Originally Published October 2013
The television show, “My Ghost Story; Caught on Camera”, which airs new episodes on the Bio network on Saturdays at 10/9c, is about alleged haunted locations and the ghostly stories associated with them. As it says on the website, “My Ghost Story” features true and astonishing stories of the paranormal, told by the people who lived through them” (Biography.com 2013). The validity of these stories should not be taken at face-value, even though the experiences are expected to be.
I had heard of the show before and had caught a few minutes here and there while channel surfing. Honestly, a few minutes was quite enough – in my opinion, the producers seem to love images of dust particles, long exposures and the sound of garbled noises mistaken as “clear” voices of spirits. They showcase people that make it clear they have little to no knowledge in photography whatsoever. A recent episode, which we’ll get to in a moment, prompted me to watch full episodes of this show, in order to get a better idea of what they present to the public (as opposed to just a few minutes here and there). Sure enough, orbs, fuzzy images and horrible audio recordings are the norm, as well as assumptions, misinterpretations and bad “science”.
So, what prompted me to endure the self-imposed torture of episode after episode? The My Ghost Story show visited a place I know quite well – Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia, Pa. I was tagged in a Facebook post that called attention to the episode in question, “Fear and Loathing in Fort Mifflin“. I was quite upset about how the show presented the history of the Fort and how it related to the ghost stories featured on the show (Biography.com 2013, episode 54).
The segment follows Denise Mallet – President, Founder and Lead Investigator of the South Philadelphia Paranormal Investigators (SPPI 2013) – as she (and her team) walk around Fort Mifflin in a reenactment of what they consider an investigation. Interspersed throughout are interview-style sections where Denise tells her version of the history of the fort, as well as describing her spooky experiences and how they’re tied together.
After watching the segment on Fort Mifflin, I was a bit confused …which later turned into frustration (which leads to this little gem you’re reading). Of all the “history” Ms. Mallet related, there was barely a shred of accuracy to any of it. Paranormal television programs have never been a reliable source of information, but I must admit that I was surprised by the total lack of fact-checking by the My Ghost Story crew. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t any fact-checking done whatsoever. This was not something I could simply “let go”. So, I contacted Lorraine Donahue-Irby, Office Manager & Book Keeper for Fort Mifflin, who was extremely upset at the how the show presented the history of the Fort. I arranged to meet with her the following weekend.
On a cold Sunday afternoon, I arrived at the fort and was greeted by a smile and a hug from Lorraine (we’ve been friends for several years). She had some work to finish up, so I used the extra time to locate the specific areas showcased on My Ghost Story, where Ms. Mellet had claimed to have captured photographic evidence of paranormal activity – we’ll get to that in a few moments.
After about an hour, I sat down with Lorraine and we discussed everything that was presented on the show. Lorraine not only provided the necessary information to set the record straight, but she allowed me access to historical documents within the Fort Mifflin archives. We discussed historical events and people in great detail while reviewing Records of Internment and court documents associated with the Fort.
In about an hour, I had verified much of the actual history of the Fort. Armed with knowledge and documentation from the Fort Archives (the best source for verifying the historical events associated with the ghostly stories at the Fort), I was just about ready to write about correcting the inaccuracies set forth by the episode of My Ghost Story. Additional research had to be done – from searching the archives of the Library of Congress to references from a regional book relating the “paranormal history” of the Fort (which, to my knowledge, is the only accurate retelling of the history). There are quite a few YouTube videos and a few local “ghost story” books that most likely set the stage for this most recent misrepresentation of history, all of which seem to be recycling the same false history, over and over. It’s not hard to imagine where Ms. Mellet got her information from – but it most certainly did not from Fort Mifflin.
Moving forward, we’re going to take a look at ten specific issues featured in the episode of My Ghost Story. We’ll be going over them as they were unveiled during the segment. I’ll begin each section with a quote taken directly from the segment and then go on to explain what is incorrect, followed by the documented history. So, let’s get started.
