Broad & Eerie: Hunting for ghosts in City Hall
A group of ghost hunters and our reporter spent a night inside City Hall waiting for all the weirdness to seep out of the limestone.
THE LITTLE GIRL is a frequent visitor to the second floor of City Hall. She slips - unseen - past the police officers outside Mayor Nutter's office. She secrets herself within a majestic room called Conversation Hall. She is not supposed to be there, unsupervised, at all hours of the night.
Officer George Feinstein, part of the mayor's security detail, acknowledges that he's never actually seen the girl. But twice he's heard her giggle while making his second-floor rounds. He's also heard her sigh, breezily, as he chitchatted with some City Hall visitors.
"It was like we were boring," Feinstein said.
On a cold, starry Saturday night last month, as a sliver of moon glowed above Billy Penn's hat, Feinstein and a group of fellow ghost hunters, including two other Philadelphia police officers, set out to find the girl.
The Nutter administration agreed to open City Hall to Feinstein's group, called Olde City Paranormal, and to a Daily News reporter and photographer (after signing a waiver agreeing that the city could not be held liable for any injuries).
The night, which began at 8 o'clock, was the first official ghost hunt to be held within the 114-year-old limestone French Second Empire headquarters of Philadelphia government.
Feinstein, who has patrolled City Hall for seven years, was determined to learn more about the girl. How did she die? When did she die? Why did she haunt Conversation Hall?
Was it because the room is fit for a princess? High golden ceilings, plum-colored drapes, rose-hued marble columns and a spectacular bronze chandelier, perfect for any girl to twirl endlessly beneath.
The group sat expectantly within the darkened room about 10:30 p.m. Feinstein, 48, the kind of cop you want to confide in, started to talk to the girl.
"My name is George," he said. "You know me. I've been in and out of this room tons of times. Why don't you say 'hi' like you did? We're not here to hurt you. We just want to make contact with you, if that's possible. Can you tell us your name?"
"Do you know what year you died? You may not want to talk. Maybe you can hit something. Bang a wall or move a chair," Feinstein said.
The only noise was the squeal of bus wheels and the hum of traffic circling City Hall.
"Do you know where your mom and dad are?"
Feinstein, the father of two kids, posed the same questions any cop would ask a girl found wandering without her parents.
The group left the room without answers.
Murderers and suicides
Could the girl have been the victim of one of the many killers whose murder trials were held inside City Hall before the Criminal Justice Center opened in 1994?
Although Herman W. Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes - dubbed "America's first serial killer" - is largely associated with a Chicago-area "murder castle," he was convicted and hanged in Philadelphia.
He tortured and killed at least 27 people, including children, between 1886 and 1894. He went on trial here for the murder of Benjamin Pietzel, whose body was found inside a home on Callowhill Street near 13th. A Philadelphia detective assigned to the case discovered the decomposed bodies of Pietzel's daughters, Alice, 15, and Nellie, 11, buried in a cellar within a house that Holmes had rented in Toronto.
"The widespread publicity given this sensational case attracted a great throng of people to the corridors of City Hall," noted an October 1895 article in the New York Times. Holmes was hanged at Moyamensing Prison at 10th and Reed streets in 1896.
The Inquirer, which paid $7,500 for his written confession, described Holmes in a headline as "The Most Fearful and Horrible Murderer Ever Known in the Annals of Crime."
There are plenty of believers who work in City Hall. One city employee, who declined to be named, said he's heard the little girl talking to herself and laughing. When asked to pinpoint her age, the employee said, "I don't know - old enough to scare the s--- out of you."
Center Square hangings
Some late-night cleaning staffers say they dread working on the south side of City Hall.
"After it gets dark, nobody likes that side of City Hall," a janitor confided. "If they have to work that side, they do it before it gets dark. There are some things you just can't explain. You hear noises."
The next stop on the ghost hunt was the south side of City Hall, fourth floor.
