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The Many Ghosts of Fort Mifflin

Just south of Philadelphia stands a bastion of defense against naval attacks from the Delaware River. The great stone ramparts of Fort Mifflin protected the young nation’s capital of Philadelphia against the siege ships of the British Empire, which ironically enough had built the fort in the first place in 1772. But the British destroyed their own defensive handiwork in November of 1777 with a pitiless barrage of cannonballs estimated at a thousand rounds every twenty minutes. Nearly three quarters of the garrison perished in the volley. The fort was rebuilt twenty years later and served as a garrison in the War of 1812 and as a prison during

the Civil War. It’s now a tourist attraction featuring guides in historical dress, and the site of many war reenactments—but not all of them seem to be by live actors.

The second-floor balcony of the barracks is often visited by the spirit of the lamplighter. This is the man who lit the oil lamps every evening, and though he’s a pale and barely discernible figure in the twilight, people can see he’s carrying a long pole with a dimly flickering light on the end. The casements, which were probably the most heavily bombarded area during the siege of 1777, are the site of too many sightings to number.

 

The visions are pale outlines that could be written off as the figments of overactive imagination, if it weren’t for their frequency. But even the most visible of the apparitions is still missing some detail—he’s called the Faceless Man, and he’s supposedly the ghost of a war criminal held in the cells during the Civil War. William Howe was his name, and for killing his superior and desertion of duty in wartime, he was held in Fort Mifflin before being hanged. When he appears these days, he’s fairly easy to see, they say, except that his face is in shadows. The reason? Before hanging, deserters supposedly had their heads tied up in black bags as a mark of their shame.

The Screaming Lady is the loudest of the ghosts at Fort Mifflin. She’s never seen, but wails from the old officer’s quarters, where she appears to be living out an eternity of regret for disowning her daughter. She is supposedly the soul of Elizabeth Pratt, an 18th century neighbor of the Fort whose daughter took up with an officer. Elizabeth renounced and threw out her daughter, who died shortly after from dysentery. Consumed with guilt at consigning her daughter to this fate, the story goes that she took her own life.  She’s not the only spectral sound to be heard at the Fort—near the blacksmith shop, the rhythmic clash of hammer against anvil often sounds out, only to be silenced when people come by to peer into the empty but slightly echoing room.

Ft Mifflin Ghost Captured in Photo

Here is a photograph taken at Ft. Mifflin in 1997 with what appears to be a ghost image. I am a wet plate photographer doing images on glass using the original process and equipment from the 1860s. This shot was a staged and posed image of the garrison troops of the fort at a Civil War reenactment. I was up on the parapet overlooking the soldiers and there was no one out there but the troops in formation. At first when I developed the plate, I thought the small markings to the upper right center were blemishes on the surface of the plate. But looking closer, it appears to be human, and not exactly standing on the ground. What is it? I don’t know. –Ray Morgenweck

You can read about all of Pennsylvania’s other haunted hotspots in Weird Pennsylvania.

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