Built in 1802, this imposing and gothic building sits silently, remembering the souls who passed through its doors for penal punishment, but not all of those souls have moved on. With gorgeous architecture still standing after 200 years, this prison saw the likes of serial killers, confederate prisoners, and pirates. Eventually, the dark and foreboding Old Charleston Jail would become a museum with a delightful gift shop, but that’s the only delightful thing about this building’s history.
The haunting of this prison is far from a secret, with television crews and ghost hunters spending nights behind bars, looking for paranormal activity. If any place were to have a few surprises at night, this one would be it. Renovated several times over the years, even the construction workers were frightened of the paranormal happenings they witnessed. One worker claimed to have found bare, human footprints in the dust as they were working on the inside of the building. It had been sealed off from any visitors during this time.
History for this prison runs 200 years deep, with famous incarcerees including the Fishers, known to many as the first serial killers in the US. Lavinia and her husband John were accused of highway robbery, but the urban legends say that dozens of patrons of the Six Mile Wayfarer house went missing and were likely murdered by the couple. In front of the old Charleston jail in 1820, gallows were erected to put the couple to death. Lavinia Fisher used her final breath as she was being hanged to say “If any of you have a message for the devil, tell me now, for I shall be seeing him shortly.” She then jumped from the gallows, hanging herself before the executioner pulled the lever to drop her to her death. The spirit of Lavinia Fisher is said to still haunt the Old Charleston Jail, being one of the most active spirits behind the bars and tall walls of the prison.
Civil War prisoners of war were incarcerated here as well, and rumors say several people met the end of a noose the same way the Fishers did, but their accusations included piracy on the open seas near Charleston. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free man of color, would be incarcerated here, accused of planning a slave revolt. Many accused of piracy on the high seas also found their new home in the Old Prison, including Jacque Alexander Tardy, known as the most evil pirate in the Atlantic ocean, who was executed in 1817 for his crimes.
Spirits still said to wander the halls include the famous incarcerees as well as unknown spirits that haunt the halls and appear, occasionally, in photographs taken by tourists and investigators alike. Many stories say that objects in the prison will move or disappear on their own. Occasionally, cell doors with heavy bars might slide closed on their own. Some even say the hairs on the back of their neck would stand at attention when merely walking past the old prison, with the spooky atmosphere reported by more than just the tourists visiting the city.
The ghosts of Lavinia and John Fisher are the most famous spirits that make themselves known. The two of them have been captured together as full-body apparitions within the jail’s walls. Unexplained scratches sometimes appear on the skin of those wandering through the prison, and more than once, objects have been seen flying and hitting the wall with an unseen hand angrily throwing it. While no tours are currently given at the prison, those with permission to investigate have found plenty of haunting evidence to conclude that the imposing building has more than a few spirits in the mortar.
A current renovation project is taking place at the old prison, which was used as a college out building for decades before being sold in 2016. The National Trust for Historic Preservation considers the prison to be warranted a place as a National Historic Landmark, and efforts are ongoing to preserve the jail for years to come. Maybe someday, it will open to the public and the ghostly prisoners may have their time to shine.
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Born in Death Valley and raised on the prairie, Deborah is a Wyoming-based paranormal researcher and a senior at the University of Wyoming, studying Communication. Her interests lie in folklore, history, rhetorical analysis and research. With an obvious love for ghost stories, frequently those interests combine with her work on Ghostlandia.