1 – “William H. Howe was hung for Treason, for Desertion and the murder of many men in 1864.”
While it is indeed true that William Henry Howe was hung in 1864, we must be clear that he was hung for Desertion and the Murder of one man, not “many men” as is stated by Ms. Mellet. According to the US Civil War Draft Registrations Records dated June 1863, William was noted as “Deserter, & Murderer of the Enrolling Officer”. (Ancestry.com 2013) Treason, which is defined as “the offense of acting to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign” (Dictionary.com 2013) was NEVER a charge against this man. There is absolutely no documentation anywhere that would suggest William had been charged with Treason. There were only two charges documented in the court records – Desertion & Murder. He was not a traitor.
The charge of Desertion is not what you think it is, and I’ll explain. William enrolled in the army on August 8, 1862, and became member of Company A of the 116th Pa Regiment – also known as the Irish Brigade. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “he stood very high in the estimation of his officers.” (Philadelphia Inquirer 1864) The same paper reports that “He was particularly spoken of at the Battle of Fredericksburg, as he was one of the five men who came off the field of carnage with the colors of his regiment”. He was a war hero. What many don’t know is…he was also suffering.
After the battle, Howe was suffering from Inflammation of the Bowels – a condition that causes abdominal cramps and pain, bloody diarrhea, severe urgency to have a bowel movement, fever, Loss of appetite, aeight loss, and anemia (eMedicinehealth.com 2013). With the regimental hospital having burned down, Howe, along with around 20 others, reported to hospitals in Washington (Philadelphia Inquirer 1864). Unfortunately, there were already too many injured already at this hospital, and there was little relief to be found ( Selletti 2008). So, William, along with his friend Agustus Beiting, returned to their homes – William residing in Perkiomensville, Pa. – where he was confined to bed for two months (Philadelphia Inquirer 1864). The man was not a coward in the face of the enemy, he was suffering from a horrible condition where he was reportedly having forty to sixty bowel movements a day, and nothing could provide any relief.
The “murder” of one man, and only one man, occurred late on the night of June 7th, 1863. I placed the word Murder in quotes because that describes the intentional taking of another human life, and this was simply not the case. According to the report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the night was dark and rain was falling hard. Abraham Bartolet, the enrolling officer for Howe’s district, had gone to the house with three assistants and called out for Howe. Howe’s wife was already in bed (indicating the hour was late), and went to the window, asking “Who is there, and who do you want?” Bartolet replied “It is I, Agustus Beiting, tell Bill to run…”. Howe came to the window, and Bartolet said they were there to arrest him, as the men began hammering on the door. Howe fired two shots out the window, which unbeknownst to him, struck and killed Bartolet. The three assistants fled, leaving Bartolet’s body, which was later taken away by neighbors. Howe was arrested several days later, and still was not aware he had killed a man. He was not a murderer, since it was not his intention to kill anyone. It would likely be considered ‘manslaughter’, since he simply wished to scare off what he thought were would-be intruders.
Sadly, this one line – this one quote – from this television show, has turned William H. Howe into a mass-murdering coward that betrayed his country; a false reputation. With all the historical accounts available, we can see that William was a good man suffering from a horrible condition, one of five to walk away from the Battle of Fredericksburg, highly regarded by his officers, and accidentally ended a man’s life – I see a man that was truly a victim of unfortunate circumstances, which ultimately cost him his own life.
2 – “Mrs. Pratt, was a well-known woman, basically the only woman at the fort, who did many things for the soldiers; cooked meals for them, did their laundry, and took care of the injured soldiers there.”
Elizabeth Pratt was the wife of Sergt. Pratt of the United States Army. They had two children, one of which was born while they lived at Fort Mifflin. There are no records which indicate that Elizabeth Pratt cooked, cleaned and/or cared for the soldiers while she was there. This makes me wonder where Ms. Mallet obtained her information.
