Old Charleston Jail: criminal, pirates and war prisoners~7 min read
When one thinks of haunted locations, the first thing that comes to mind are houses, usually followed by cemeteries. However, another type of location that should also come to mind are prisons.
The stories of prison in the United states are deeply woven into America’s fabric, and quintessentially depicted in films like Cool Hand Luke and Escape From Alcatraz, and immortalized in songs like Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.”
In any case, for those who survived prison, for them the triumph is a hollow victory, they are in fact forever cursed with the label of convict, and the scars of the nightmare life from behind bars. But, for those who never again got the chance to breathe air as a free person, their souls in the afterlife are doomed to haunt the grounds of their captivity for eternity.
Located on Magazine Street downtown, in one of the oldest parts of Charleston, South Carolina, lies the Old Charleston Jail.
Built in 1802 and operated until 1939, it hosted its variety of notorious criminals over the years, not to mention a slew of Civil War prisoners and those caught up in the slave revolts of the time and 19th-century pirates.
Given this distinguished guest list it is not hard to believe that the Old Charleston Jail is haunted. Just ask anyone who has visited the place.
In any case, although it has become a popular tourist destination in recent years, it remains one of the most notable historic sites in Charleston.
Once the jail was completed, it stood at an amazing height of four stories, and featured an octagonal tower. A little over 50 years later the jail would undergo a remodelling process in which it gain an additional wing. The expansion and new Romanesque Revival style of the prison was designed by the Charleston architectural duo of Louis J. Barbot and John H. Seyle. However, three decades later, the earthquake of 1886 damaged the prison so severely that many of the improvements made by the two had to be removed.
In its “heyday” the Old Charleston Jail was not only used to house violent criminals, but it was also used as a place to execute them.
Still today, out in the jail’s backyard visitors can see the remnants of the old gallows, including the small shed that was used to hide the iron weight that served to break the neck of the condemned man unlucky enough to find himself on the wrong end of the rope.
Here, instead of falling through a trap door like with most gallows of the time, the condemned man stood on the ground with the noose around his neck. A trap door underneath the iron weight was then triggered and the falling weight did the dirty work. Interestingly, a great skill on the part of the executioner had to be employed when choosing the amount of slack played out in the rope, that had to be based on the weight of the person being hanged. Too much slack and the iron weight would yank the head clean off of the condemned man, which tended, of course, to horrify the onlookers. On the other hand, too little slack and the weight would not do its job in a humane way, resulting in the poor condemned man suffocating while he danced on the end of the rope. Again this tended, of course, to horrify the onlookers.
One of the most notorious criminals hosted at the Old Charleston Jail was a woman by the name of Lavinia Fischer, who is believed by many to be the first female serial killer in the United States.
At least the first one ever caught, anyway.
Little information is actually known about her backstory, but it is believed that she had lived in America for most of her life. What is known for certain is that she went on to marry a man by the name of John Fisher, and they became popular after their arrest and conviction.
They were owners of the Charleston inn, the Six Mile Wayfarer House. During their era of managing the inn, in the early part of the nineteenth century, reports of guests disappearing commonly made their way to the sheriff. But, despite these complaints no action against the couple was taken at first, as Lavinia and John were popular and highly regarded amongst most locals.
However, their status didn’t stop the stories from coming out, rumors of how Lavinia would invite traveling businessman to the inn for dinner, and then would precede to ask the individual questions regarding their job to ascertain how much money they had on their person. As story goes, after dinner, Lavinia would give the traveler a cup of tea, spiked with poison. Once the traveler had drank their tea, and retired to their room for the night. John would then enter the traveler’s room, where he would stab the person in their weakened state, then steal all of the belongings, later disposing of the body.
In another and more horror-movie-like tale, Lavinia would give the travelers a cup of tea, made only to send the recipient into a deep sleep. Once the traveler had passed out on the bed for the night, she would pull a special lever that would cause the bed to collapse, dropping the traveler into a pit filled with spikes.
Amazing rumors of the time have made it virtually impossible in deducing what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the Fishers and their activity at the Six Mile Wayfarer House.
In any case, Lavinia and her husband John were both convicted of highway robbery, which at the time was a capital offense, and hanged in 1820. According to the legend, her last words were, “If anyone has a message for the devil, tell me and I’ll deliver it myself.” Despite the legends differ as to whether or not Lavinia Fischer ever actually killed anyone, and although she was interred at nearby Potter’s Field (now MUSC), she is widely believed to haunt the jail, where she was held for a year before her execution.
The Jail was active also after the discovery of Denmark Vesey’s planned slave revolt. Although the main trials were held elsewhere, some slaves were briefly held in the Jail, and four white men convicted of supporting the 1822 plot were imprisoned here. Legend has that Vesey himself spent his last days in the tower before being hanged, although no extant document indicates this version of story.
In any case, increased restrictions were placed on slaves and free blacks in Charleston as a result of the Vesey plot, and law required that all black seaman be kept here while they were in port.
It has been speculated that as many as 10,000 people, or more, have lost their lives here during the jail’s operation, and some graffiti can still be seen in upstairs cells, etched into the damp prison walls.
The building was purchased by the Housing Authority of Charleston in 1939 after the jail closed. It remained empty during the following decades until the American College of the Building Arts acquired it in 2000. The college was founded in 1998 and relocated in 2016 to a restored trolley barn on upper Meeting Street.
Still today, most of the building’s original structures — like the cells and warden’s quarters — remain intact. Years ago my family and I visited the Old Charleston Jail on one of the ghost tours operated in the area. The prison is believed in fact to be haunted by the ghost of inmates who died during their incarceration. Lost Souls lingering and lurking around every corner, spirits of not only murderers and pirates, but of the wrongfully convicted, prisoners of war and slaves.
As with any ghost tour there were strange sounds and, of courae, the tour guide’s job was to entertain us. He succeeded greatly at it, scaring me and my brothers out of their wits even though we knew that any real ghosts would not be so punctual as to show up during a ghost tour. But as we walked through the darkened hallways of that old jail, we asked ourselves what it would be like to be alone in those rooms in the dead of night, without tour guide and no one else around.
Strange enough, there have been many happenings that have occurred over the years at the Old Charleston Jail, and one of the first modern day reported encounters took place when the prison was undergoing renovations in the year of 2000.
The prison had been sealed off for months to avoid lead paint contamination, and apparently when the construction workers returned they discovered that in the dust there were human footprints.
But, nothing quite like one night, when they saw the ghost of a former prison guard with rifle in hand, patrolling the third floor of the jail.
Some of the other, more common ongoings within the Old Jail, include the sounds of the no longer operational dumbwaiter moving between the floors and vanishing items.
Author’s notes: bear in mind, people who have walked to the Jail have been known to state about being touched or grabbed by an unknown presence. Others, have experience unexplained scratches. You’ve been warn.
Images from web – Google Research