Silhouette of Harriet Tubman Statue in Auburn, New York
Haunted History,  Upstate New York

Learn about the Ghosts of Auburn on this Haunted History Tour

An assassination attempt. The first electric chair. Strange visions. Most people recognize Auburn, New York as the home of famous activists and the site of many historic events. William Seward and Harriet Tubman called Auburn home. Many suffragists visited the city, fighting for women’s rights. But it also has a dark past. It was the site of an attempted murder on the same night Lincoln was assassinated. Auburn Prison was the first to use the electric chair. All those stories and more lead to a city that has many sordid stories to tell. So let’s take a journey through history and learn about the ghosts of Auburn.

Auburn Prison and the Ghosts who Haunt it

Have you ever wondered to yourself, “Why is Auburn known as Prison City?” Well it’s because the prison in Auburn is quite historic. And that history is quite morbid. Deadly.

When Auburn Prison was built in 1816, is was the second state prison in New York. But things were done differently there than anywhere else. Unlike the reform programs used at other correctional facilities, Auburn developed more of a… punishment system. Inmates were subject to penal labor, water boarding, and solitary confinement.

The toll of solitary confinement

In 1821, Warden William Brittin introduced solitary confinement to the prison. Inmates were forced into cells measuring 3.5 x 7.5 x 7 feet with no direct light or airflow. The first extended period of solitary confinement at Auburn prison included 83 men during Christmas of 1821. During that time 5 men died, including one who took his own life immediately upon release.

The execution of Albert Baham

In November 1849, Jewish peddler Nathan Adler was found murdered alongside a road south of Auburn. Over a year later, brothers Albert, Alfred, and John Baham were found guilty of the crime. Albert received the most serious of the punishments – death by hanging.

On the day of his execution, January 24, 1851, Albert threatened everyone witnessing his hanging. At the precise time of his death at 11:13am, a young female medium in attendance fainted. When she awoke, Albert’s spirit seemed to have possessed her, causing her to act erratically and thrash about. It wasn’t until another medium intervened that they were able to calm her down. Owen Davies & Francesca Matteoni reference this occurrence in great detail in their book Executing Magic in the Modern Era.

The invention of the electric chair

And then came the electric chair. The electric chair was invented in the late 1800s a little further west on the interstate in Buffalo. Of course, its invention came with much scrutiny and public opinion. But in the end, the electric chair was established as a form of capital punishment in New York State.

On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler was the first man to be subject to the electric chair. Witnesses say that the electrocution took 8 minutes and was more barbaric than if they had used an axe or a noose.

In the prison’s history, 55 inmates were sentenced to death by the electric chair. “State electrician” John Hulbert oversaw the majority of them. When the electric chair was moved to Sing Sing Prison in 1922, Hulbert helped install it and presided over multiple executions. But bearing witness to so many gruesome deaths takes its toll. On February 22, 1929, John Hulbert took his own life at his home in Auburn.

Framed piece of stone from the Auburn prison

The Seward Family Deaths… and Near-Deaths

The attempted assassination of William Seward

Many people know about William Seward through “Seward’s Folly”, his purchase of the Alaskan territory. But Seward had an impressive political career, serving as State Senator, Governor of New York, US Senator, and Secretary of State. He even ran a worthy campaign for President. He lost the 1860 election to a colleague and close friend, Abraham Lincoln.

Seward and Lincoln were closely tied throughout their careers, and allied on a variety of topics. In fact, they were so closely connected that they were both the victims of assassination plots. On the same fateful night that took Lincoln’s life at Ford Theatre in 1865, a second assassination attempt was made. In Auburn, New York. At the Seward family mansion.

William Seward and two of his sons were targeted that night by Lewis Powell, a colleague of John Wilkes Booth. Powell was sent to the Seward home in an attempt to murder the Secretary of State. Luckily for Seward, he had an attentive family and staff, who stalled his assailant. Though Powell did succeed in entering Seward’s bedroom and stabbed him several times. Seward’s sons William and Frederick both also sustained injuries that night. Fortunately, though some of the injuries were severe, all of the Seward men survived.

(There was actually supposed t be a third assassination attempt that same night. But instead of killing Vice President Andrew Johnson, George Atzerodt got drunk and wandered away from the intended location.)

Harriet Tubman’s vision

Of all the relationships throughout Auburn’s history, none is as consequential or as widely known as the friendship between Harriet Tubman and the Seward family. In both life and death. In fact, Harriet Tubman had a vision the night that Fanny Seward died. She pictured her riding off in a chariot. With Fanny in Washington DC, Harriet had no way of knowing that her friend was actually quite ill. Fanny died on October 29, 1866.

Haunted Tours in Auburn

Of course, these are not all of the ghost stories that Auburn has to tell. There are plenty more; these are just some of the most noteworthy stories. If you’d like to dive deeper into the stories and ghosts of Auburn, book a haunted history tour. Every October the staff at the Seward House Museum put on an excellent tour throughout Auburn.

This year’s tours are happening nightly from October 26 through October 30, at both 6 and 7pm. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under. Participants should expect to dress warm and wear comfortable shoes as the tour is exclusively outside.

As you walk the streets of Auburn at night, your guide will tell you stories about the Sewards and the inmates of Auburn prison. But you’ll also hear stories about the woman in the white dress. True crime from Auburn’s history. Victorian funeral practices. And so much more. Will you see or experience any of the ghosts of Auburn? You’ll have to take a tour to find out.

Tell me your thoughts!