Dropping us off outside the main entrance to Pentridge Prison in Coburg, our cab driver shares an anecdote about booting footballs over the imposing grey walls with his mates as a lad.
“It used to drive the guards mad,” he says wryly. “The balls could’ve had knives attached to them.”
It’s understandable that the wardens might have been a bit antsy, given that since its doors clanged open in 1850, this prison has hosted a who’s who of historical baddies, including bushranger escapee Harry Power, gangster Squizzy Taylor, serial killer Peter Dupas, ‘Building Society Bandit’ Gregory David Roberts (who wrote the book Shantaram about his escape) and one Chopper Read. It was here, notes Jacqui Travaglia – the co-owner of Lantern Ghost Tours – that Chopper convinced fellow inmates to hack his ears off, so that he might be transferred to a lower security division, and was eventually stabbed by his own Overcoat Gang. (If you’re of the mind that a ghost tour detailing the recently deceased Chopper is ghoulish, which she concedes some people might be, we say consider the forthcoming Chopper the Musical!)
It’s still perplexing to most Coburg locals that this grim structure has in part been turned into a modern housing development since the prison shut down in 1997, but Travaglia and her partner Andrew Wishart have a passion for preserving history and so are pleased that the imposing D Division still stands. It has been taken over by Pentridge Prison Events, which throws fashion shows and corporate parties within its thick walls; in fact, there are remnants of burst balloons not far from the noose that hangs in the centre of the block. They invited Lantern Ghost Tours to set up and investigate the stranger goings on.
Dozens of prison wardens, and even a governor, have seen a fog that looks like a woman’s form – early prisoners did include women. More recently, a security guard was patrolling with his dog and noticed a silhouette. When he approached his dog recoiled and whimpered, and now refuses to go in at all. Workers setting up events have also reported unexplained noises.
Historical records show that 44 bodies were buried inside the prison – upright with their backs to the sun, so that they could never rest – including Ned Kelly, whose bones (minus the missing skull) have been exhumed and returned to his ancestors.
It’s all par for the course for Travaglia and Wishart, who have long since given up their day jobs and made Lantern their only focus. Their Victorian tours include the J Ward Lunatic Asylum in Ararat, Williamstown Morgue, Newport Substation, Altona Homestead, Point Cook Homestead – all narrated by actors in character – and there are a few in the Gold Coast. Actor Jeremy Kewley, last seen in Underbelly Files: Tell Them Lucifer Was Here, will lead the two-hour Pentridge tour.
“We spend a lot of time conducting historical research, trying to put together scripts, and also interviewing people who’ve had ghostly or paranormal encounters,” says Travaglia – and you can see these on their YouTube channel.
Whether you’re interested in Melbourne’s criminal history or fancy yourself as a ghostbuster, the beauty of Lantern tours are that they cater to both parties. Fittingly, the Pentridge tours begin on Friday 13th December. Chop chop…
THREE GHOSTS BEST AVOIDED:
Self-mutilator David was incarcerated longer than anyone in the history of the Victorian prison system, and used this time to write torture threats to those on the outside. He’s thought to have cut off 74 parts of his body, including his penis while at Pentridge. He died after ingesting razor blades.
The Pettingill clan
The inspiration for the film Animal Kingdom, two of the family served here – Denis ‘Mr Death’ Allen, for the rape and murder of 15 people, including the dismembering of a Hells Angel biker with a chainsaw, and younger brother Victor George Pierce, for drug trafficking.
Edward Joseph Leonski
During World War II, this American soldier killed women during the ‘brownout’ periods of low lighting enforced on the city. It earned him the mantle of the ‘Brownout Strangler’ and a hanging at Pentridge in 1942.