In addition, according to Lorraine, a Sergent’s wife would not be doing all of this work for enlisted men. Ms. Mellet’s statement is pure speculation, nothing more. Furthermore, she was not the only woman at the Fort. For example, Elizabeth Bunker, who is also considered a candidate for the “Screaming Woman”, was also a known female residing at the Fort (Selletti 2008).
3 – “She (Elizabeth Pratt) had a child, who died, of Typhoid Fever.”
Elizabeth Pratt had two children – and infant son and a young daughter. The infant son, who was not named, died on July 20, 1802. Her young daughter, also named Elizabeth, died less than five months later on December 6, 1802 (Ancestry.com 2013). Both children are believed to have died from Yellow Fever, not Typhoid Fever (Donahue-Irby 2013).
Yellow Fever is caused by a virus, transferred to humans by the bite of mosquitoes (PubMed.com 2013). In mild cases, yellow fever causes fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. In more serious cases, infected individuals can experience heart, liver and kidney problems along with bleeding (Mayo Clinic Staff 2011). Typhoid fever is commonly caused by bacteria called Salmonella. An infection develops that causes diarrhea and a rash. The bacteria are usually spread through contaminated food, drink, or water (PubMed.com 2013).
Although there is a record of their deaths (which includes names and dates), there is no Cause of Death listed. Within the book of Internment, the only notation with the names of the children, other than the date of death, is about their graves in the cemetery – “There are a great many graves in said Cemetery with out Tombstones or mark to designate them.” However, with further research into epidemics within Philadelphia, the most likely cause of death was found.
There were several epidemics of Yellow Fever throughout the United States, and they were recorded in the Report on the Etiology and Prevention of Yellow Fever of 1890. A quote from the report – “Pennsylvania – …the earliest onset of the disease occurred in 1699 (220 died of the estimated just under 4,000 inhabitants)…The next epidemics in Philadelphia occurred in 1741 (mortality 250), 1762, 1793 (mortality 4,041), 1794, 1797 (mortality 1,300), 1798 (mortality 3,500), 1799 (mortality 1,000), 1802 (mortality 307), 1803 (mortality 195), 1805 (mortality 400), 1819, 1820 (mortality 83), 1853 (mortality 128), 1870 (mortality 18).” (Sternberg 1890)
We can see that epidemics hit Philadelphia in 1802 and 1803, the years that coincide with the deaths of the Pratt children, including Elizabeth Pratt herself. Being that they lived at the Fort, which is on the river and a hotbed for mosquitoes, this is the most plausible cause of death.
4 – “She (Elizabeth Pratt) was so distraught over the death of her daughter, that she hung herself.”
Despite the constant retelling of this allegedly historical account, Elizabeth Pratt did NOT, I repeat – She Did NOT – hang herself. Listed in the Book of Interments, in the Fort Mifflin archives, is the record of Elizabeth Pratt’s death. She died on February 11, 1803 of Yellow Fever (Donahue-Irby 2013). Like with her children, there is no Cause of Death listed, but based on the information available, the most plausible cause of death was Yellow Fever (as we covered in the previous paragraphs).
Part of this story can be traced back to a book called “Philadelphia Ghost Stories” by Charlie Adams (Adams 1998). In the account presented, Elizabeth Pratt is said to have committed suicide a year after the death of her estranged child that died of Dysentery in 1801. From the records available, we know this version of the story is false; given Elizabeth Pratt died two years later in 1903. Unfortunately, the Adams version seems to have been passed around the paranormal community ever since, becoming the accepted ‘history’ for paranormal websites and other books.
This story has even been embellished over time to portray the daughter as having been involved with an enlisted man, which caused her to be “estranged” from her family. It’s important to note that when the Pratt members were reburied (the fort cemetery no longer exists), the daughter was recorded as “Elizabeth Pratt: Child” (Elizabeth Pratt’s daughter was also named Elizabeth) – indicating she would be unmarried and under the age of 12 to be so recorded (Selletti 2013).
Again, these versions of the story are completely false, as there is absolutely no documentation to back up such claims.
