Monday, March 16, 2015

HGB Podcast 34 - Kilmainham Gaol

Moment in Oddity - The Legend of the SS Ourang Medan

The following account is one that has gone down in the annals of not only the unexplained, but also legends. Did it really happen? We may never know. The May 1952 edition of  the Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council details the story of the SS Ourang Medan, a ghost ship that was located after a very bizarre distress signal was sent out in 1948. The contents of the signal call were "All officers including captain are dead, lying in chartroom and bridge. Possibly whole crew dead." And then a few moments later another distress call stated simply, "I die." A ship called the Silver Star answered the call and found the Ourang Medan in the Straits of Malacca. They boarded the ship quickly when they noticed no visible crew members. What they found was a true horror. Every member of the crew was dead and all of them had died with their eyes wide open and their mouths twisted into expressions of terror. Many had their arms out in front of them as well. Even the ship's dog was dead with a snarl frozen on his muzzle. The rescuers searched the bodies for wounds and found none. As they prepared to tow the boat back to land, a fire broke out in the cargo hold. The rescuers evacuated the ship right before it exploded and sank to a watery grave. To this day, no one knows what killed the crew. Some have surmised a gas possibly overtook everyone. Others wonder about an unseen force. Was the ship carrying a secret cargo on a secret mission? The strangest thing is that although this legend has been around for decades, any proof that the Ourang Medan actually existed has never been found. No ship building records or any other records. Just this account written up in one Coast Guard journal. Now that certainly is odd.

This Day in History - Susan Hayhurst Becomes First Female Pharmacist

On this day, March 16th, in 1883, Susan Hayhurst became the first woman to graduate from a pharmacy college. She was 63 years old when she graduated from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Even more remarkable at the time was the fact that Hayhurst was already a medical doctor as well. That makes her the first female doctor to become a pharmacist. She had graduated from the Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia in 1857. She stayed at the college and served on the staff, running its pharmaceutical department for many years. It should be noted that the American Pharmacist Association credits Elizabeth Gooking Greenleaf as the first female pharmacist. She had opened an apothecary in 1727 and helped her husband formulate medicines for his patients. But she did not have a degree, so it is somewhat dubious to credit her as the first female pharmacist. Another notable woman in pharmaceutical science is Ella Stewart. She fought back against discrimination at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Pharmacy and became the first female black pharmacist in Pennsylvania in 1916. Today, women make up 55% of the profession.

Kilmainham Gaol

Kilmainham Gaol is an immense structure found in Dublin, Ireland that holds a place in the annals of Ireland's fight for independence and has a history that spans over two centuries. Today, it is the largest unoccupied prison in the country and is now a museum, but at one time it was home for hundreds of prisoners and was the scene of many executions. Those prisoners included not only notable revolutionaries, but also ordinary men, women and yes, children. And now it seems to be home for the spirits of several of these former occupants. Kilmainham Gaol is rumored to be haunted.

Kilmainham Gaol was opened in 1796 to serve as the county jail for Dublin, Ireland. The jail was considered to be the most modern jail at that time. The original building was smaller than the present day structure and consisted of long dark claustrophobic hallways and cells. This area is now called the West Wing. The East Wing was added and opened in 1864 with a Victorian design that was much more open and rose to three stories with catwalks circling it. Outside is the Stonebreaker's Yard. This area hosted executions. Hangings were both private and public, but starting in 1820, executions were moved inside to a small cell on the first floor that today is located between the East and West Wings.

Prisoners at the jail came from all walks of life and initially there was no segregation at the jail. Men, women and children were all housed together. Up to five of them in each cell. Men were usually allowed to have some form of an iron bed, but the women and children were given straw to sleep upon. Until the 1840s, the jail had no lighting and no windows. Each cell was granted a candle that had to last for two weeks. Prisoners were served oatmeal, bread, soup and milk for meals. When the East Wing was opened in the 1860s, seperation and silence were implemented and prisoners were not allowed to speak and they were alone in their cells. Most of the crimes that people were jailed for consisted of petty theft or being a debtor. There was the occasional prostitute or murderer. Many of the adults would later be shipped off to Australia, but overcrowding continued to be a problem. In 1881, the prison became an all male prison.

To understand the history of the jail, one must understand the history of Ireland's fight for independence. There were two main sides on each side of the fight. The radicals wanted to be completely independent of Ireland and become their own republic. As a matter of fact, America's fight for independence and Thomas Paine's book named "The Rights of Man" inspired the Society of United Irishmen. The moderates wanted to write a constitution that gave them a form of independence while still under British rule.

The United Irishmen formed in 1791 and became a secretive, oath-bound group that was lead by a man named Henry Joy McCracken. He came from a prominent family and was jailed at Kilmainham Gaol in 1796. He spent a year there and when he got out, he lead the bloody Irish Rebellion of 1798. The fight was unsuccessful because of disorganization and an unwillingness by some to fight and Britain put more of an iron fist around Ireland after the Rebellion was put down. McCracken was on the run for a month before he was captured and he was tried for treason and hung on the same day. This was not the end of the fight for independence.

The United Irishmen tried again to form a rebellion in 1803. This time, a man named Robert Emmet was their leader. He helped the group to organize better and conceal their plans. They built weapons and made explosives. But at the moment when the rebellion was ready to launch, many people once again did not fight and the rebellion turned into more of a riot. After the defeat, Emmet was jailed at Kilmainham and tried for treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The next day he was indeed hung on Thomas Street and he was beheaded afterwards. The block that he was beheaded upon is now on display at the Kilmainham Museum along with his death mask.

