The Old City Jail Of Charleston

Posted by in US Ghost Adventures

Known as the most haunted building in South Carolina, the Old City Jail on 21 Magazine Street was formerly the most grotesque penal establishment in pre-Civil War America. Its reputation proceeded into America’s most divisive period and beyond before finally shutting its horrid corridors in 1939. 

Built in 1802, the legacy of this imposing fortress of fatalities lasted 137 years, and legends say nearly 10,000 people died within its decrepit walls. While the true number likely totals in the hundreds rather than the thousands, it does not alleviate the pain and suffering of those who were exposed to the jail and its horrendous conditions. Most died due to infections gained from the outright lack of cleanliness and inhumane methods of torture they were subjected to. 


Who haunts the Old City Jail of Charleston?


They say many of the spirits here reside here are violent and have laid hands upon visitors and tour guides alike. Many former tour guides refuse to enter the building altogether, but it is still a major attraction to many who visit Chucktown. 

Next time you visit Charleston, be sure to take a ghost tour with US Ghost Adventures and learn more about this historic 17th-century pirate-infested port city.

A Fortress of Terror

The terrifying imposition of the Old City Jail is enough to deter even the boldest ghost hunters. An octagonal tower, lined with small slits for windows, brings to mind Medieval castles of old. But for those brave enough to enter, the jail’s crumbling brick and iron-lined walls cement the idea that this was once a place of pure terror. 

In 1680, the land it now sits was designated for public use. Used as a hospital, a workhouse for enslaved African people, and a poor house, the land itself likely saw high levels of death before being forever encased in its impenetrable walls. Built in 1802, it originally consisted of two octagonal towers that rose four stories into the air to block the sunlight from hitting the faces of approaching captives. 

A sight they were never expected to see again. Architect Robert Mills, who also built the Washington Monument, constructed a fireproof four-story wing that was later demolished in 1856 to make room for the tower we see today. On August 31st, 1886, the fourth floor of the rear tower was knocked clear off during an earthquake of roughly 6.7 magnitudes. During this earthquake, 43 inmates escaped. However, the architecture was not the building’s main appeal. No, that was reserved for the cruel and abject conditions to which the prisoners were subjected. Windows held no glass, so the cold Atlantic sea air would create damp conditions perfect for mold and other infectious bacteria. Torture was common, along with increased violence that was executed with no sign of relenting. 

The Old City Jail has held its fair share of inmates, who, one by one, met a tragic fate here, from pirates to prisoners of war to convicted murderers and serial killers. The most well-known, perhaps, was Denmark Vesey, who, in May of 1822, was held after a slave insurrection led by him was revealed. He included the President of the newly free country of Saint Dominque, modern-day Haiti—the most extensive revolt of the time.

Eternal Prisoners of The Old City Jail

Vesey was hung in the old octagonal tower. They say his ghost and many others haunt the place, and visitors often feel their presence. The most active spirit is that of Lavina Fisher, who is regarded as the first female serial killer in United States history. She and her husband, John, ran Six Mile Inn, which was fittingly named due to its position six miles outside town. The tale goes that Lavina would use her striking beauty to seduce travelers into a lull with an oleander-spiked tea. 

She would lead them into a certain room, and once in a comfortable and nearly catatonic state, she would pull a lever. Dropping the victims down into a secret chamber in the basement where John would dismember them. Their body count ranges from twenty to one hundred and twenty men. However, no bodies were ever found to implicate such a thing. They were arrested in 1819 and convicted to hang for highway robbery since none of their murders could be proven in 1820. 

Oddly enough, Lavina almost escaped with her life. There was a law that reached back to the foundation of the city in 1670, which stated that no married woman could be hung.  She showed up on the date of her execution in such a haughty sign of defiance in her wedding dress. The executioner simply hung John first, legally making Lavina a widow. Lavina did not wait for her judgment but leaped off the gallows, effectively hanging herself. 

Many say they can see her roaming the lower halls of the jail today, and her screams are heard echoing throughout the building. In addition to these more well-known characters, a host of others were brutally held here, including holdovers from the pirate-infested days of young Charleston and Union soldiers captured during the Civil War.

The Old City Jail Today

An apparition of a soldier or jailer is often seen roaming the cells on the third floor. An old wheelchair has remained in the jail since the 1820s. It is assumed and asserted by certain actions of the wheelchair that the person it once belonged to died in its steel embrace, likely due to Cholera. The chair is often seen moving by itself and has even bumped into visitors. 

No one is allowed to sit in, though very few would like to. In the basement is the old morgue where many passed onto the other side. Visitors often see a small young boy roaming the roam. As many children do, he likes to play and often puts pebbles into people’s pockets. He will throw pebbles at visitors if he feels more rambunctious, as many children are. Many feel cold spots around the waist, about the height of many children. 

It is almost inconceivable to believe that this wretched place could be anything more than a terrible and damp skeleton of its former self. However, the Housing Authority of Charleston purchased it in 1939. It lay empty until the American College of the Building Arts acquired it in 2000. They moved out of the haunted building, perhaps because of the hauntings themselves.

Purchased in 2016 by Landmark Enterprises for $15 million, they have plans to turn it into offices and conference space! It was a truly ludicrous idea, almost knowing how many lost their lives in such a terrible fashion inside the building. 

Next time you are in Charleston, be sure to take a tour with US Ghost Adventures to learn more about the Holy City!