5 – “Upon entering the fort, you have the Officer’s Quarters, you have the Hospital and the General’s Quarters, where Mrs. Pratt stayed…we call it Mrs. Pratt’s room”
This statement is a voice-over, as images of the Fort’s buildings are displayed. Even this quick segment would have benefited from a few simple questions to the Fort Mifflin staff. Why? Well, the only correct statement in the voice-over was naming the Officer’s Quarters.
When the Hospital is mentioned, the interior of the Soldier’s Barracks is on screen. The Hospital is actually located outside of the fort walls and across the moat. The old hospital building is currently the Administrative offices of the Fort, and has been for many years.
As for the General’s Quarters…well, there are no General’s Quarters – not at all at Fort Mifflin. What is shown on screen is the exterior of the Soldier’s Barracks, which they had just shown the interior of and called it the Hospital.
Lastly, she mentions that in the General’s Quarters is “where Mrs. Pratt stayed.” I am amazed that she would imply that a Sergeant (and his family) would be living in the “General’s Quarters”, rather than..ya know, the General. Regardless, as stated previously, there wasn’t a General’s Quarters to begin with. However, we do know, from historical documents, that Serg. Pratt and family resided in a shack that once stood where the Artillery Shed is now located – on the opposite side of the courtyard (Williams 1802).
6 – “We walk behind the General’s Quarters and I snap a picture…and I looked at it, I was like ‘Wow’…it’s a Red Light Anomaly”.
While she is speaking about walking behind the “General’s Quarters”, the scene is actually showing her and her group walking into the Casemates, which is in a different location than where the picture was taken. Oh, and there still isn’t a building referred to as the “General’s Quarters” at Fort Mifflin. When Denise states that she snaps a picture, the scene is inside a Casemate, not behind the building shown in the photograph; the photo put on screen is from outside on the grounds, behind the Commandant’s House.
This is shared blame: Denise uses a building name that is not associated with the Fort whatsoever, and the production crew screws up the editing of scenes and voice-overs, which makes it all look sloppy. And don’t get me started on the “Red Light anomaly” photo. Can we say “Long Exposure”?
Many ghost hunters make the mistake of switching their camera mode to a Night Scene (or similar) setting, which causes the camera to take a long exposure in low light scenes…such as at a Fort when it’s dark outside (This means the camera takes a longer time to take a picture). By doing this, the camera takes in more light and can make a dark sky appear illuminated. The long exposure and movement from being held by hand, causes an effect known as Camera Shake – which has a “double exposure” look, can create lines of light (Light Painting) from light sources, and also cause people to become transparent. The “red light anomaly” Denise presents is a result of a long exposure, not a ghost.
7 – “I’m suspecting that might be Billy Howe, because I picked up an evil vibe. Something bad….dangerous.”
This is speaking of a photograph Denise had taken of window in the Officer’s Quarters, which showed the reflection of the flash in the glass – a reflection that Denise mistakes for an evil face looking directly at her.
Based on the first statement Denise made about William Howe, this assumption does not surprise me. Just before William was hung, he read a letter to those in attendance, which was recorded and reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia Inquirer 1864). Reading over this letter, one can easily see that Mr. Howe was deeply sorry for causing the death of Abraham Bartolet, and was at peace with himself and his maker. There were no underlying emotions of anger, hatred or anything that would be considered “evil”. This is simply an assumption based on incorrect historical information which was taken out of context, and further tarnishes the name of William Howe.
*The letter, which is handwritten, is six pages in length.
8 – “We all decided to take a walk to Casemate 5”
The view switches to a drawn map, which zeros in on Casemate 11 – which if you’re not familiar with the fort, is in a different area than Casemate 5. The next scene is of the group walking into the Torpedo Magazine – still a different location than Casemate 5. This is just bad editing, pure and simple. Had the production crew put any real effort into making sure they were editing correctly, this and many more editing mistakes would not have occurred. If the scene was made up of just walking shots, it would be no big deal. I included it here due to the use of a map, which viewers will identify with if visiting the fort, and perhaps go to the wrong locations.
