Danny Robins' paranormal cold cases: HMP Shepton Mallet
A prison open for four centuries is bound to have a few ghost stories, so BBC Radio’s Danny Robins heads to HMP Shepton Mallet to ask the burning questions
I’m in prison. It’s a crisp, dark night, the stars twinkle above me in the West Country sky and I am standing in the courtyard of HMP Shepton Mallet, formerly the oldest working prison in the UK until it finally closed its doors in 2013. Its most famous former residents were the Kray twins. There’s talk of the prison buildings being redeveloped as apartments, but, until then, Shepton Mallet is open to the public as a macabre tourist attraction.
I’m here in response to an email I received from Paul Toole, the site manager. He told me he had been injured at work and showed me a photograph of a wound on his hand. But what bothered him was that the person he thought was to blame had been dead nearly 80 years, having been executed here in 1942. Yep, that got my attention…
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If ghosts do exist, Shepton Mallet feels exactly the sort of place you’d find them. The prison opened in 1625 and over the centuries it developed a reputation as a place of unusually brutal punishment. As Paul leads me by torch light through the dark corridors of A Wing, he tells me how an official investigation was launched back in the 1950s when warders refused to work at night after allegedly spotting a ‘white lady’, rumoured to be the spirit of an 18th-century female inmate who had murdered her fiancé. Her final wish before her execution was to put on her wedding dress.
But this is not the ghost I’m interested in. Paul believes his injury is linked to a more recent part of the prison’s history. During World War II, Shepton Mallet was commandeered as an American military prison and housed more than 700 GIs who had committed crimes on British soil, 18 of whom were executed. Of those hanged or shot, 10 were black and three were Hispanic, at a time when the army was 90 per cent white. The trials often lasted just one day and were conducted in secret using unreliable or biased evidence. It’s hard not to conclude that this was a racially motivated injustice.
One last cigarette
Paul’s torch illuminates our way into ‘the hanging shed’, the room where the GIs met their ends. The air feels thick and oppressive. Then he tells me the story of how, a few weeks before, he decided to tell a tour party he was leading the story of a black GI named Private Lee Davis. Paul was recounting the young man’s final words, when suddenly: “I had a searing pain in my left hand. I looked down and it was red raw.” He shows me his hand, which looks like it bears a cigarette burn.
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Paul is convinced there’s a link. He’s been profoundly struck by the stories of the GIs and worries that the tours have somehow reanimated unhappy memories of the room; as if the pain and fear of the GIs has broken through into our present to the extent that Lee Davis’ last cigarette as he stood at the gallows was actually responsible for burning Paul.
So, what do I believe? I’ve heard it said that you die twice: once when you stop breathing and once when people stop saying your name. Undoubtedly these wronged men do live on at Shepton Mallet. Whether you believe that’s as spirits walking the corridors or just in the words of Paul and his fellow guides, I’ll leave you to judge, but it feels important that their stories still haunt us today.
This article was first published in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed