A busload of us arrived at the Michigan Reformatory on a freakishly steamy September day in 2010. When a person has in mind what a prison might look like, M.R. is exactly that. There was a winding road, a sharp curve, and then this castle thing—old, pale brick, fences and bars softened slightly by the steamy heat. We shuffled into the rotunda clinking and rattling in our leg-chains and belly-cuffs, then sat on the wide, octagonal border around a huge indoor fountain that hadn’t seen water in at least a hundred years.
After our chains were removed, we were allowed to walk around the ground floor of the large, two-story open space of the rotunda. We waited for our room assignments and bedding, wandering around looking through distant windows across the control center, through barred doorways into other rooms. I found myself staring at a very old photograph in a glass case on a wall next to the quartermaster: a group of prisoners from 1903.
One might think that the early 20th century would be a barbaric environment for prisoners, but this was a picture of the twenty-man Michigan Reformatory Marching Band. The subject of the picture suggested American prisons were more progressive than prisons now. A prison wouldn’t dare have a marching band today. The public outcry would be so loud you’d never hear the horns and drums over the din of the non-stop bitching. But back then corrections apparently had the novel idea that it was best to keep the men busy, involved in worthwhile projects. Why not have them march around the grounds playing enlightening music?
In the black and white photo I noticed a man with a trombone—a thin black man with a crooked smile, his hat slightly tilted. He was in the middle row between a short trumpeter and a fat man wielding a sax. I glanced at the other men in the band, but always came back to the trombonist. Perhaps it was the instrument he played—I, too, had played trombone from 5th grade until high school, when I decided I was too cool for band. There was a long feather poking from the center of his hat—maybe a symbol he was the director—and I saw the wispy white line of the feather wave briefly from a long ago breeze, and then I heard, very softly, “Sonny.” I looked at the man’s mouth and heard it again, “Sonny,” he said in a muffled voice from behind his glass frame.
An officer called my name, handed me a slip of paper with some numbers and letters written on it, then told ten of us to report to Health Services to get a cursory go-over. We walked through a sliding, barred door then down a long, dark hall. I remember someone saying, “If you were going to be executed, this is the kind of hallway you would go down to be fried.” I knew exactly what he meant. It seemed to be a hallway made for heavy thinking, one suitable for a last long walk contemplating what was about to happen.
I didn’t find The Bell Witch in the library or the A-Ward bookshelf. I had been thinking about a ghost story for this Halloween (by then, it was already the beginning of October, so I figured I was too late. I am not used to thinking a month or two ahead). I went to sleep last Tuesday night trying to decide what to do. Jay, a kid from Hyderabad, India (his actual first and last name have twenty letters apiece, completely unspellable, I would think, by anyone) on the top bunk directly opposite mine had ridden out early Wednesday when it was still dark—he’s getting deported because he’s a sociopathic narcissist who sexually assaulted a prostitute, though he claimed she invented the assault to extort money from him. Not to mention he was a complete snob, though I don’t think they can deport you for snobbery.
Jay normally read capitalist propaganda books about acquiring wealth: Free Money!; Elite Entrepreneurship; Create your LLC; etc. But there on his abandoned, blue-green mattress was The Bell Witch, with an introduction by Brent Monahan (The Jekyll Island Club, The Blood of the Covenant, and several others)—which is to say, I don’t think this was Jay’s book. I’d be willing to bet Sonny the trombone player left it for me.
The book is a “found manuscript” about a true haunting in Tennessee around 1820. The spirit is not a witch as I would think of a witch—not a frizzy-haired old hag tossing frog parts and newt eyes into boiling cauldrons. She was a demon who talked in one of three distinct voices. She began by making noises in the Bell house, then “matured,” culminating in a constant tormenting of John Bell, the patriarch of the family. The demon also had a relentless, teasing affinity for Betsy Bell, a pretty teenager who had just begun menstruating. Apparently, the book pointed out, “witches,” or female spirits, attach themselves to the powerful energy of a blossoming woman’s ability to create life.
I had never heard of this “energy attraction,” but it made sense to me. Come to find out, the father had begun to visit Betsy at night which is when the demon began appearing, hounding and afflicting John Bell mentally and physically until his death a couple of years later (this is supposedly the only documented case where a spirit actually killed a person). So, the real demon was the father. The real haunting was an old sicko’s lust for an innocent girl.
It was an amazing story, wonderfully written by Betsy’s future husband, Richard Powell in the mid-1800’s. I was, though, hoping for more creepiness than just simple ghostly tomfoolery—something along the lines of the first Paranormal Activity, which is so freaking creepy, I defy anyone to watch the whole thing with both eyes open. A few years before Powell died of natural causes, he wrote and sealed the manuscript with an “Open Only If . . .” message for his daughter in case “Old Kate,” the witch, should show up again. After reading the book, I wished every girl had an Old Kate to protect her.
And I wish someone would have told me that the Michigan Reformatory was haunted when they handed me my cell assignment. For example, on back of the slip of paper reading, “I-4, cell 7,” I wish there could have been the following summary of what was about to come: You’re going to hear a soft trombone playing at night on the small, tree-lined knoll across the parking lot. And when you take that late night job pushing laundry carts down to the quartermaster, along that long, dark “execution walk” hallway, you’re going to see Sonny through the window of the door in the pitch-black waiting room of Health Services. He’ll be sitting in a soft glow of his own post-life energy with his head on backwards, his trombone lying on the floor. None of the other three guys you work with will see him, of course.
I saw Sonny half a dozen times on my late-night laundry cart runs, usually in the health service waiting room, apparently waiting patiently (one thing prisoners become good at is waiting) for a doctor to fix his twisted head. I saw him once, though, at about midnight standing in a darkened doorway of the barber shop on the second floor of the rotunda. I felt as if he was silently telling me that the barber shop was where his head had been turned around.
The last time I saw Sonny was in the small phone room on the fourth floor of I-Block, shortly before I moved to A-Ward. There are two phones and two chairs in the phone room—it is more like a large closet. There is a light you can turn on, but most people leave the room dark when they make phone calls. I don’t remember who I was calling, but I had the room to myself when I looked over and there was Sonny, smiling. His head was on in the right direction but I could see the festering tear in his flesh where it had once been removed. He made sure I was watching when he began pushing numbers on the phone. His bony index finger emitted a tiny, glowing puff of dust when it touched the number. 6-1-8, he pushed, and looked at me. It was my old area code from Southern Illinois. 6-6-5, then 3-8-3-9, my phone number all through my childhood.
And I remembered those nights thirty years ago when the phone would ring very late—always on a weekend when my parents were out drinking with friends. I couldn’t sleep because of a paralyzing fear that they would die soon, horribly and gruesomely because they were driving drunk. I hated for them to go out, would always stay awake and worry. And then the phone would ring and I knew it was the police telling me to get my sisters and find a way to the hospital because there had been an accident—only it wasn’t the police. I would pick up, could hear someone from a payphone, or somewhere around a lot of echoey, ambient noise. The person calling never said anything, though there was always an almost-voice, as if the caller was trying to say something but didn’t have the ability.
The background noise in the phone calls I had always assumed was traffic, I realized in that phone room, was a vast distance of time and space—an unknowable gulf between life and death. Then the familiar voice of a frightened boy.