9 – “Then all of a sudden, we heard a horrific blood-curdling scream…sounded like someone was being murdered. I was terrified…I couldn’t move. I’m thinking that the scream came from Mrs. Pratt, who was so distraught over the death of her daughter, that she hung herself.”
Once again, this false history of Elizabeth Pratt hanging herself is recited for the second time in this segment. None of the Pratt family hung themselves, please understand this.
The Screaming Woman is a staple at Fort Mifflin, written about on countless websites from paranormal enthusiasts that claim to have heard the blood-curdling scream; described as sounding like a woman is being tortured. In the past, police have been called to the Fort in the real fear that a woman was in trouble, yet no one has ever been found in need of rescue. In discussing this phenomenon with Lorraine (who has heard the screams herself), I brought up the possibility that a variety of bird was the cause. The Fort Mifflin Disposal Area is a top location for bird watching in the State of Pennsylvania (MyBirdMaps.com 2010). Lorraine told me about a family of eagles that nest in the area. Although she admits that the eagles could be the cause of some of the screams heard, she isn’t convinced they explain all of the screams.
When I began researching into what eagles sound like, I found several videos on YouTube that offered clips of the eagles call (Honan 2007). So far, the calls from eagles seem to be broken up too much to be mistaken for a screaming woman in distress. Luckily, YouTube offers suggestions of similar videos based on your search. And I noticed a video for “Red-tailed hawk screaming” and clicked on it. Whoa…now THIS sounded like a screaming woman (Crowe 2007). Red-tailed hawks are common throughout the United States year round (AllAboutBirds.org 2013). A search of “Red tailed hawks in Philadelphia” came up with about 290,000 results, including many with a Live Webcam of a nest at the Franklin Institute. After listening to several other videos of the red-tailed hawk, I can definitely see (or rather hear) how this bird’s call could easily be mistaken for a frantic woman’s scream. This is a plausible explanation, and the most likely one since no one has yet to actually see the source of the “screaming”.
10 – “So we continued to walk, up to Mrs. Pratt’s room. I said, ok…I wanna leave the digital voice recorder in here, cause I picked up something playful…something wanted to play. It’s probably Mrs. Pratt’s daughter.”
Aside from the obvious assumption “It’s probably Mrs. Pratt’s daughter,” there is a major issue with this entire statement. The second floor and balcony of the Officer’s Quarter’s did not exist prior to the building’s renovations, which were completed in 1814 (Lonahue-Irby 2013). The Officer’s Quarters was a dilapidated building during the time the Pratt family was at the Fort, which means it was in a state of disrepair.
Here’s the kicker – as mentioned earlier in this article, Elizabeth Pratt died in 1803 – both of her children passing away the year before. Yes, after doing some quick math, we find that the room attributed to Mrs. Pratt over and over again, did NOT exist until approximately eleven years after she had died. Sorry, ghost hunters, you’ve been investigating with the wrong information.
As mentioned earlier, records indicate the Pratt family lived in a shack while at Fort Mifflin. Yes, according to historical records, there were three shacks where the Artillery Shed stands today.
This article demonstrates the importance of doing quality research, as opposed to simply reading a chapter in a regional ghost story book or watching a ghost hunting team on a YouTube video. I watched about a dozen videos, all by self-described “professional & scientific” teams which recycled the same false history we’ve covered here. This demonstrates that they didn’t do the historical research many claim they have. The culmination of this pseudo-research is when a nationally televised show takes the same lazy approach and broadcasts the wrong information to every ghost hunting enthusiast across the nation.
In the case of Fort Mifflin, we’re talking about a historic landmark, which played a pivotal role in the survival of our nation. We’re also talking about a site that has staff on site, which would have verified or corrected the historical information – if they had been consulted. I can’t help but ask, “why were the staff not consulted for accuracy?”
