The Old City Jail ("Gaol") in Charleston, South Carolina was built in 1802 right over the Provost Dungeon and a potter's field. It also served as an insane asylum and housed Union soldiers (prisoners of war). The Gaol held prisoners up until 1939. The death toll on site is estimated to be anywhere from 10,000–14,000 (although admittedly, this seems very high), and many people believe it could be one of the darkest, most haunted jails in the United States. Historically, the conditions were deplorable. Female and male prisoners shared cages, there was no running water, and the Gaol was infested with insects and rats.
Today, the American College of the Building Arts holds classes inside the building. Rusted doors, iron bars, cages, and a sketchy spiral staircase remain intact, along with scratches in the walls where prisoners kept track of their days. Bulldog Tours is the only group in town who can give you access to the jail after hours. In recent years, the paranormal television shows have made the rounds; investigators have reported EVPs of a female voice saying, "the devil," an apparition of a woman in white, and physical marks on people who have been scratched while on tours inside the building.
Ghost-Hunting at the Old Charleston Jail
My curiosity was piqued, so I had to check it out. My Haunted Asylums, Prisons, and Sanatoriums co-author, Sam Queen, and I arranged a private investigation with just one chaperone in the building with us. We spent time alone in the building during daylight hours and then we came back for a scheduled evening tour with the Bulldog group. After the tour, our chaperone allowed us access into the old Gaol. Some buildings can give off a certain energy (think of how it feels when you enter a room after two people have just finished an argument), but I was not able to sense anything while inside.
While we did not capture any evidence on our trip, we did hear some sounds we could not explain. While sitting on a cold, concrete floor in an old cell within the pitch-black basement, we could hear what sounded like heavy bootsteps, pounding slowly over our heads. We knew we were alone, and all three of us were confined together in the same small room.
Then again, once we all made our way upstairs, we could hear the footsteps below us. There is no way there was anyone else in the building with us that night, so I do not know what it was that we were hearing, other than to tell you that it sounded like heavy bootsteps. Sam ran out of the room to chase the noises, but of course no one was there. My sense is that it was a residual energy, because nothing appeared to be interacting with any of our equipment.
Old Charleston Jail: The Legends of John and Lavinia Fisher
Besides the high death toll, the biggest story associated with the hauntings is that of John and Lavinia Fisher. Lavinia has been dubbed, "America’s First Female Serial Killer" (although there is no proof that she ever killed anyone). There are many embellished stories and legends about John and Lavinia Fisher. The most popular rendition told to tourists is probably that Lavinia and her husband, John, ran the Six Mile Inn (six miles outside of Charleston) in 1819 and used the inn as a mechanism to poison, rob, and then murder their guests. To hear some people tell it, the Fishers were running a regular Todd Sweeney set-up, complete with beds that dropped through the floor, dumping bodies into the cellar. The legends will also tell you that the two were executed at the old jail.
After visiting the old Gaol myself, I was curious to separate fact from fiction, so I picked up a copy of Bruce Orr's Six Miles to Charleston: The True Story of John and Lavinia Fisher. Orr, a retired criminal investigator, turns up a lot of questions about the possible innocence of the Fishers after his three years of research. One of the biggest points that Orr makes about addressing the murder legends told about the Fishers was that there was never any evidence found of poison or of bodies in their cellar. What's more, John and Lavinia Fisher were arrested in connection with an attempted highway robbery while partcipating in a small gang of twelve members. There was never any murder at all! Orr traced the origination of this legend back to 1830, when a writer by the name of Peter Neilson self-published a "Penny Dreadful" tale about the subject.
Another source consulted was David B. Scott's Abode of Misery. Scott points out in his introduction that the Fishers were incarcerated at the old Gaol, but they were not executed there. They were hung on Meeting Street Road near the lines.
Of the twelve gang members, only John and Lavinia Fisher, the owners of the Six Mile Inn, and William Heyward, the owner of the Five Mile House Inn, were left facing criminal charges. What's more, the original crime was for an assault against David Ross. They were sentenced to die for an assault against John Peoples1a crime for which they were never tried nor convicted! Orr finds it very odd that only the three property owners out of the twelve gang members were executed. How could this have happened? Could they have been railroaded?
John and Lavinia Fisher went to their deaths, proclaiming their innocence until the very end. John made his peace with their sentence, and urged his wife to do the same. His last words were said to be: "I swear, I am innocent. May the Redeemer of the World please for those who have sworn away my life." Lavinia waivered from believing the Governor would never hang a woman, to spurts of rage when it became apparent that she was going to die. On February 18, 1820, Lavinia's famous last words were: "Cease! I will have none of it. Save your words for others that want them. But if you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it."
Old Charleston Jail: Theories Behind the Hauntings
Many prisoners believed that if you died in prison, your spirit would become trapped there. Take that theory and then add being wrongfully convicted and executed. Then, imagine awful stories being told about you after your death that essentially just amount to a bunch of lies told to tourists. It sure seems like a recipe that could possibly account for some really irritated spirits in the old Goal. The legends of Lavinia and John Fisher are so far off from the truth that it reminds you to conduct your research very carefully when investigating historic "ghost" stories.
The truth behind this popular tourist legend, with a husband and wife (perhaps even innocent) going to the gallows together and dropping simultaneously, is just as haunting as the made-up tales. Yet for some reason the sensational lies seem to be what people like to repeat. Why? Is it just easier to spout off a made-up tale rather than to learn and recite facts? Maybe this article will help spread the truth about John and Lavinia Fisher a little bit further, and maybe, just maybe, the next time you hear one of these types of stories, you will think twice before repeating it as truth without further research.