Thursday, July 19, 2018

Ep. 267 - Fort Mifflin

Moment in Oddity - The Sin-Eaters

There was a rather peculiar tradition that started in southern England that was meant to free a dead person from any sin they may have committed. Upon the death of a person of prestige, a certain outcast from the edge of the village would be brought to the home. This person was an outcast because they were thought to carry the sins that they ate. You heard that right. These people were known as sin-eaters. The ritual usually consisted of a body or casket being carried out of a home and past the sin-eater. The deceased's family would pass a bowl of beer, a loaf of bread and a sixpence to the sin-eater over the body of the dead person. The sin-eater would say an incantation and then eat the food. Sometimes the ritual would take place inside the home. A plate of salt was placed on the chest of the departed and then a loaf of bread was placed on top of that with a mug of ale next to that. The sin-eater would whisper over the body and consume the food. This whole ritual signified that the sins of the dead person had been eaten away. They could then pass on to Heaven and be saved from walking the earth as a spirit or even as something undead. The 1926 book Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle reads, "Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption." Believing that someone could eat away the sins of another human, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Dymaxion Car Goes into Production

In the month of July, on the 12th, in 1933, the first three-wheeled, multi-directional Dymaxion car was manufactured in Bidgeport, Connecticut. Architect, engineer and philosopher Buckminster Fuller designed the car as part of his goal to live his life as “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” Fuller first sketched out the car in 1927. It was part aircraft, part automobile with wings that inflated. Fuller asked his friend, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, to make more sketches of the car and the final design was an elongated teardrop with a rear third wheel that lifted off the ground. There was also a tail fin. The name Dymaxion was a combination of the words “dynamic,” “maximum” and “ion” and was a name Fuller used as his own personal brand. Under this brand he created not only the car, but the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion house, which was made of lightweight aluminum and could be shipped by air and assembled on site. Production began on the Dymaxion car in Bridgeport with the final car being made of ash wood, covered with an aluminum skin and topped with a painted canvas roof. The engine was in the rear, much like the Volkwagen Beetle. It could reach a speed of 120 miles per hour and average 28 miles per gallon of gasoline. The car went on display at the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago. Production of the car went downhill after that when investors backed out after professional driver Francis Turner was killed driving the car during a demonstration. In 2008, the only surviving Dymaxion was featured in an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City that was dedicated to the work of Buckminster Fuller.

Fort Mifflin (Suggested by and research by: Drea Hahn)

Fort Mifflin stands on Mud Island as a reminder of a time when the original capital city of our new nation, Philadelphia, was in need of defense. The British commissioned the fort in 1771, but it would be the Americans who would finish the construction. The fort would witness the greatest sea battle of the Revolutionary War. Hundreds lost their lives here during that war. When the Civil War raged, the fort served as a Confederate prison. This kind of history lends itself to paranormal activity and there are many stories of a variety of ghosts walking among the casements and barracks. Join me and listener Drea Hahn as we share the history and hauntings of Fort Mifflin!

Fort Mifflin, or as it was known at the time, Fort Island Battery, was commissioned in 1771 and construction started along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers by the British. They wanted to protect their very prosperous port, which the Quaker William Penn had left without defense. The problem was that there were not enough funds to complete construction and the project was abandoned with only the east and south walls completed. Once the American rebels declared their independence, Benjamin Franklin formed a committee, The Philadelphia Committee of Public Safety, and they restarted construction on the fort and finally completed it in 1776. They named it Mifflin after it’s first commander, General Thomas Mifflin. who eventually became the first governor of the state of Pennsylvania.

In 1777, Fort Mifflin would be the scene of the greatest sea battle of the Revolutionary War. The British bombarded Fort Mifflin with a barrage of cannonballs that would damage a large portion of the fort and leave hundreds of men dead. This was called the Battle of Mud Island. A couple of decades would pass before the fort was rebuilt. French architect and engineer Pierre L'Enfant had designed the plans for Washington, D.C. and President John Adams directed him to supervise the reconstruction of Fort Mifflin. The oldest existing complete structure is the blacksmith shop, which was built during this reconstruction in 1802. The fort was used again during the War of 1812.

During the Civil War, the fort served as a prison for Confederate soldiers and Federal prisoners from 1863 to 1865 and were housed in Casemate #1. After the war, the army discontinued using it as an active fort. It was used again during World Wars I and II when the Army stationed anti-aircraft guns there to defend the nearby Fort Mifflin Naval Ammunition Storage Depot and the United States Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. After 1954, the fort fell from use as a military post and the federal government deeded it to the City of Philadelphia. Restoration efforts began in the 1960s. The United States Army Corp of Engineers set up shop at Fort Mifflin and so it is now considered the oldest active military base in the United States and the only base in use that pre-dates the Declaration of Independence.

