Located just across the Delaware River from National Park, NJ (Gloucester County) on the edge of Philadelphia, PA, Fort Mifflin is not the best-known historic site in America, but as “the fort that saved America,” its century-spanning history warrants more than a few moments of your attention span. It played an active role in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and you’d be
right to assume that there could be a haunting or two on this former “mud island.” Over the years, hundreds of people have reported seeing the same apparitions in the same buildings. Fort Mifflin is a veritable ghostapalooza.
The British began construction on the fort in 1771 but didn’t complete it due to growing tensions with the colonists. The Americans, mindful of defending Philadelphia from the British, moved in on the fort some time after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was a smart move: in the Fall of 1777, the British were close to gaining control of the city and the Delaware River. They may very well have, except their supplies were running low.
In late October and November, Fort Mifflin earned its savior reputation when the American soldiers there held off an attack by 250 British warships. Their efforts were good enough to delay British attempts to re-supply to their troops on shore and to give General George Washington and his troops enough time to escape to Valley Forge.
Fort Mifflin’s west sallyport is a gateway near the water where the British ships tried to blast their way into the fort during the siege. Over 200 American soldiers died defending the fort at this one spot: more than anywhere else in the fort during the siege. Private Joseph Plumb Martin, who was stationed at Fort Mifflin during the siege, wrote about the overall carnage is his memoir, published in the 21st Century as A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier*:
“Our men were cut up like cornstalks. I do not know the exact number of the killed and wounded but can say it was not small, considering the numbers in the fort…perhaps less than five hundred in all.”
With so much carnage, It’s no surprise that people visiting the area around the west sallyport have reported feeling an overall heaviness in their bodies, tightness in the chest, sharp stabbing pains, and headaches.
The fort was reconstructed in 1794, and used as a military outpost during the War of 1812. During the Civil War, it was used to house Confederate prisoners of war, deserters from the Union Army and overflow prisoners from nearby jails.
Fort Mifflin has a number of casemates, which served as soldiers’ barracks while the fort was under fire during the Revolutionary War and were later used to house prisoners during the Civil War. Casemate Number 5 houses what might be the ghost of the only person executed at Fort Mifflin. Billy Howe was a Union deserter who received a death sentence for killing a Union officer. News accounts of his August 26, 1864 hanging indicate that he may have actually been framed. Understandably, he’s not known to be a particularly friendly ghost to those who have encountered him.
Other hauntings at Fort Mifflin, including:
- The screaming ghost of Elizabeth Pratt in the Officers’ Headquarters
- Jacob the Blacksmith, who likes to fiddle with doors in the Blacksmith’s Shop
- A tour guide at the Powder Magazine
- A lamplighter at the Soldier’s Barracks
- A little girl named Amanda in the Artillery Shed
- A sickly man named Edward, in the Hospital
Fort Mifflin’s Ghostly Soldier
Here is a photograph taken at Fort Mifflin in 1997 with what appears to be a ghost image. I am a wet plate photographer who creates 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 during a Civil War reenactment. I was up on the parapet overlooking the soldiers and there was no one there but the troops in formation. At first when I developed the plate, I thought that the small markings to the upper right center were blemishes on the surface of the plate. But looking closer, it appears to be a human who is not exactly standing on the ground. What is it? I don’t know. Fort Mifflin dates to the late 18th Century (it was built from 1771 to 1774) and probably has many stories to tell. —Ray Morgenweck
A Bad Night at Fort Mifflin
By Rodney Anonymous
This is embarrassing––sort of. My nephew, Jeff Anonymous, and I spent a Saturday Night within the Walls of Fort Mifflin. That’s not the embarrassing part. This is—we got the Hell scared out of us.
A few months back Paul suggested that having me spend the night in Eastern State Penitentiary would make for a great piece for his radio show and I agreed. After all, a night out is a night out. A few weeks later Paul called back to say that he had a better idea. Instead of Eastern State I should spend the night in Ft. Mifflin, because he’d seen it listed somewhere as “The second most haunted place in America.” Which left me wondering where the most haunted place in America is and who decides these sorts of things. Anyway, I said “yeah, sure, whatever” and stared researching the fort and putting together a plan for how the piece would flow.
