Spooky Old City Jail in Charleston, SC

Spooky Old City Jail in Charleston, SC

Tours of the Old City Jail in Charleston, South Carolina deliver tales of the city’s dark history in the very halls of this (supposedly) haunted, historic landmark. This guided tour rates right up there with one of the BEST we have ever experienced.  So if you like history, with a side of SPOOKY, then this tour is made just for BOO – I mean, YOU!

Charleston Old City Jail
Mr. Jones outside the Charleston Old City Jail.

Conducted by Bulldog Tours, there are two different jail tours to choose from:

  1. The Charleston Jail History Tour meets daily at 10:30 a.m. for a two hour tour. This tour visits all three floors of the jail and our tour stretched to nearly THREE hours as our interpreter (named Joy) was FULL of information and anecdotes.  Afterwards, our small group of only four couples peppered her with questions that she was eager and pleased to answer.
  2. The Charleston Haunted Jail Tour meets every evening for tours at 7:00, 8:00, 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. This nighttime tour lasts only 45 minutes and is generally more crowded, with as many as twenty or so on each tour.  I have no clue which floors this tour explores as there is no STINKIN’ way I’m going in this creepy building after dark!  But the word is that this tour sticks to the lower floors.
Jail Tour sign
This is the daytime tour and it begins here – 21 Magazine St. at 10:30 a.m.

The tour begins on the sidewalk out front with a brief history about the jail – the building itself and an overview of why and for whom it was built.  The land where the jail stands today was a town square from the late 1600’s until 1802.  It was the location of an early hospital, a poor house, and a workhouse for runaway slaves known as the “sugar shack” (ANYTHING but sweet!).  The jail was built in 1802 and originally consisted of four stories and an octagonal-shaped tower. The fourth floor and tower were destroyed in an earthquake in 1886 and never restored.

Gate at City Jail
It creeps you out just looking through the gate!

The façade of the jail was constructed of bricks made by enslaved people in the Charleston area. Some of them contain the actual fingerprints of those who made the bricks, when they lifted them out of their molds before they were completely set. Bricks were considered to be the building material of the poor, so a layer of stucco was often slathered over the bricks and then the impression of concrete blocks was drawn into the stucco.

Outer bricks and stucco at jail.
See the lines drawn into the stucco?

The jail was eventually closed in 1939 due to continued inhumane conditions.  Over the course of its history more than 10,000 men, women and children died here and some put the number closer to 14,000.  The jail housed the city’s most notorious criminals, pirates, runaway slaves, Civil War POW’s, as well as numerous “ladies of negotiated affection” – if you know what I mean.  Many of these were guilty but many, maybe not.  Which brings us to the haunted aspect of the jail …

Cell at jail.
This is a replica of an actual cell.  About ten people would be squished in one cell.

It is the supposed troubled souls of the tormented and wrongly accused that still wander the dark halls and crumbling floors of the old jail. (If you believe this sort of thing).  Featured on television shows such as Ghost Hunters, The Travel Channel, and more – the supernatural activity in this building is reportedly off the hook – even touted as one of the most haunted spots in America.

Deadbolt
Sliding bolt on door.

Witnesses of eerie noises, mysterious footprints in the dust and unexplained swooshes of air and eerie sensations are regularly reported by employees of Bulldog Tours and visitors alike.  Items disappear and are found to have been moved to different locations on a regular basis.  Reportedly one of the favored items to be moved around is this creaky old wheelchair.  While Mr. Jones and I did not experience ANY of these unusual occurrences – the spooky stories certainly made for a fun and enjoyable visit – one that had me pretty jumpy!

Old wheelchair
WHY do they even have this here???

During your tour, your guide will regale you with spooky accounts of who these cantankerous spirits might be (they do this on both the daytime history tour AND the nighttime scary tour).  You will learn about scores of infamous inmates and jailers who lived within these walls – here are a few of my favorites:

ALONZO SMALL

Alonzo was a ten year-old boy who was held at the Old City Jail with the general population after hijacking a parked trolley and taking it for a joyride.  He crashed it into another trolley killing an innocent bystander.  It is believed that, on occasion, the child was perhaps allowed to play with the daughter of the warden who lived on property at the front of the jail.  It is not uncommon for visitors to report hearing a child’s laughter upon visiting the jail.

Stairway
Creepy stairway – looks like a great place for children to play.

GEORGE ROGERS CLARK TODD

Todd was a skilled surgeon during the Civil War who later worked as a physician to the prisoners at the Old City Jail.  Historical accounts of his time working at the jail tell us that he was unusually cruel, even performing torturous medical experiments on many of the prisoners!  And, did I mention, he was the brother of Mary Todd Lincoln – brother in law of President Abraham Lincoln?!?  Good grief.

Cell door
The doctor will see you now.

