With Halloween just around the corner and spooky folklore winding its way into our thoughts, the ghosts of Bucks County stir from their slumber and make their way into the urban legends borne of this area’s rich history. Though it opened to the public in 1988, the Michener Art Museum’s own history travels more than a century back in time. Unbeknownst to many of our patrons, the Museum property had its beginnings as an institution of a dramatically different sort, one with a history riddled by violence, imprisonment, and ultimately rumors of a supernatural kind.
Prior to becoming a presence in the American art world, the Michener was a prison—the fifth erected in Bucks County’s centuries-old corrections system. Dubbed the “Pine Street Hotel” by the well-known warden John D. Case, the prison was open from 1884 to 1985 and housed hundreds of inmates whose crimes ranged from minor offenses, like petty theft, to felonies like murder. And at the Pine Street Hotel, the punishment fit the crime; with the death penalty legal in Pennsylvania, the prison saw two hangings during its years (one in 1894 and the other in 1914) before the electric chair was introduced and death row prisoners were transported elsewhere.
Though much of the prison was reconstructed to suit the needs of a burgeoning art museum, some of the old architecture and structures still stand and have been incorporated into the property’s aesthetic. The glaring, red sally port doors, for instance, still welcome guests (though of a notably different variety) at the museum’s entrance. The prison wall, which was constructed with old stone and materials from the original Doylestown jail, towers over the sculpture gardens. And tucked away in the Michener’s basement you can find arched divots in the ceiling—remnants of the solitary confinement cells that once existed.
So with a history as gruesome as it is curious, it comes as no surprise that speculation about hauntings on the old property has made its way around town. In fact, visitors and staff at the Michener have reported strange occurrences over the years, many of which are still in want of an explanation. Mysterious whispers, spectres seen in the periphery, creepy footsteps in a seemingly empty gallery —which stories are true, and which might simply be the imagination? The answer: it depends. What do you believe?