Cheré Dastugue Coen
Thousands haunt Charleston's Old City Jail
Concrete monstrosity holds many secrets
The hour was late, it was dark and no one walked the streets of Charleston in this area of the historic city — not even on a lovely springtime Friday evening. Nothing spooked us, however, until we turned the corner and spotted the Old City Jail, a three-story massive structure that easily raised hairs on the back of our necks. Bulldog Tours staff members stood sentinel outside the Old City Jail, otherwise we might have turned tail and ran.
Bulldog offers ghost tours nightly at the historic jail located at 21 Magazine Street. This monstrosity was built in 1802 on what was once Potter's Field, according to Sean, our ghost guide for the evening. So while there were numerous deaths inside the old jail (we'll get to that in a minute), there were dead people beneath our feet as well. Apparently, indigent and John Doe's found dead on the streets of old Charleston were buried on this spot. And, in addition to the jail housing criminals, the Union Army took over the place during the Civil War and housed prisoners of war inside while hundreds of Union soldiers camped out in the yard.
Here's why it's haunted - the giant building had no electricity, running water and other necessities to make life bearable so many inmates died within its walls. Sean claims 14,000 died here. That's quite a number. And many died of starvation, dehydration and sometimes murder by the hands of other inmates.
There are numerous stories about the old jail, including one regarding Lavina Fisher and her husband John, who were arrested and convicted, along with other members of her gang, of highway robbery. The charge was a capital offense and the couple sentenced to hang. John claimed he was innocent but forgave the executioners, Sean told us, but Lavina didn't go down so easily. She ranted and raved all the way to the top of the gallows. The legend has it that she told the minister, "If you want a message to send to hell, give it to me and I'll carry it." Sean believes the truth is less dramatic, that Lavina wasn't cursing out the executioners but rather calmed down and uttered a similar phrase believing she might actually be heading in that direction.
Regardless, Lavina Fisher supposedly haunts the jail.
There's some nasty folks haunting the third floor, including a guy Sean names Hank. One notorious fellow pushed a tour guide down the stairs, sending her to the ER. And some believe convicted pirates might be hovering about. On the ground floor a visitor caught a particularly spooky shadow figure floating across his camera.
By the tour's end my companion and I hadn't seen or heard a ghost but we certainly didn't mind leaving that creepy place. I did get a nice solid orb on one photo (at right). You be the judge.
The Old City Jail, by the way, closed in 1939. It had a long history, from the time of Thomas Jefferson's presidency to World War II.
Love Southern ghost stories? I've written "Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana" with The History Press.