The Old Exchange Building is one of the most historically important colonial buildings still standing in the United States. Built in 1771 on 122 East Bay Street on the site of the Court of the Guard, colonists met in the Great Hall to protest the Tea Act of 1773. On the steps of the Exchange, South Carolina declared independence from Great Britain on March 28, 1776. Beneath this elegant building, however, is one of the most dismal prisons in the United States. It was constructed with barrel vaulted ceilings that are only one brick thick at the point of the vault. The ceilings and columns also supported the upper floors of the Old Exchange. Countless loads of sand were used to support the original purbeck stone of the main floor. The Provost Dungeon may have been an architectural wonder, but it was totally unsuited for human occupation. Not only was it cold and damp, but rats scampered freely among the prisoners, spreading disease. Sick prisoners were housed with healthy ones, and everyone ate contaminated food and breathed stale air. Many prisoners were shackled to the walls. The most famous prisoners were patriots arrested by Lord Cornwallis after the British captured Charleston in 1780. On Aust 27, 1780, thirty-eight prominent citizens, including Thomas Heyward, Jr., Edward Rutledge, and Governor Christopher Gadsden were imprisoned here until they were sent to St. Augustine, Florida. All of these upstanding citizens, including two young women from prominent families, were forced to share space with thieves, murderers, prostitutes, and deserters. Twenty-three other patriots underwent the same horrible experience in the Provost Dungeon when they were arrested on November 15, 1780. It is small wonder that the old dungeon is haunted by the spirits of the men and women who suffered and died there.
The Provost Dungeon was restored in 1966 under the supervision of C. Harrington Bissell. A number of important discoveries were made during the restoration, including a section of the Half Moon Bastion, which was once part of the original foundation of “Charles Town.” People interested in the paranormal believe that changes made in the original structure might be have awakened the ghosts that now mingle with the tourists as they walk through the dungeon. The spirits in the Provost Dungeon seem to be most active on dark and gloomy days. Sometimes, when no groups of tourists have been passing through the dungeon, tour guides walking past the remains Half Moon Bastion have noticed chains stretched across the entrance swinging by themselves in unison. On one occasion, a chain across the doorway fell on the floor, frightening one of the tour guides half out of her wits. Lights suspended from the ceiling have also been known to swing in empty parts of the dungeon. Tourists have reported hearing cries and moans emanating from the dark recesses of the dungeon. Women are particularly uncomfortable in the Provost’s Dungeon. One female tourist reported being pushed against the wall. Another woman felt as if she was being strangled by invisible hands. Several of the ghosts that occasionally make an appearance in the Dungeon have been identified as the spirits of “the gentleman pirate,” Stede Bonnet, and his men, who were incarcerated here while awaiting trial in the late eighteenth century.
No prisoners have been held in the Provost Dungeon since 1782. Today, it is occupied by mannequins designed by local authority Emmett Robinson. The plastic figures depict actual men and women who were incarcerated here in 1780, as well as several unsavory individuals. If the testimony of eye-witnesses can be believed, the mannequins are not the only remnants of Charleston’s colonial history that are still trapped inside the dank, prison walls.