When one thinks of haunted locations, the first thing that comes to mind are houses, usually followed by cemeteries. But, another type of location that should also come to mind are prisons. After all, few other places throughout history have seen more pain and death than prisons.
The lore of prison tales in the United states are deeply woven into America’s fabric. Stories that are quintessentially depicted in films like Cool Hand Luke and Escape From Alcatraz, and immortalized in songs like Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.”
For those who survived prison, for them the triumph is a hollow victory. As they are forever cursed with the label of convict, and the scars of the nightmare life from behind bars. But, for those who never again got the chance to breathe air as a free man or woman, their souls in the afterlife are doomed to haunt the grounds of their captivity for eternity.
The infamous grounds of captivity in the City of Charleston, South Carolina, is the Old Charleston Jail. It’s a prison, so dark and gothic in appearance, you would swear you are looking at pages from a Batman comic come to life.
And, like Gotham’s Blackgate Prison, Since, the Old Charleston Jail has existed, it has housed some of the most crazed criminals imaginable. Including, Lavinia Fisher, usually credited as the first female serial killer in the United States. Her lost soul is just one of the many spirits said to haunt the Old Charleston Jail.
The Old Charleston Jail, or the Old Jail as it is simply known in Charleston, served in the capacity of a prison from 1802 (the year of its construction), till the year of 1939.
The land the jail was built upon, was specifically set aside for matters of public concern. Not long after the city’s founding, this four acre lot was set aside not just for a prison, but for other public uses, including, a poor house, a hospital and a workhouse for slaves.
Once, the jail was completed, it stood at an amazing height of four stories, and featured an octagonal tower. A little over 50 years later the jail would undergo a remodelling process in which it gain an additional wing. The expansion and new Romanesque Revival style of the prison was designed by the Charleston architectural duo of Louis J. Barbot and John H. Seyle.
However, three decades later the earthquake of 1886, damaged the prison so severely that many of the improvements made by Barbot and Seyle, had to be removed.
The Old Jail was home to a great number of Charleston's most notable inmates, from nineteenth century pirates to Civil War Prisoners of War. Of all of the prisoners who have taken up residence at the Old Jail, there is perhaps none more infamous than Lavinia Fisher. As she is considered to be the country’s first female serial killer, but in actuality she is just the first to be recognized for this ominous distinction.
Little information is actually known about Lavinia’s backstory, but it is believed that she had lived in America for most of her life. What is known for certain is that she went on to marry a man by the name of John Fisher. Lavinia and John became notorious after their arrest and conviction.
Though, there is some debate about whether are not Lavinia was a killer or just an accessory to the murders committed. However, the most common belief to date is that she was not only a killer, but a savage as well.
Lavinia and her husband, John, were owners of the Charleston inn, the Six Mile Wayfarer House. A reference to the hotel’s location, as it was situated six miles north of the City of Charleston.
During their era of managing the Six Mile Wayfarer House, in the early part of the nineteenth century, reports of guests disappearing commonly made their way to the sheriff. But, despite these complaints no action against the couple was taken at first, as Lavinia and John were popular and highly regarded amongst most locals.
But, the Fishers status didn’t stop the stories from coming out, rumors of how Lavinia would invite traveling businessman to the inn for dinner, and then would precede to ask the individual questions regarding their job to ascertain how much money they had on their person.
After dinner, Lavinia would give the traveler a cup of tea, spiked with poison. Once the traveler had drank their tea, and retired to their room for the night. Lavinia’s husband John would then enter the traveler’s room, where he would stab the person in their weakened state, then steal all of the belongings, later disposing of the body.
In alternate and more Sweeney Todd-esque tale, has Lavinia taking up a larger role in the murders. In this telling, Lavinia would give the travelers a cup of tea, made only to send the recipient into a deep sleep. Once the traveler had passed out on the bed for the night. Lavinia would pull a special lever that would cause the bed to collapse, dropping the traveler into a pit filled with spikes.
Sensationalized rumors of the time, have made it virtually impossible in deducing what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the Fishers and their activity at the Six Mile Wayfarer House. But there are some eyewitness accounts.
During the height of the Fishers’ criminal activity, vigilantes arrived from Charleston to cleanup the Fishers’ neighborhood of crime. The Fishers’ were able to keep a low profile while the vigilante group was around. After some time the group believed they had sufficiently dealt with the gang, and returned back to the city.
But, one of the members of the vigilante group was left behind to watch over the neighborhood. This young man was David Ross. The following morning, Ross was taken captive, and brought before the gang. Ross terrified, he looked to Lavinia for help, a futile plea, as she reportedly choked Ross, and then through him head first through a window.
Somehow, Ross was able to escape the gang, and fled back to Charleston where he contacted the authorities.