A group calling themselves the Young Irelanders and lead by Willian Smith O'Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher started another rebellion in 1848. This was also unsuccessful and both men were brought to Kilmainham for a time before they were shipped off to Tasmania. And in a plot fit for a movie, Meagher escaped Tasmania and made his way to America were he fought in the Civil War, leading the Irish Brigade.

The Fenian Uprising followed in 1867 resulting in yet another failure and many members of this secret, oath-bound group found themselves in Kilmainham as well. The Land Reform Movement began in 1881 under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell who was an MP and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Parnell and other MPs rejected the Land Act of 1881 and Parnell ended up at Kilmainham for six months. The Fenians morphed after this time into another group calling themselves "The Invincibles." The Invincibles assassinated Lord Frederick Cavendish, who was the British Secretary to Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, who was his undersecretary in 1882. Five of them were arrested and taken to Kilmainham where they were hanged in the yard.

The prison closed in 1910, but was reopened after the 1916 Easter Rising. The Easter Rising changed the political landscape in Ireland. Two groups had been formed earlier calling themselves the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers. The two joined forces on Easter Monday in 1916 and took over the General Post Office and other government buildings. They proclaimed they were now an Irish Republic. The groups managed to hold out for a week, but their efforts failed. Kilmainham Gaol was re-opened specifically to house the rebels, of which there were hundreds of men and women. Fourteen of the men were taken out to the Stonebreaker's Yard and killed via a firing squad. James Connolly was one of these leaders. Connolly had grown up in the slums and became very politically active. He lead the Dublin Brigade during the Rising. He had been severely injured during the fight. He could not walk or stand, so he was carried into the yard on a stretcher. He was then sat in a chair and tied to it. After the executions, public opinion of Britain soured greatly. People who were not as interested in the fight for independence became more supportive. Even British people were appalled by the executions and there was an order for no more to take place. The Irish Free State formed in 1921 in the aftermath of the Easter Rising.

Civil War broke out in Ireland in 1922 over a disagreement about the contents of a truce that lead to the formation of the Irish Free State. Members of the Free State Army took over Kilmainham Gaol. The Free State Government executed 77 Republicans, several of them out in the Stonebreaker's Yard. The jail was opened to women again in 1923 and 300 women and girls were housed there until the Civil War ended and all prisoners were released in 1924. The jail was abandoned until 1960 when Kilmainham Gaoel Restoration Committee formed. Restoration took thirty years and the building is now open year round as a museum and for tours.

With a history like this and all of the executions, it is easy to believe that this building could be haunted. It was during the restoration work that people started reporting paranormal activity. Governor Dan McGill lived with his family at the jail, overseeing the restoration being done by volunteers. His room overlooked the Stonebreaker's Yard. One night, he was settling in for bed and looked out the window. He noticed that the chapel across the way was lit up on the inside. He went to investigate and found the chapel empty. He shut off the lights and returned to his quarters. When he looked out the window again, he saw that the chapel was ablaze with light again. He went back to the chapel, saw no one and clicked the lights off. He returned to his quarters only to find the chapel lights on again. He turned the lights off for a third time and they remained off.

Not only do lights go on and off inexplicably at the chapel, but several psychics have claimed that they feel an evil presence at the chapel, particularly on the balcony area. There are some spirits that seem to have a malevolent presence, but no one is sure if they are spirits of former prisoners or wardens. As a matter of fact, a former caretaker once wrote, "I never felt afraid in the cells, the feelings there and the ghosts of former prisoners never worried me, the guards however, now that was a different story altogether." Jail cells clang shut on their own and disembodied footsteps are heard. Cold spots are felt as well, like in this account by a man named Chris:
"At the bottom of the stair case (As seen in [the movie] the italian job) is a lower level, on a visit to this jail I went down to that lower level, there is, if I remember right, three cells/ rooms, which you can walk round. All rooms are the same, but on entering the middle room I felt an icy shiver down my back and the hairs on arms stood up. I feel that their was a presence in that room."
The dungeon area of the jail was being repainted. A sudden gust of wind uprooted the man who was painting and blew him into a wall. The wind was so intense that he was looked to the wall for several minutes. Needless to say, he never returned to work. Another worker heard footsteps appraoching him. He figured another worker was coming towards him, but he saw no one. He heard the footsteps go past him and felt as though a presence passed him as well. Another person told a story about his father working at Kilmainham in the 1960s and that he heard footsteps reminding him of a soldier brigade in one of the corridors. He ran across the street to the local pub to tell his co-workers, who had already quit for the day, what happened. They laughed and bought him a whiskey, but he remained shaken.

Full bodied apparitions that are seen during the day have been mistaken as actors. Visitors claim that they get that feeling of being watched. It feels as though the eyes of hundreds of prisoners are peering out from the cells. Weird feelings and cold drafts can be explained by the fact that this is a creepy cold jail built of limestone. But as for some of these other experiences, who knows. Children do not seem to like to go into the jail. Groups of children will arrive to go on tour, but refuse to enter. Do they feel something that adults cannot?

Kilmainham Gaol is counted as one of the top ten haunted places in Ireland. Does Kilmainham hold more than just the essence of a long and turbulent political history? Are there spirits still here at the jail? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes

*Ghost walks in Dublin with Hidden Dublin Walks:

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