Jacob the Blacksmith

There is a small blacksmith shop on the site (photo). The story is that the blacksmith had an ongoing argument with the fort’s commander. Jacob wanted to keep the back door to the shop open while he worked. It’s said that you can hear a hammer hitting an anvil around the building, but when you go in all goes quiet. It’s also said that the door keeps opening on its own. Last time I was at the fort, I got curious about this. I don’t want to burst any bubbles. The door is on very well-oiled hinges and easy to move. The ground in the area is bumpy and uneven, so there is a chance that the building is just on a slant and the door swings open. I’m visiting again in November and will check it out.
TAPS (Ghost Hunters if you want to check out the episode) investigated in 2008 and reported a sense of dread in the building.

Blacksmith Shop - photo courtesy of Drea Hahn
 The Lamplighter

There is now electric lighting throughout the fort and all the buildings. Entity is seen walking on the 2nd story balcony of the barracks building (built around the War of 1812).  He appears in the evening, at twilight, carries a long pole with a flickering light at the end, and is lighting the lamps that would have hung on the balconies. The figure is pale and barely discernible.

Revolutionary War Soldier and Tour Guide

A friendly man dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier who will take you on a tour around the grounds. Visitors complimented the site on the excellent docent…the only problem is that no costumed staff were working that day. Or nobody on staff who matches the description.
Thought is that he was one of the men who died during the bombardment.
Can’t speak to this because when we’re there, the entire fort is filled with soldiers.

The Screaming Lady 

This spirit is attributed to Elizabeth Pratt. Dale Kaczmarek and his team, Ghost Research Society ( have a great report of their investigation online. They summarize the story “Elizabeth was married to an officer and her daughter, who lived with them at the fort, fell in love with and wanted to marry an enlisted man. Elizabeth could not accept this and disowned her daughter. The daughter died of typhoid fever before they could reconcile, which threw Elizabeth into a deep depression. She hanged herself over the balcony of the second floor [of the Officer’s Quarters]. It is true that screams have been heard in the area of the Officer’s Quarters. TAPS/Ghost Hunters captured an EVP in this area that sounds like a child asking for “mommy”. The police have been called out several times to investigate the screams.

The true story of Elizabeth Pratt is much more tragic. She was a real person and the wife of a Sargent Pratt stationed at the fort. However, the family never lived in the Officer’s Quarters because those weren’t built yet. The family lived in another part of the fort, a spot that does have quite a bit of reported activity. The fort used to have a cemetery (it was moved at some point) and internment records confirm that Elizabeth had two children. One, a son born at the fort, died on July 20, 1802 as an infant. The other is a daughter who died on December 6, 1802 – the records include a note that she was a “child” and this indicates that she was 12 y/o or younger when she died. Elizabeth herself died on February 11, 1803. All three are thought to have died of yellow fever, annual epidemics of which were common during those years. Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes which would be prevalent in the shallow moat and swamps around Fort Mifflin.

Where Screaming Lady is Heard - photo courtesy of Drea Hahn
William Howe

Probably the person you will hear about most often. The stories vary. In all, it goes that he was a Civil War deserter, traitor, and murderer. He was captured and held at Fort Mifflin until he was hung on gallows built in the middle of the fort. Once again, the truth is much more tragic. Howe was a private with a local Pennsylvania regiment during the Civil War. He was very highly esteemed by his superiors and today would be what we call a war hero. After he was injured at the Battle of Fredericksburg (VA), he and some other men were told to go to the hospital in DC to recuperate. When they reached the hospital, there was no more room. Howe left his companions and went home to PA to recover. One of his ailments is listed as “inflammation of the bowels” which might have been dysentery, an awful condition marked by severe abdominal cramps and frequent, bloody, diarrhea.

When the local Union officers found out about this, they went to Howe’s home to arrest him. The men hammered on the door, Howe fired two shots out of the window, and the men fled. Howe did not know that he had fatally shot one of the men. Several days later he was arrested and taken to Fort Mifflin to stand trial. He was charged with desertion and murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. During his time at Fort Mifflin he was held in an underground cell. He was executed at the fort on August 26, 1864. He was 24 years old at the time and has the distinction of being the only person ever executed at the fort. He has been associated with an entity called “The Faceless Man” who is seen mostly in and around Casement 5. Why Faceless? At the time it was customary to put a bag over the head of the person you were hanging. I’m thinking it was to spare the audience the sight of someone choking to death, which could take several minutes and be grotesque.

