The Screeching Ghost...And Other Little Mysteries At The Museum

Kelly Hartman

When one steps foot into the Gallatin History Museum, one is stepping into history itself. The building, constructed as the Gallatin County Jail, officially opened December of 1911. While much of the interior has been altered since the change from jail to museum, the outside is very much the same. There are still some jail cells in the building that tell the story of the original purpose along with some other remnants of the past which are continually being uncovered. Recently, it was discovered how the first prisoners had escaped the building when a second tunnel was found near the old air venting hall. This led to an exhibit in which plexiglass was laid over a hole in the floor for visitors to see the escape route beneath their feet (A short video detailing the escape is available for viewing on the Museum’s YouTube Channel Little mysteries at the museum.

Visitors have often heard the resident “ghost” screeching through the rafters on a windy day. When the building was first constructed it was equipped with a heating system in which heat was moved from the basement boiler room of the courthouse next door through a tunnel into the jail building. The heat was then dispersed in a narrow hallway that ran between the cell block and the isolation cells. At the top of the building is located a machine room where air could flow out of the building. A conical shaped vent sits atop the room. When the wind blows, the vent is pushed back and forth, keeping air from flowing into the building. Over time, being in the elements, the vent has taken on a long wailing screech with its movement against the wind. Inside the building, the sound appears to travel above you with a crescendo of a cry. Funny aside, when I (Kelly Hartman, Curator) started work at the museum, I heard the screeching, which sounded like an elk bugle, and asked a volunteer about it to which they eerily responded “what sound?” I did not discover for months that the volunteer was hard of hearing and had no idea what I was talking about! Some volunteers let visitor’s minds run wild for fun, while some tell the true story of the rooftop ghost.

A mystery which cannot be explained is where the executioner stood the night Seth Orrin Danner was hanged at the jail. On July 18th, 1924, Seth was executed for the murder of Florence Sprouse (and her husband John, although he was only found guilty of killing Florence). That night, there were 25 people in attendance, many participating in the event under either the sheriff’s department or the clergy. The list included law enforcement officials from Park County and 12 local men of varying backgrounds, from a confectioner and barber to farmers. Why these particular men were asked to witness the execution may never be known. None of them seem to be who one would think would be called forth for such a duty. It is possible they were chosen much like the men for the jury had been, called at random as respectable local citizens, to do their duty. Nowhere was an executioner named or even mentioned. According to the Courier: “after a moment of silence the trap was sprung and Danner had fallen more than six feet into eternity.” In every report the act of pulling the rope that released the trap was a disembodied action. So, who pulled the rope and how was it completed?

In conducting research, it was discovered that the gallows platform worked in a manner very different than had been originally believed by historians of the 1980s. The rope to drop the platform would have been pulled upwards at a 45-degree angle, meaning the hangman had either been standing right behind Seth, or in the room directly behind in the infirmary. Staff was able to debunk the legend that there had been three ropes run through a wall in the downstairs vault so that none would know who pulled the real rope. The dent in the wall many had believed to be the place where the ropes had run downwards was found to be the kickback from the arm of the mechanism hitting the wall. When sprung, the clang was deafening as metal hit concrete, something not mentioned in the articles of the actual execution.

If the executioner had indeed been in an unseen room, then it would have to have been the room directly behind the gallows, which was then the jail’s infirmary. The wall behind the gallows is made of six-inch-thick concrete, and a hole would have to be located at a 45-degree angle from the attachment to the platform. In an attempt to find the hole, part of the wood paneling that was put up for an MSU exhibit was removed and paint stripped back to the original wall. No obvious signs were found. Why would the hole have been patched up if there had been one? It seems illogical that the hole was covered during the time the building was a jail as the trap door and ring in the ceiling for the rope were never removed. And when the building became a museum, why would such an integral part of the history be erased? Either a wonderful patch job has been done for some unexplainable reason or the executioner must have stood right there behind Seth that night. If he did, his name was never exposed to the public. Could it have been Sheriff Smith? Or one of the deputies who was willing? Or was it someone never mentioned in the paper at all, leaving us with the second greatest mystery of the case behind the question of Seth’s guilt.  

Few visitors know that the building contains three basements and an attic. Three of these rooms contain the museum’s collection of artifacts and archives. The remaining room is a basement underneath the museum’s bookstore in what used to be the Sheriff’s living quarters. This basement is by far the worst room in the building and is not used for artifact storage because of its lack of air flow and humidity control. A partially calcified mousetrap in the corner of a stair is one of its wonders.

The attic was constructed in the 1980s when the building was renovated to be a museum. According to staff, it is one of the scariest rooms even though its history is not fraught with anything particularly odd because it, in essence, simply didn’t exist until recent time. The attic sits above what was once the isolation cells (known as Siberia). The cells would have filled half of the space to the ceiling, so the attic literally sits in the air of what once was. Siberia was not the happiest of places, as it was where those who were deemed insane or a danger to themselves were placed for safe keeping. It was also used as a maximum-security area for Seth Danner while he was on death watch prior to his execution at the jail. The attic has never been a favorite place of mine, with low ceilings and lightbulbs distanced so one must walk stooped through the dark room to turn on a light. So, one can imagine my horror when a woman came in wanting to see a doll from her past. I knew right where the doll was located: in the attic. I found myself making the trek alone while my coworker entertained the woman. The attic door swung back, and I began flashing my cell phone light quickly from side to side and behind the door as I made my way to the light switch. I discovered, to my dismay, that I had neglected to flip the switch downstairs that powers that light. Not wanting to leave the room since I was already there, I used my phone’s flashlight to find the doll, which was sitting nestled in a pram just over some other artifacts. I reached over to pull her out, but she would not budge. I tried again. And again. For a moment I lost my sanity there in the attic alone in the dark; the doll seemed to be against coming downstairs! I quickly grabbed the entire pram and practically ran from the attic. Once down in the light, I investigated the doll, finally seeing what I could not see in the dark attic. She was tied into the pram with clear fishing line! What a cruel joke! The woman was very happy to see the doll and it was not until after she left that I sank weak kneed into a chair to tell my coworker about the horrific episode that had occurred upstairs. I now have two rules, no dolls in the attic and never go in there alone. Happy Halloween everyone!   

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