Old City Jail
21 Magazine Street
Charleston, South Carolina
N.B. This article was edited and revised 30 June 2019.
Zak Bagans of the Travel Channel’s paranormal show, Ghost Adventures, described the history of the South’s most genteel port city, Charleston, as “just layers and layers on the dark history cake.” It’s certainly an interesting analogy, though I must confess that I often find Mr. Bagans’ antics annoying. In fact, I have been known to refer to his team’s techniques as the “ADHD method of ghost hunting.” However, I am excited to see they are investigating Charleston’s Old City Jail.
Back in July, my love affair with Charleston was rekindled when I spent nearly a week there. I spent my days wandering the streets making a pilgrimage to sites that I’ve spent years reading about, including the Old City Jail. The building is a massive, looming structure that seems to glower down upon anyone passing along Magazine Street. If a building could threaten someone, this building would threaten a horrible, miserable death. Staring up at the crenellated turrets, decaying bricks, windows like empty eye sockets, and the massive and thick brick walls, it’s hard to imagine this place could not be haunted. The memory of it sends a chill up my spine.
For 137 years, 1802 to 1939, this hulking castle groaned with the cries of prisoners. The property upon which the building was constructed had originally been set aside for public use in 1680, and contained, at various times, a hospital, and a poor house. For many years, a workhouse for slaves called the Sugar House stood next to the hulking jail.
Slaves found “wandering” the streets were held in the Sugar House until their owners bailed them out. While locked away here, slaves would be forced to work on a treadmill to grind corn for use in the jail. This constantly turning treadmill often injured and maimed the slaves, and at times their bodies or body parts would end up in the ground corn.
The jail itself was just as harsh with inmates locked away in large, group cells, instead of individual cells. The most dangerous prisoners, or those that were possible escape risks, were chained to the floor. Men and women were not separated, and all had to live in filth where vermin, infection, and disease were rampant.
Among the many unfortunate souls who passed through the building’s Gothic portal was the legendary couple, John and Lavinia Fisher, who lived their last days in the moldy, dark halls of this place. Their ghastly tale involved them murdering guests of the inn that they ran just outside town. While this legend is the focal point of many tour guides’ tales, A recent book has freed the couple from the shackles of their legendary crimes. Bruce Orr, a former Charleston homicide detective, explored the legend of the couple, their crimes, and their supposedly defiant ends discovering that all but the most basic facts were just myth. In fact, there is nothing to even corroborate that the spirits within the jail are even the revenants of the Fishers.
The harsh conditions led to the building of a new jail in the late 1930s. In recent years, a group led by the American School of Building Arts has been working to restore the crumbling castle on Magazine Street. Ghost tours now bring tourists through the damp halls that still echo with spirits.
Among the activity that Mr. Bagans and his crew might encounter inside the old jail are spirit voices, apparitions, and even physical contact. Staff and visitors have had numerous experiences. One of the more intriguing episodes was recorded in a 2002 article in the Charleston Post & Courier: a worker leaving the building late one evening felt that he wasn’t alone. This was confirmed when his flashlight beam picked up a grayish, gaunt man standing to the right of the exit door. He stared at the man for a moment and when he moved towards the man he disappeared, only to reappear on the left side of the door. The figure then vanished and the worker fled. Yet another layer in the cake of history…
- ABC News 4. “’Ghost Adventures’ heads to spooky Charleston scene.” 19 October 2011.
- Barbour, Clay. “Eerie, dark history haunts Old City Jail.” The Post & Courier. 27 October 2002.
- Behre, Robert. “Old City Jail now a national treasure.” The Post & Courier. 28 May 1999.
- National Park Service. “Old Jail.” Charleston’s Historic, Religious and Community Buildings. Accessed 7 August 2011.
- Orr, Bruce. Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.