THE EXECUTIONER

The executioner for the Old City Jail was a citizen of Charleston who was known to drink excessively.  Prior to a scheduled execution, he was rounded up and thrown into solitary confinement at the jail to “dry him out” and get him sober before performing his duties.  It is reported that he was paid for his services with booze.  Late in his life he was asked if he drank because of the horrific services he performed, to which he replied, “Nope, I just like to drink.”  Yikes!

old keys
Let me out!!!

LAVINIA FISHER

The beautiful Lavinia Fisher is definitely the most talked about prisoner ever to be held at the Old City Jail.  Reputed to be America’s first female serial killer – Lavinia and her husband, John Fisher, were locked up at the old jail in 1819 until their executions in 1820.

The couple owned and operated an inn and tavern called Six Mile Wayfarers Inn located on the outskirts of Charleston.  There are several versions of the story, but the most popular is that the couple would entertain their guests with a cup of poisonous oleander tea.  The guest would retire for the night (and once asleep in a poisoned and weakened condition) the Fishers would pull a lever that dropped their victim out of their bed, through a trapdoor, and into a pit lined with sharp spikes below.  John and Lavinia would then rob their guests of their cash and belongings.

Lavinia Fisher
First Female Serial Killer?

As reports of missing travelers grew and the link to the Wayfarer’s Inn became more obvious – a trap was set to catch the murderous couple in the act.  They were soon caught robbing their guests, however, the rumored fifty or so men they were said to have killed is up for debate.  Unable to prove the murders, they were eventually arrested for “highway robbery” and served time in the Old City Jail until sentenced to “hang by the neck until dead”.

The spooky tale continues that Lavinia was hung while wearing her wedding dress.  Some say she was hung onsite at the jail while others report that she was hung in the center of the city – but no matter where, it is reported that hundreds bought tickets to witness her execution.

Noose
Freaky.

Lavinia always maintained her innocence and many believe she never participated and was nothing more than an accessory to the crime of robbery.  In her bitterness, when asked if she had any last words, she snarled at the crowd of morbid onlookers, “If any of you have a message for the devil, tell me now, because any minute I’ll be seeing him!”  And with that she jumped from the platform to her death – not wanting to give the jailers and executioner the satisfaction of doing her in!  Is that CREEPY or what?!?

jail door
Can’t you just hear it clang shut?

Upon visiting the room where Lavinia was jailed, visitors (usually men) report the sensation of a woman’s fingernails lightly scratching the back of their necks.  And, still today, the Charleston police receive calls reporting a woman seen from the windows outside and apparently needing help on the upper floors of the old jail.  The only problem?  Those windows are exposed to open areas where there are NO FLOORS!

As previously mentioned, the jail closed it 1939 – still with no electricity or plumbing. Today many of the cells, doors, deadbolts, and stairways remain intact.  The warden’s quarters at the front of the jail is eerily juxtaposed next to the jail and still maintains a weirdly “cheery” atmosphere in comparison to the stark conditions of the jail.  The rooms where the incarcerated lived, in deplorable and crowded conditions amid mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, lice and vermin of all sorts, definitely send a chill down your spine – whether you’re a “nonbeliever” like me – or you fully subscribe to the sort of paranormal activity that supposedly takes place here.

Jail with fall leaves.
Eerily beautiful. You think?

The property’s more recent history consists of its purchase in 1999 for $1 (yup – one dollar) by the American College for the Building Arts.  They installed a boatload of electrical outlets on the bottom floor – weirdly out of place in rooms that historically housed a morgue and solitary confinement.  They restricted their business to the first level, however, not disturbing the history (or spirits) found on the upper floors. And over the course of their occupancy performed architectural restorations and structural reinforcements without compromising the integrity or history of the building.

Carriage tour
Charleston Carriage tour passing by the Old Jail.

In 2016 the college sold to Landmark Enterprises Inc. with hopes of developing the old building into office space.  That would be a shame, indeed.  The original plans were to begin construction in early 2018. They have since cited some cost-prohibitive construction pertaining to the conversion and have agreed to let Bulldog Tours continue sharing its spooky history with Charleston visitors and adoring, ghost-hunting fans.

Rendering of new jail building.
Rendering of new building as of 7/2017.  Noooo!

So you see, the future of this eerie landmark is uncertain.  Personally, I would love to see it maintained as a museum – a place of learning – and a sobering reminder of the inhumane treatment of our ancestors by our ancestors.  And on your next visit to Charleston, you better book a tour of this historical locale (if you dare) – before it’s too late!  Contact Info: Charleston Old City Jail / 21 Magazine St., Charleston, SC 29401 / 843 722-8687 / www.bulldogtours.com/the-haunted-jail-tour/

Have YOU ever explored a so-called “haunted” building?  How about the Old City Jail in Charleston?  Tell us all about your visits in the comments below!

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