About 30 miles southwest of Chicago, in the city of Joliet, lies an old limestone castle, which really isn’t a castle at all, but a prison. Old Joliet Prison was built by its own inmates, closing themselves in the walls with stone from the nearby quarry. It opened in 1858, with the Chicago Tribune promising “that there is growing a State work which will be for long years to come the pride of her citizens.” The glowing image of the prison didn’t last long, but the structure itself still stands, abandoned in 2002 after 144 years of housing some of the most notorious prisoners. You can visit the site and take a tour of the crumbling, gothic structure through the Old Joliet Prison Historic Site (jolietprison.org).
There have been more than a few ghosts that I’ve stumbled upon while exploring the massive stone prison. One of which is Odette Maizee Bordeaux Allen, or who many refer to as the Warden’s Wife, who was killed at the prison in 1915.
Odette had a career in singing before meeting Warden Edmund (Ned) Allen. They met at a conference on prisons, had a whirlwind romance, and married. Ned took Odette from her home in Los Angelos to Joliet where the prison would be their new home. They lived on the second floor of the administration building with a view of the prison yard from their living quarters.
Warden Ned believed in prison reform and was quite progressive in his treatment of prisoners in the early 1900s. He said, “There is some good in every man…and there exists some influence which will appeal to his heart and reason” (cited in Giddings, 2009, p.549). Prisoners with good behavior were assigned jobs and special privileges. His trust in the prisoners would soon lead to the death of his beloved Odette.
In June of 1915, the warden went to Chicago to meet with politicians about the building of a new prison. Odette was to join him there, but changed her plans when two dresses she wanted to wear weren’t completed on time. On the night of her death, she went to the movies with her two step children, driven by one of the prisoners. When they returned home, their living quarters were being attended to by house servants, also inmates of the prison.
The next morning, Odette called upon Joe Campbell, one of the servants that she had personally selected. Joe Campbell, or Chicken Joe as he was called in the prison, was a 29 year old black man who had been convicted of murder. He had earned his position as Odette’s personal servant through good behavior and was trusted by the warden. He was due for parole the next week and Odette had agreed to testify for him at his hearing. Things couldn’t have gone more wrong for Chicken Joe.
That morning, Odette asked Joe to fill her water container, and to get her coffee and a newspaper. To this, he obliged. She then asked him to take her puppy outside for a walk. About an hour later, smoke was seen coming from the second floor bedroom where Odette had been. Firefighters broke down the locked door and fought the blazing fire for ten minutes. When the flames were finally extinguished, Odette’s charred body lay on her bed. Investigators believed that she had been sexually assaulted and her skull had been crushed before the bed was set on fire. They immediately suspected Chicken Joe.
The other prisoners, who called Odette, “the good angel” and “the little mother at the big stir”, soon learned about the tragedy. They wanted justice for their “good angel” and soon were out in the prison yard rioting and shouting, “We Want Campbell!” Chicken Joe Campbell was sent to solitary confinement to avoid their retribution.
Chicken Joe claimed his innocence throughout the investigation of Odette’s murder. Even Warden Ned appeared uncertain about Joe’s involvement in the crime, stating to news reporters, “The man who killed my wife must die, but I must be sure that I have the right man.” The famous civil rights leader, Ida B. Wells, even went to visit Campbell in prison after reading about the case in a newspaper. She was convinced that Chicken Joe was innocent and sent her husband to Joliet to represent him. There was no conclusive evidence against Joe Campbell, but that didn’t matter to the prosecutors. Someone had to pay for the killing of “the good angel.” He was convicted of the murder and sentenced to die at the gallows. The governor intervened before Chicken Joe was hanged, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Chicken Joe maintained his innocence until his death in 1950 and the mystery of who killed Odette Allen was never solved.
Today, if you visit the prison, you just may also find the troubled soul of Odette Allen wandering the facility. Witnesses have heard footsteps walking through the halls and bedroom on the second floor of the administrative building where Odette once lived. Upon investigation, they find no source for the sounds. Odette has also been heard singing in the nearby prison cemetery. Her singing drew in as many as 5,000 people in one night in the 1930s. Hunters came with shotguns and knives ready to take the singing ghost down, but the source of the singing was never found. It seems to me that Odette is singing for “her boys” who attempted to honor her after her death through their good behavior.
During my investigation of the prison, Odette came through to me loud and clear through a spirit box. A spirit box is a type of ghost hunting technology that picks up EVPs (Electric Voice Phenomenon) by continuously scanning through AM and FM signals and high frequency synthetic noise. A spirit is able to use the frequencies transmitted to form words and communicate through the box. Odette first answered yes and no questions. She told us she was not a prisoner, guard, police officer, or worker at the prison. She then said, “wife.” When asked if she was the warden’s wife, she replied, “yes.” She also said, “murder,” “mother,” and “singing.” She did not respond when asked who killed her. The mystery continues…
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