Another eyewitness (rather living witness) was a man by the name of John Peeples. Peeples had stumbled upon the Fishers’ inn, and asked Lavinia for a room. She informed him that she did not believe they had any vacancies, but invited him in, and offered him a cup of tea. Peeples, accepted, however not being a fan of tea, he dumped out his cup when Lavinia wasn’t looking.
Believing he had drunk the tea, Lavinia begin to ask him questions about his dealings, sticking to her usual routine. After finding out that Peeples was a man of wealth, she suddenly told him that there was a free room after all. Peeples became very alarmed during his conversation with Lavinia, but accepted the room anyway.
Still wary, Peeples decided to rest in the room’s chair instead of the bed itself. Shortly after he had drifted off to sleep he awoke to the sound of the bed collapsing, taking notice of the Fishers in action, Peeples immediately jumped out of the room’s window, and made his way to Charleston where he informed the authorities.
With the accounts of Ross and Peeples, the Police were finally able to imprison the Fishers and their gang.
The Fishers were taken to the Old Jail where they awaited trial. The two were sentenced to hang for their crimes. As the execution date neared, John begin to search for penance with the help of the minister, Rev. Richard Furman. However, Lavinia did not seem to care about atoning for her sins.
While her husband pleaded for forgiveness as his final moments approached. Lavinia, used her last minute to mock the crowd that came out to see her hang. Rumor has it, she taunted them by saying, “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me, and I’ll carry it!”
After the rope had cracked, Lavinia was buried in the Old Jail’s cemetery. To this very day, many claim the ghost of Lavinia still haunts the Old Jail, with sighting coming about from both locals and tourist alike.
The prison is believed to be haunted by the ghost of inmates who died during their incarceration. Lost Souls lingering and lurking around every corner. Spirits of not only murderers and pirates, but of the wrongfully convicted, prisoners of war and slaves.
Some of the occurrences that go on at Old Jail today, include your run-of-the-mill hauntings. Objects that seemingly move on the own, disembodied voices and ghostly whispers emanating out of thin air, and the ever prosaic, slamming doors.
There have been many strange happenings that have occurred over the years at the Old Charleston Jail. One of the first modern day reported encounters took place when the prison was undergoing renovations in the year of 2000.
The prison had been sealed off for months to avoid lead paint contamination, though when the construction workers returned they discovered in the dust, there were human footprints. During the renovation process workers would continue to deal with similar oddities.
But, nothing quite like one night, when they saw the ghost of a former prison guard with rifle in hand, patrolling the third floor of the jail. The guard seemingly began to charge towards the workers, before vanishing. Perhaps, the guard thought some of the inmates were attempting a jailbreak.
Some of the other, more common ongoings within the Old Jail, include the sounds of the no longer operational dumbwaiter moving between the floors. Vanishing items, like jewelry. Perhaps, the ghost of Lavinia has a taste for the finer things even in the afterlife.
A woman named Christiane, took a tour of the Old Jail back in 2012, she was joined by her husband, as she was nervous to go on her first ghost tour. The gentleman who guided her groupe encouraged everyone to take as many pictures as they wanted to. Early into the tour she began to take photos with her flash on, put didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Well, aside from the creepy prison they found themselves touring.
As their group moved onward, they eventually reached the second floor, where it is believed that John and Lavinia were house as the awaited their executions. Christiane resumed taking pictures, experimenting, she took her first couple of shots with the flash off, but saw nothing except a dark image.
Once the tour was over, she was disappointed as she had seemingly not capture any ghostly images to share with her friends and family, However, when she got home, she began looking through all of the pictures she had taken, as she was uploading some of them to her facebook account.
When she had gotten to the photos she had taken while on the second floor. You know, the ones she took without the flash, and came out black? Well, upon closer examination she discovered, that those photos were not as black as she had previously thought. In fact, she could see two images now, images that appeared to be ghostly faces.
Christiane elaborated, “One seemed to be standing in front of the other… Both have different faces!” The unexplainable faces left her to wonder, “Could this be John and Lavinia Fisher?”
The Old Jail is located at 21 Magazine Street, and is owned by the American College of the Building Arts (who purchased the property back 2000 from the city’s Housing Authority).
If you are interested in looking around the prison, in hopes of encountering something paranormal, you are in luck, as tours are available on most nights of the year.
Bear in mind, some guests have been known to complain about being touched or grabbed by an unknown presence while at the Old Charleston Jail. Others, have experience unexplained scratches while touring the Old Jail’s grounds. You’ve been warn.
If you're looking for the perfect way to learn more about Charleston's most haunted locations, check out one of our Charleston Ghost Tours. We look forward to showing you around our beautifully haunted city.