We all stepped down into the pitch-dark, damp room and suddenly, unexpectedly, my hair stood on end. A deep, abiding sense of dread filled me. It might have been that the temperature was a little colder in there, or it might have been that I had psyched myself up to have such an experience. But I had walked through almost all of the old structure on the Haunted Jail tour with no other feeling like that. When the tour guide announced a few moments later that this was the room with the most reported hauntings and ghost sightings in the old jail, I shivered again.
Bulldog Tours offers a guided, nighttime tour of the Old City Jail in Charleston. I wanted to go because I am fascinated by the history of the building. And it is quite a history. Built in 1802, the jail was in use until 1939. The jail housed the very last of the pirates who once plundered Charleston, Union Army prisoners of war during the Civil War, and Denmark Vesey, who famously planned a foiled slave revolt in 1822. And as the tour made clear, the conditions there were absolutely awful.
Because there was no glass in the windows then, the weather blew in. Because there was no plumbing, the stench of excrement filled the overcrowded rooms. There was no air conditioning, of course, and anyone who has spent a humid summer day in Charleston can appreciate what that would have meant then, as you stood crammed in a suffocating room with dozens of other people. This is to say nothing of the types of punishment and discipline used at the prison in that brutal time, gruesome punishments the tour guide described in detail as we stood in the engulfing darkness. You can't help but imagine what it must have been like in there 200 years ago while on the tour.
The building is an intimidating, thick-walled, castle-like structure. Not a fairy-tale castle, mind you. A squat, hulking, early medieval fortress surrounded by a walled jail yard. The tour begins outside, and even before you enter the building, the creepiness and, to be honest, the sadness of the building begin to prickle your skin. But maybe that's just me.
My 10-year-old son wanted to go because he's been fascinated with ghost tours ever since our first one in Georgetown. The Old City Jail is said to be extremely haunted. The guide told dozens of stories of people who had been touched (and in some cases, manhandled) by angry spirits. Some tour guides, in fact, refuse to lead tours in the jail anymore.
My son was hoping to feel a ghost, or at the very least, capture the image of a spirit on camera. He enthusiastically took dozens of photos, seemingly immune to the sad history around us. But, no luck. (Or, in fact, perhaps that was lucky, considering the behavior of some ghosts the guide told us about.)
So we left with no picture of a spectral orb but with a great history lesson and an undeniable case of the chills. The Haunted Jail tour of the Old City Jail shows you another, less-known side of the Holy City, and one worth seeking out.
Insider Tip: This tour is not appropriate for young children. The tour guide pulls no punches in describing jailhouse conditions, the number of inmates who died or punishments meted out. If you have older kids who are interested in horror movies, ghosts or the darker side of history, you'll find no better tour.