cells in Three Cell House. These particular cells had once been part of death row, and despite them not being in use at that point, they still required inspection.

After examining the first few cells, the guard encountered a cell that was occupied. The prisoner stood in the center of the small space reading a Bible. The prisoner greeted the guard and he acknowledged it with a nod and smile before returning to his inspection.

When he returned to his office, he asked his sergeant if the prisoner had gotten a meal. The sergeant replied that there was no one in that cell, in fact no one had been in those cells in nearly a month. Knowing how thorough the guard normally was, the sergeant insisted on looking in the cell himself to ensure that a mistake had not been made.

The guard and the sergeant approached the cell to find that it was indeed empty. A light layer of frost attested to the cell having been unoccupied for some time. The pair stepped inside and noticed that the temperature inside was quite chilly. The cell had been stripped and was empty except for a small Bible that lay open on the floor.

Picking it up, the guard noted that the pages were open to the 102nd Psalm and one single passage had been highlighted, verse 20, “To hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death.” He passed the Bible to the sergeant and shuddered as he read the highlighted verse aloud. Perhaps the spirit was trying to communicate with the guard.

Kentucky State Penitentiary Eddyville
The front facade of the Kentucky State Penitentiary, 2011. Photo by Acdixon, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eddyville, Kentucky is situated on a sharp bend in the Cumberland River near the border with Tennessee. The bend in the river and the two lakes that were created in the 20th century create a finger of land that is preserved as Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, a place that is known for many strange goings-on. Rising above the river at the old site of the town of Eddyville (much of the original town was destroyed with the creation of Lake Barkley) is the famed “Castle on the Cumberland,” the Kentucky State Penitentiary.

For more than a century, this grim edifice has stood reminding the lawful of the consequences of lawlessness and little hope for law-breakers. Several sources note that the front entrance of the prison was once marked with a plaque bearing the words, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” the same words marking the gates to Hell in Dante’s Inferno.

Steve Asher posits that the prison itself may act as a kind of paranormal dynamo. Constructed with prison labor, the very building itself is imbued with negativity and that that atmosphere creates the perfect storm for an array of paranormal activity. His book offers a glance behind the prison walls revealing apparitions, phantom sounds, bizarre sensations, and disturbing nightmares experienced by members of the prison staff.

The Kentucky State Penitentiary began life in 1884 as a branch prison to relieve the overcrowding of the main state penitentiary in Frankfort. Opening in 1886, the Medievel-Revival edifice was meant to house 800 prisoners. The prison became the main state prison with the closure of the Frankfort prison in 1937. In 1911, an electric chair was installed and served as the primary method of execution at KSP until 1962. During that time, 163 men were put to death in “Old Sparky.”

view of Kentucky State Penitentiary from the Cumberland River
View of Kentucky State Penitentiary from the Cumberland River, 1939, from the National Archives and Records Administration.

On July 13, 1928, “Old Sparky” saw its busiest day when seven men were executed back to back. On that Friday the 13th, the headline of the Louisville Courier-Journal shouted, “Red Seymour loses fight for life, is doomed to die with six others.” The Thursday before had dashed the hopes of murderer Orlando “Red” Seymour when a judge overruled a petition for a sanity hearing. The hearing was held in the KSP chapel where the newspaper described the scene.

Seymour was brought into the prison chapel, where the hearing was held, and remained throughout. He appeared to be very weak and was assisted up the steps to the stage where he sat, his hands in his arms. He frowned when the decision was announced and then was led back to his cell.

Just after 7 PM that night, the prison warden visited the cells of the seven condemned men to read the death warrants. The executions were slated to take place just after midnight. The newspaper described the scene at the prison on Thursday afternoon leading up to the mass execution.

Corridor Is Jammed.

Guards at the prison declared today that never had there been so much excitement attending an execution here, the corridor outside the warden’s office throughout the day was filled with relatives, friends and attorneys of the condemned men. Here and there a woman was sobbing. Little groups congregated about the doorways.

[…]

Down in the death house, the heat was oppressive. The four white men sat or stood before their cell doors throughout the afternoon. All were composed and each repeated his assertion of yesterday that he was ready to die.

[…]

Death Cell Furnished Plainly.

The death house has seven rooms, only four of them cells. These cells are situated directly across from the electric chair room, which may easily be seen through a wide door. The death chamber is very plainly furnished. The electric chair is in the center at the far side of the large room. To the right side, facing the chair, is a small room from which the switches are manipulated.

The Owensboro Inquirer picks up the story of the executions.

Four white men, three of them very young, and three negroes made up the seven whose deaths in the electric chair set a record for Kentucky. Sullen, defiant and prayerful by turns during their stay in the death house, the condemned men were reduced by fear to a condition bordering upon collapse as midnight approached.

Shaken by Dread 

Although there was no clock going to sound the hours, the prisoners sensed and all talk died away long before the death march started at 12:15. With heads supported in cupped hands, they sat silent, their bodies shaken by chills despite the intense heat in the squat stone house that had been their home in the prison. In plain view was the execution chamber and the chair.

After the seven white coffins were placed outside the prison for the families to take, the newspaper noted:

It was thought however, that one or more might remain to be buried in the tiny prison cemetery that lies just outside the towering walls. Early in the morning a red cart and mule stood hitched near the coffins ready to perform their last duty of the state in hauling those that remained down the hill.

After such a dreadful day in KSP history, it is possible that one or more of these prisoners have remained behind in spirit form. Perhaps it is one of these prisoners who appeared to the guard while going about his rounds.

Eastern view of the Kentucky State Penitentiary
Eastern view of the Kentucky State Penitentiary, 2014. Photo by Nyttend, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Please note that this prison is still in full operation and not open for the curious or paranormal investigations.

Sources

  • Asher, Steve E. Hauntings of Kentucky State Penitentiary. NYC: Permuted Press, 2016.
  • Blanco, Juan Ignacio. “Kentucky Executions 1607-1976.” Death Penalty USA. Accessed 26 November 2019.
  • Kentucky State Penitentiary. The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Accessed 26 November 2019.
  • Robards, S.M. “Red Seymour loses fight for life, is doomed to die with six others.” The Courier-Journal. 13 July 1928.
  • “Seven suffer death penalty at Eddyville.” The Owensboro Inquirer. 13 July 1928.
358 Shares

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.