The Old Charleston Jail

Windows above the main entrance to the jail.

Located on Magazine Street in one of the oldest parts of Charleston, lies the Old Charleston Jail. Built in 1802 and operated until 1939, the jail hosted its share of notorious criminals over the years, not to mention a slew of Civil War prisoners and those caught up in the slave revolts of the time. Given this distinguished guest list it is not hard to believe that the Old Charleston Jail is haunted. Just ask anyone who has visited the place.

An old illustration on a wall inside the prison of how to properly hang a condemned man.

In its heyday the Old Charleston Jail was not only used to house violent criminals, it was also used as a place to execute them. Out in the jail’s backyard visitors can see the remnants of the old gallows, including the small shed that was used to hide the iron weight that served to break the neck of the condemned man unlucky enough to find himself on the wrong end of the rope. Instead of falling through a trap door like with most gallows of the day, the condemned man stood on the ground with the noose around his neck. A trap door underneath the iron weight was then triggered and the falling weight did the dirty work. Great skill on the part of the executioner had to be employed when choosing the amount of slack played out in the rope. It had to be based on the weight of the person being hanged. Too much slack and the iron weight would yank the head clean off of the condemned man, which tended to horrify the onlookers. Too little slack and the weight would not do its job in a humane way, resulting in the condemned man suffocating while he danced on the end of the rope. Again, this tended to horrify the onlookers.

An old abandoned wheelchair in one of the old cells.

One of the most notorious criminals housed at the Old Charleston Jail was a woman by the name of Lavinia Fischer, who is believed by many to be the first female serial killer in the United States. At least the first one ever caught, anyway. She and her husband were both convicted of highway robbery, which at the time was a capital offense, and hanged in 1820. The legends differ as to whether or not Lavinia Fischer ever actually killed anyone. But nonetheless, her ghost is said to still wander the halls of the Old Charleston Jail.

One year while on vacation, my family and I visited the Old Charleston Jail on one of the ghost tours operated in the area. As with any ghost tour there were strange sounds and Old jail 3other creepy occurrences that we all took with a grain of salt. The tour guide’s job was to entertain us and he succeeded greatly at it, scaring my kids out of their wits even though we all knew that any real ghosts would not be so punctual as to conveniently show up during a ghost tour. But as I walked through the darkened hallways of that old jail, I asked myself what it would be like to be alone in those rooms in the dead of night, with no one else around. No tour guide, no fellow tour takers, no one.

The Old Charleston Jail as it appears today in the daylight. It has a much different appearance at night.

Something told me that if I had found myself in that kind of situation, with no one else around, that I might have found out the hard way that no one is ever alone when they are inside the Old Charleston Jail.

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