"Orphan's Court is on this floor," Feinstein explained. "We are going down to the south end. That's where there are a lot of shadows, a lot of things going on. It's a very active hallway. That's on any floor, on the south end."
Long before the construction of City Hall began in 1871, the south side of "Center Square" was, from 1788 to 1799, the common hanging-ground of the city and county.
If McCormick & Schmick's had existed then, diners would have been able to cut into a juicy steak while watching public hangings.
"Newspapers of the day related the bare facts of a public execution and, in Philadelphia, many were executed with no news story whatsoever," Negley Teeters wrote in his book, Scaffold and Chair.
According to an Oct. 13, 1789, article in the Daily Packet, five "wheelbarrow men" went to their deaths at the gallows. "The behavior of these unhappy men appeared penitent."
They were called wheelbarrow men because criminals housed at the Walnut Street Prison were allowed out during the day to clean the city's streets, carting away filth in wheelbarrows, "doomed to labor with a chain and iron-ball attached to their person," according to The Book of Murders, which recounts horrific murders from the American Revolution to 1823.
The book, published in 1858, details how the five men escaped from prison one evening, stopped to pick up the "evil" wife of one of them, named "Logan," and set out to rob the "money-saving" McFarland brothers who lived in a house near 13th and Market. The men forced their way in and bludgeoned John McFarland with an iron handle from a water pump.
The wounded McFarland tried to escape, leaving a trail of bloody handprints on the wall. Logan's wife yelled, "I'll finish him!" She then grabbed his head and "battered his brains against the wall, in spite of his groans." Logan's wife was not hanged because she was pregnant and "her eventual fate is merged in obscurity," the book notes.
Just before midnight, Feinstein and his group sat silent on the fourth floor, straining to hear or see something.
"If you listen and look, you will probably catch footsteps and see shadows," Feinstein said. "Sometimes you'll see a head peer out of the darkness of a doorway."
Long moments of silence. Then something that sounded like a deep exhale or ghastly hiss. The group erupted in hushed excitement: "Did you hear that?" "What was that?" "It sounded like a growl."
Feinstein called out, "Anybody here with us?"
Moments later, an emergency-exit light at the end of the hallway went out. "Whoa, did you see that? The light went out," Feinstein said.
At the end of the hallway, Feinstein pointed out what appeared to be a dark shape moving about.
"Right down the end. By the men's bathroom. Just keep watching. To the right of the doorway," he said.
Joe Brasky, a building superintendent who joined the ghost hunt, is a bit of a doubter, but even he seemed uncertain.
"My eyes are seeing s---. I think there is stuff moving down there right now," Brasky said, lying on his stomach, sniper-style, on the cool hallway floor.
Earlier in the evening, Brasky, 38, sheepishly talked about the time he got a creepy feeling while at work.
"Is there a possibility that things are in here? Yes. But when you are working overnight and you're here 18 to 20 hours, you start to see stuff anyway," Brasky said. "There are times you walk around here and you feel like something is there, walking with you. Just recently my hair stood up on the back of my head when I was walking through the hallway. Why? I don't know."
Maybe the "something" walking with Brasky was Joseph Kubichek, a longtime City Hall maintenance worker who died in 2006. Kubichek had secretly lived in the building's basement. When city officials found out, they evicted him. He died after he left the job at age 68.
"He didn't die in here, but this was his home really for years," Brasky said.
Brasky, who calls himself "King of the Basement" and has worked in City Hall for about nine years, said he feels an emotional attachment to the building.
"I'm always here. I do everything for the building. My ghost will probably be here after I die," said Brasky, letting out a chalky smoker's laugh.
"My ghost is going to Hawaii," Feinstein joked.
A death scene
Much blood was spilled in the making of City Hall - and in the years since. Construction went on for 30 years. During that time, 19 men died in accidents while foisting bricks, marble and limestone to build the 511-foot-tall structure, completed in 1901.
