Let the spirits move you

A number of years ago, the History Channel’s smash series Haunted History deemed Fort Mifflin "one of the most haunted places in Philadelphia."

"If the History Channel says you’re haunted, you’re haunted," laughs fort director Fran McFadden.

As if the 225-year-old fortress needed the TV channel’s validation!

Throughout its long and turbulent past, reports of paranormal activity have run rampant at the fort.

Most of the buzz has come from those with a firsthand knowledge of the place — the fort’s own employees.

Just ask office manager Lorraine Irby and her caretaker husband, Wayne. Both willingly attest that more than a few things go bump in the night — and the day, too, for that matter.

The building that is now the main office used to be the hospital. On more than one occasion in the decade Irby has worked for the fort — near the airport in Southwest Philly — she’s heard furniture moving on the second floor. Nobody is up there, and the doors are always locked for security reasons, Irby notes.

There’s an even more unnerving tale concerning the second floor that originated with a former Fort Mifflin director. The drawers of the director’s desk and credenza would fly open on their own while she was sitting there.

Irby chalks up the unexplained occurrences in the office building to resident ghost Edward — a docile spirit who likes to pull pranks on people. "He’s kind of like a poltergeist. He used to be the caretaker of the hospital," the office manager says.

The encounters with the unexplained have not scared Irby or her husband away from their beloved workplace. "I believe there are ghosts here, but they don’t frighten me," says Irby, who spends much time alone in the fortress.

There is, however, one spot in the fort where Irby will not go. One day, she ventured into the powder magazine (a large exterior mound of earth leading to a room where gunpowder used to be stored) and got what she describes as a "cold chill" that stood the hairs of her neck on end.

"That’s not like me at all. I had to get out of there," she says. "I just feel like something very evil happened in there. I won’t go in there again."

Fort Mifflin is creepy enough on any given day, but during the Halloween season, the place takes on a whole new chilling dimension. After a year’s hiatus, the fort’s Fright Fest is back with a vengeance. Weekly ghost-hunting tours in November are also expected to scare up the past. Lew Gerew, president and cofounder of the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters’ Alliance, will conduct the tours.

"It’s ridiculous of us not to take advantage of the haunted history — tie in history with the ghosts. It’s a really nice marriage," says fort director McFadden.

Fright Fest is an hour-long tour of the haunted Revolutionary War fort. Guests traverse five historic buildings, led by a tour guide who spins spine-tingling documented ghost stories in the blacksmith shop, dungeon casemates and dark chamber of the powder magazine.

"Instead of having people jump out and say, ‘Boo!’ we kind of go by our history," Irby says. "We incorporate our history and our own resident ghosts and talk to people about them in first person. People want to hear about the ghosts that we have and that’s what we give them."

Fright Fest caps off with a walk through a terrifying maze — but only for those who dare. Located in the shed, the maze is not for the weak of heart, and a sign posted outside warns as much. Thrill-seekers must find their way through a pitch-dark labyrinth chock full of eerie sounds with creatures and objects popping out at them. Irby calls this year’s maze the best and most intense so far.

"You have to rely more on your senses than visual," she adds.

Fright Fest is Fort Mifflin’s major fundraising event and, this year, the venue is boosting its promotional tie-ins. Radio station 94.1 WYSP is hosting a Fright Fest giveaway and Yards Brewing Company is debuting two Revolutionary ales that use authentic recipes brewed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Visitors will get to enjoy a beer while they take the tour.

Gerew’s ghost-hunting tours start in front of the main office. Fort Mifflin’s resident ghost hunter leads visitors through the fortress as he talks about some of the more popular spirits on site. Perhaps one of the most well-documented apparitions is one dubbed the "Civil War Tour Guide," who seems to think he works at the fort. Numerous visitors have spotted this restless spirit over the years, offering tours of the dungeon. Then there’s Elizabeth Pratt: known as the screaming lady of Fort Mifflin, the Faceless Man and Jacob the Blacksmith.

Several years ago, Gerew identified a child ghost, Amanda. Irby doesn’t know much about the ghost except that she allegedly likes to hang out in the shed — where the maze is set up.

One time, Amanda supposedly appeared to two visitors taking a self-guided tour of the fort. At the completion of the tour, the couple reported to Irby that they heard a little girl’s voice around the shed call out, "Mooooom- mmeeeeee." The two were the only visitors in the fort at the time, and there were no children, Irby notes. The office manager thinks Amanda may have been connected to Pratt somehow.

Ghosts and Fort Mifflin seem to go hand in hand. After all, like at Brandywine Battlefield and Gettysburg, many a battle was fought on these grounds. In November 1777, the British Navy executed the greatest naval bombardment of the Revolutionary War, waging an almost six-week siege on the Continental troops stationed at Fort Mifflin. The lengthy battle stalled the Redcoats, enabling Gen. Washington time to install his troops for the brutal cold winter at Valley Forge.

"It’s one of the oldest places in Philadelphia, and if [hauntings] are going to happen anywhere, it’s going to be here," McFadden says. "Many people don’t realize that Fort Mifflin was a battlefield. People fought and died here. It has all the elements in place to have that type of thing going on."

Fright Fest’s doors open at 6:30 p.m. and tours begin at 7, leaving every 10 minutes until 10 tonight and 11 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children under 12. Ghost-hunting tours will be held Nov. 6, 13 and 20. Tickets are $15 per person. For more information, call 215-685-4167.