On a recent episode of Paramania Insider, Mark Phillips, the executive producer of My Ghost Story, was the featured guest. The hosts announced in the chat room that they were taking questions for Mark. I took them up on that invitation and typed “Does the show do any type of fact-checking of the historical information given by the story tellers?” At first, another person stated that people sometimes get nervous in front of the camera and say the wrong thing. I persisted, stating that “this was not a case of nerves, but the majority of historical information was grossly incorrect.” When the host presented my question to Mark, he replied, in a broken up sort of way, “…we do have a…um…we do have…ah…ah…a research group that… um…that ah…researches every story and um…researches the aspects of the story that our story tellers are telling us.” (Phillips 2013)
Judging by the way the Fort Mifflin segment was done, I would venture to say that this “research group” either skipped their job this time around, or need to be replaced since they obviously did not verify the historical information. At the very least, while they were filming the interviews, they could have called the Fort and asked “Hey, is this right?” When they found out it wasn’t, they could’ve immediately re-shot the interview with the right information.
From start to finish, it has taken me approximately two weeks to fully research and verify the information within this article. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning tracking down documents from various sources and called, texted and instant-messaged historians at all times of the day and night. And this isn’t even my full time job – yet I did a job that was a thousand times better than a “research team” that’s paid to do the very same thing for a national television show.
Think about that for a moment…
Lorraine Donahue-Irby, Office Manager & Book Keeper for Fort Mifflin
Anthony Selletti, author of Fort Mifflin: A Paranormal History
Biography.com. My Ghost Story Episode 54., Accessed on March 5, 2013 (Note – this link may be unavailable, as they rotate available episodes on the site. At the time of this writing, it was still available)
Van Kainen, Karyn. William H. Howe of Mont. Co. PA, executed Fort Mifflin 1864; info & descendants. Genealogy .com, accessed on March 5, 2013
PubMed.com. Yellow fever. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. Accessed on March 5, 2013
PubMed.com. Typhoid Fever. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia, , accessed on March 5, 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002308/
South Philadelphia Paranormal Investigators. Member Profiles. Accessed on March 6, 2013. http://www.southphillyparanormal.org/3.html
Dictionary.com. Treason. Accessed on March 6, 2013
Selletti, Anthony L., SFO. 2008. Fort Mifflin: A Paranormal History. Chester, Pa. Selletti Press
Ancestry.com. June 1863. US Civil War Draft Registrations Records. Accessed on March 16, 2013
Philadelphia Inquirer. August 27, 1864. Execution of WM. H. Howe, at Fort Mifflin.
eMedicinehealth.com. Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. Accessed on March 16, 2013
Ancestry.com. Record Book of Internments, US Military Burial Registrations 1768 – 1921.
Adams. Charles J. 1998. Philadelphia Ghost Stories. Exeter House Books, pg. 95
Selletti , Anthony. 2013. Personal correspondence.
Mayo Clinic Staff. 2011. Yellow Fever. Accessed on March 26, 2013
Donahue-Irby, Lorraine. March 10, 2013. Personal Interview and review of Fort Mifflin Archives
Sternberg, George M. 1890. Etiology and Prevention of Yellow Fever”, pg. 43
Williams, Major Jonathon. Fort Mifflin: A Report to Congress of 1802.
MyBirdMaps.com. 2010. Fort Mifflin Disposal Area in Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania. Accessed on March 29, 2013. http://www.mybirdmaps.com/…/Phi…/Fort-Mifflin-Disposal-Area/
Honan, Matt. 2007. Over 30 Bald Eagle in the back yard. Unalaska, Alaska. YouTube video accessed March 29, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZJKmPa42PM
Crowe, Susan. 2007. Red-tailed Hawk Screaming. YouTube video accessed on March 29, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33DWqRyAAUw
AllAboutBirds.org. Red-Tailed Hawks. Accessed on March 29, 2013
Phillips, Mark. 2013. ParaMania Insider Podcast.