This might be a case of mistaken identity. In 2006, Wayne the fort caretaker, was moving the grass. The rear wheel of the riding the mower started sinking. He got the mower un-stuck and did a little bit of digging to figure out what the hole was all about. He found steps leading down and into the side of the fort. Excavations revealed stairs, then a short underground hallway, then a small room, and then a slightly larger room. So, imagine a stone room about the size of a walk-in closet that leads into a second room about the size of a large bathroom. It’s thought that this was the original powder magazine (aka. storage) for the fort and that charges and torpedoes were made here by the soldiers. If there was an explosion, it would be contained. We also know that this is where William Howe was kept. And we know this because he wrote his name on the wall.

Howe's Name on Wall - photo courtesy of Drea Hahn
The area is open and now called Casemate 11 if you visit. It is a bit claustrophobic, but I’ve never sensed anything here. This was not the case when TAPS/Ghost Hunters investigated. The team reported:
A crouching figure in the corner
Hearing footsteps
Flashlight and camera malfunctions
The air thickening, hearing breathing, footsteps, and scratching.
A feeling of not being alone.
One of the investigators sensed a cold spot. He looked through a vent shaft into the larger room (it looks like a small window opening) and saw a face with blond hair and scraggly beard.
EVP in the room caught “the boss wants it deeper”. It was later revealed that Casemate 11 was refurbished in 1861, as part of this the floor was dug up in order to make the room deeper.
EVP in the room caught “Can I get some water?”

Casement 11 - photo courtesy of Drea Hahn
Other Random Experiences

In addition to these, people have reported disembodied voices of children, men, women, dogs barking. The figure of a “sad man” walking on the road toward one of the gates. The scents of fire and bread baking (might be leftover from reenactments so take it with a grain of salt). Also, “People have been touched, pushed, pulled, and sometimes restrained”. The bathroom another odd area. TAPS/Ghost Hunters reported seeing a shadowy figure near the ladies’ room. This is one of the fort’s old buildings that has been converted into modern bathrooms and a gift shop.

Drea says, "I’ve been to the site over 10x, usually in November when it’s cold. The ladies’ room is one of the few places with heat - a nice place to change clothes, or get dressed in the morning, or duck into just to warm up a bit. I always get the creeps there and a feeling of being watched. A few times, just outside the ladies’ room in a little hallway leading to the outside I’ve turned around and expected to see someone, but there was nobody there. Not a big scaredy-cat and used to walking around sites at night, but this is just one of those places where I bring a buddy."

A lot of activity especially is reported in the Casemates. Reports are of pale outlines, shadows, faceless men in confederate uniforms walking in this area. Camera problems. Feelings of not being alone. Given the history as a prison, misery, and number of deaths in this area it makes sense. This is where two of my experiences happened. Entity known as The Faceless Man is reported, usually in Casemate 5. When TAPS/Ghost Hunters visited their thermal camera caught a heat signature, as if someone was sitting on one of the beds, but there was nobody there. For a long time, it was believed that this was the spirit of William Howe because he was thought to have been held in this casemate. But with the discovery of Casemate 11 we can’t be sure. Drea shares an experience she had with a friend here:
"When we visit for a history event, the re-enactors live in the fort and stay for the whole weekend. We usually arrive Friday night, my group stays in one of the large casements, and leave on Sunday afternoon. I’ll share a photo, so you can get the idea. At an event a few years ago, I was walking from the bathroom back to our casemate. It was a Saturday morning and to go back you go along a flagstone path/sidewalk, then into the casemate tunnel, you go around a bend, and then the casemate door is on the left. Since it was morning, before the site opened to visitors, I didn’t have my cap and hat on yet. Thanks to an experiment with Clairol, what I did have was long blonde hair. I came around the bend and was slowing down to open the door to the casemate when I felt a hard yank on my ponytail. So hard that you almost fall backwards. I turned around ready to smack whoever did it, but nobody was there. I got the chills. While collecting information for this podcast, I read that there are reports of an entity in that area that seems to have enmity for blond haired women. Great. So, for any of you blonde listeners who would like to give it a go and let us know what happens."
Fort Mifflin has a rich history and it is nice to know that it continues to have a living history. With all the reported paranormal activity, it seems to have a dead history as well. Is Fort Mifflin haunted? That is for you to decide!

Photo courtesy of Drea Hahn

Photo courtesy of Drea Hahn

Photo courtesy of Drea Hahn

Photo courtesy of Drea Hahn

The Casement Drea Overnighted In - photo courtesy of Drea Hahn
Brandon's Pictures:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I loved having the photos to look at while listening to the podcast. Thanks, Diane and Drea.

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