My plan was to spend the night in the part of the fort with the worst reputation – the dreaded “Casemate Number 5.” I would also bring my nephew along because…well, because he’s fun to hang out with. The flow of the story would go like this: Jeff and I would sit up all night in Casemate Number 5 and every hour or so, I’d turn on the tape recorder and we’d say “Nope, nothing yet.” When I put the piece together, I would edit in Wayne the caretaker and President of the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance talking about the various ghosts that supposedly haunt the fort along with clips of a few other people who’d stayed (or attempted to stay) the night in Casement Number 5.
And it was a good plan, too. The only problem was that Jeff and I lasted about an hour-and-a-half in Casemate Number 5. Understand we had every intention of spending the night there—I built a huge fire and we carried heavy pallets down there to use as beds. Hell, the Casemate looked better than most of the apartments I’ve lived in after we got through setting it up.
Around 11:30 at night, after Paul had left and Wayne had retired to another part of the fort, Jeff and I plopped ourselves down on a bench in front of the fire. We’d planned to talk all night, but the Casemate just wasn’t conducive to conversation. Around 1:00 a.m. the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It eventually went back down again – about four hours later. Coincidentally, it was exactly at this point in our adventure that we decide it might be a good time to go stretch our legs.
We spent about a half-an-hour walking around the upper part of the fort “interviewing” the ghosts (This involved asking wise-assed questions followed by silence) before we settled into one of the upper building that housed the restrooms. It was here that we came up with a new-and-improved plan. Jeff and I would hang out in this area (returning to Casemate 5 every hour or so to toss a few logs on the fire and get warm). This plan worked until about 3:00 a.m. when the general atmosphere in the fort started to get so creepy that we decided to return to the Casemate one last time, grab our sleeping bags and camp out on the ramparts, facing the comforting lights of the city.
I should probably point out that Paul wasn’t helping to improve our feelings about the fort. Starting around 2:30 a.m. he began calling me on my cell phone to impart fun facts that he’d picked up on the internet about the ghosts that supposedly haunt the fort.
Around 3:30 in the morning, while stretched out on the northeast rampart, we began to hear things. Nothing more than the occasional popping sound at first. Initially we made jokes about the sounds “Maybe it’s Wayne, the caretaker? He heard about the plans to build a hotel nearby and he’s pretending to be a ghost in order scare people off so he can get the land cheap. ‘Yeah, and I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids’”. And then we head a loud thud that sounded like a bass drum.
I called Paul and told him that we would be very appreciative of him hauling his ass down to the fort ASAP so that he could hear all of the fun too. A certain degree of urgency was added to this call when I discovered that, despite having just charged the battery the night before, my cell phone was about to lose power. In other words, we wanted out of there.
Before you judge me too harshly for abandoning my rational, objective outlook I’d just like to say that up until the battery in my cell phone started to die, I was totally OK with spending what little remained of the night in that fort. My problem was that if an intruder caused those sounds—and if that intruder came across Jeff and I—I’d have no way of calling for help.
Finally, Paul agreed to come to the fort and stick it out with us until the sun came up. About forty minutes later, Paul pulled into the parking lot of the fort and Jeff and I let him in. We ran into Wayne a little later and the three of us spent the rest of the night sitting around bullshitting.
Oh, there is one more thing. Shortly after Paul arrived, he Jeff and I set up my tape recorder on the windowsill in a room that’s rumored to be haunted by Elizabeth Pratt (AKA “The Screaming Lady”). Wayne said that someone had left a tape recorder running in there before and had gotten some interesting results (the sound of a “gunshot”). When we were getting ready to leave we swung by the room to pick up the tape player. The tape player was were we left it and it was still running. Only, now, it was upside-down.
You can visit Fort Mifflin’s 11 buildings from May to November: for times and directions, call their main office at (215) 685-4167 or see their website: www.fortmifflin.com.
The preceding article is an excerpt from Weird NJ magazine, “Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” which is available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com. All contents ©Weird NJ and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.
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