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South Carolina

Wander the Haunted Halls of Old Charleston Jail

Located in the heart of Charleston’s historic center on Magazine Street, the decrepit walls of Old Charleston Jail stand out like a ruined gothic castle amongst the quaint beauty of the city. If these ancient walls could talk you could only imagine the kinds of stories they would tell you about the numerous convicts and prisoners who lived and died here cramped within their tiny stone cells as the world passed them on outside. In operation, for well over a century the old prison walls have witnessed the development of the nation that constructed it, the war that almost split it into two, a world war, and the start of another one before finally being decommissioned in 1939.

Throughout its tenure as a prison complex, the Old Charleston Jail held numerous prisoners in its impenetrable stone belly including the city’s most notorious murderers, pirates, and thieves. Among the first of these infamous residents was alleged serial killer Lavina Fisher. Fisher along with her husband supposedly lured lonely travelers to their hotel, poisoned them, and robbed them for all they were worth before disposing of their bodies. Although unproven, contemporary accounts of the time allege that Lavina may have been the one responsible for a string of mysterious disappearances in the area. Even though she may have gotten away with being America’s first female serial killer, Fisher’s crimes eventually caught up with her and she was tried alongside her husband and accomplices for highway robbery and she was convicted and hanged in 1820.

Another notable resident of the time was Denmark Vesey. Originally born into slavery in Bermuda he made his way to the United States, purchased his freedom, and lived and worked as a skilled carpenter in the city. Vesey was an important church leader and African American community organizer who led a successful business. Shortly after purchasing the freedom of his wife and children tragedy would strike the Vesey family. For several years Denmark had met with slaves in secret meetings and would strategically plan to help others win their freedom. Tensions began to rise between the church Vesey founded with the rest of Charleston and an alleged plot was discovered that showed Denmark was planning on leading a revolt of thousands of slaves across numerous plantations. Vesey was tried and convicted of his plot after two slaves reported alerted the plan to their masters. He was brought to the Old Charleston Jail along with his accomplices where he spent long hours staring outside the windows of the prison’s octagonal towers before tragically being hanged in 1822.

As the city of Charleston began to expand rapidly over the economic boom of the mid-nineteenth century there was a growing need to expand the jail to house the growing number of criminals. The jail would gain many of its most iconic features during an 1850s renovation by architects Barbot and Seyle who added many Neo-Romanesque features and completed an additional wing to house the newly arrived convicts. As the Civil War broke out in 1861 and split the nation in two, Charleston proved to be an important economic and strategic city for the Confederacy. The jail would begin to house numerous captured Union soldiers and officers who could only wait in anticipation from inside the stone walls for the war to eventually come to a steady end. After the Civil War, the jail went back to housing the city’s convicts for approximately fifty more years. As the city continued to expand in the twentieth century the need to maintain such an elaborate but relatively small prison proved to be too expensive and inefficient for the city to continue to support. In 1939 the Old Charleston Jail was decommissioned and the remaining convicts were transferred to a larger facility. Numerous plans were drafted on what to do with the old building but none were ever brought to fruition and it sat empty for well over sixty years before efforts began to restore it was started in the early 2000s.

Today the old jail has gained a reputation as both one of the most haunted locations in the city and one of the most fun to see and explore, especially when attending a Continuing Education Company’s CME conference held in Charleston or on nearby Kiawah Island. Featured on numerous television programs the haunting walls of this two-hundred-year-old building would be the perfect place to explore at the end of the day if you’re looking for something fun and thrilling to do. Bulldog Tours offers a complete behind the scenes and exciting tour of the Old Charleston Jail. Their expert guides take you through the restored portions of the prison where you’ll get to see and learn about the history of the prison’s old inhabitants. Take a journey through the old warden’s quarters, through the traitorously winding staircases of the tight stone towers, and through the cramped quarters of the prison cells where you can only imagine what it was like to spend decades your life staring at the old stone walls. You’ll learn all about the prison’s most infamous residents and the ghost stories locals whisper to one another about the spirits who allegedly still wander the prison halls looking for rest they’ll never find. Bring along your camera and a healthy dose of imagination and you’re sure to make thrilling vacation memories that will last you a lifetime.


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