"They say limestone, it's kind of like a conductor to where it absorbs energy," said Officer John Levy, who co-founded Olde City Paranormal. Levy, who joined the ghost hunt, said that energy can create "a tape-recording effect," a haunt that's "not intelligent," but more like a memory or watching a movie.
"It's something that occurs over and over again. It's the same exact thing. It will have no interaction with you," Levy said.
Window washing was a particularly perilous job at City Hall. Some newspaper accounts of those accidents were vivid, like this one from a May 1934 Evening Bulletin: "His body twisted in the air in view of many passersby, and it fell into the moat on the outside of the building. The body was badly crushed. In a minute, a crowd of nearly 1,000 congregated and police details were called to force them away."
A handful of City Hall employees and visitors killed themselves by jumping out windows on the upper floors or pitching themselves over the ornate railings of the building's spiral staircases. Newspapers of the 1920s and '30s characterized these suicides as "nervous breakdowns."
One man who killed himself took a secret to his death. In June 1922, a man named Illie Marion showed up at the Police Detective Bureau, then located on the fifth floor of City Hall. "He wanted to tell about a horrible murder," according to a Bulletin article.
A police clerk showed Marion, a 36-year-old woodworker from Ambler, to a small interview room. When a detective walked in, Marion grew frantic and yelled: "They are going to kill me."
Marion rushed past the detective and ran to a window. He crawled out and gripped on to the window frame, his feet perched on the sill. Every time police tried to grab him, Marion screamed, "Stand back - don't come near me or I will let go."
Finally, he released his grip and "with a shout that could be heard in all parts of the building, plunged down. A number of women who had watched the man screamed and fainted," the article states.
At the time, a police lieutenant said he had met Marion a few days before his death at a saloon at Front and Cambria streets. Marion told him that he had information about the murders of John Braneu, 49, and his teenage son, Peter. They were found brutally beaten with "some heavy instrument" inside their home at 625 N. American St. on Sept. 15, 1921.
Marion said he was being "framed up" for the murders and agreed to meet the lieutenant for an interview at City Hall.
The murders remain unsolved.
Some mysteries, cemented within City Hall's rich history, likely will never be resolved.
Glenn Orwan, 53, another member of Olde City Paranormal, said he heard "a disembodied voice" while roaming City Hall a few years ago during what he characterized as an "unofficial" ghost hunt.
Orwan said he and others in his group heard the voice while standing atop an abandoned stairwell that ends inside a storage room on the seventh floor, the location of the former prisoner holding cell.
"One of the best disembodied voices that I've ever heard, that was recorded, came from here," Orwan said. "We couldn't make out what it said. It was like, 'Blah-blaw.' I said, 'What the hell was that? Did everybody hear that?' "
On last month's ghost hunt, Orwan led the Daily News to the spot where he heard the voice. The group climbed an abandoned metal staircase, hidden within a south turret of City Hall. The steps were littered with old newspapers, empty cigarette packs, chunks of cinderblock and mounds of sawdust.
Long ago, prison guards led defendants awaiting trial up these stairs to the cell. Later, prisoners arrived via an elevator. Some of the city's most heinous criminals, including Gary Heidnik, traveled this route. Heidnik killed two women and tortured and raped four others in a dungeon-like basement of his North Philadelphia home.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the holding cell was a source of scandal. Each day, some 160 prisoners sat crammed, shoulder-to-shoulder, on benches in a cell designed to hold 90. Some took off their shirts as summer temperatures reached 104 degrees. They passed around an aluminum cup filled with water and ate rancid bologna sandwiches. A judge called the conditions "barbaric."
At 9 p.m., the ghost-hunt group, winded from climbing the stairs, reached a storage room with creaky wooden floors. Here, there's a door that leads to the old prison cell. The group stood in the hot, sooty room and listened for the spirit's voice. None came.
Orwan said the voice he had heard belonged to a male. Although the group couldn't discern the spirit's words, Orwan said they later listened to the recording and the words were chilling.
"When we played the recording back, it was crystal clear and it said, 'Can I come out now?' "