In the 137 years that the building was in operation, it not only served as a jail, but also, an asylum, housing a great variety of inmates, including John and Lavinia Fisher. In the early part of the 1800’s, numerous high-sea pirates were jailed here, and after Denmark Vesey’s planned slave revolt in 1822, hundreds were incarcerated awaiting their trails. Vesey, a freed slave, planned an insurrection that called for free blacks to assist hundreds of slaves to kill their owners and temporarily seize the city of Charleston before sailing away to Haiti. However, the plot was leaked and hundreds of blacks were arrested in the conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey. Increased restrictions were afterwards placed on slaves and free blacks, including a law that all black seaman be kept at the jail while they were in port. During the Civil War, both Confederate and Federal prisoners of war were incarcerated here.
Though the jail was intended to hold around 128 prisoners, over the years, as many as 300 people were often incarcerated at one time. In some rooms, prisoners were locked in cages, barely the size of a person’s body. Disease, torture, and violence within the walls of this historic building were rampant and an estimated 10,000 people died on the property during its operation. The jail was finally closed in 1939 and for the next 61 years it sat abandoned. However, in 2000, the American College of the Building Arts acquired the Old City Jail building and immediately established a stabilization program. Today, the Old City Jail is an official “Save America’s Treasures” project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and efforts to restore and maintain the building are ongoing.
Reports of strange occurrences began with the restoration efforts in 2000. One of the first reports was workers finding footprints in the dust after the building had been locked off for months due to lead paint contamination. More and more anomalies occurred as preservation continued and the building was opened for tours.
Several apparitions have been reported including several workers who saw the ghost of a jailer with a rifle on the third floor. The phantom was said to have passed through the bars heading toward them before it vanished. Others have reported seeing a black man in ragged clothing wandering aimlessly in the halls. Thought to be the spirit of a former slave, the man is seemingly unaware of the living or his surroundings. But, the Old Jail’s most famous ghost is that of the cruel killer, Lavinia Fisher. Several who have visited the historic building, often claim to have seen the woman in her wedding dress, describing it as being bright red and white.
Strange sounds are heard throughout the building including the hum of a dumbwaiter moving through the floors, even though it hasn’t been operational in years. Alarms are said to go on and off randomly.
For others, their experiences have been physical. Visitors and employees alike have complained of a choking feeling and shortness of breath while on the main staircase. Others report being grabbed, pushed, touched and scratched by unseen forces. A tour guide tells a story of feeling a rope wrap around her ankle and a man in the basement had his sunglasses knocked of by a violent, unseen force.
Other strange happenings also allegedly occur, such as terrible odors that are so bad as to make people feel ill. Others report feelings of being watched. In the basement, even though the temperatures may be quite warm, visitors have seen their breath come out in a cloud of fog. Doors are found open after being closed.
Access to the jail is limited, and most easily accessed through various ghost tour companies in Charleston. The Old City Jail is located at 21 Magazine & 17 Franklin Streets.
There are a number tales that Lavinia also haunts the Unitarian Cemetery, where some sources say she was buried. This; however is very unlikely as there was a Potter’s Field Cemetery next to the jail at the time, where most criminals were buried if their bodies weren’t claimed by family members. Additionally, church records have been searched, indicating no evidence that she was buried there. This tale has likely been perpetuated by tour guides.
Update September 2012: The television show Ghost Hunters season premier featured a visit to the old Charleston Jail, where a skeptical camera operator experienced the scratches first hand, which were visible on camera.