The Old Charleston Jail stands on the site of a building, dating back to 1738, which served as a slave workhouse, a poor house, and a hospital for vagrants and other impoverished people. In 1802, the old building was replaced with the present structure. Pirates were incarcerated here in the 1820s while awaiting execution. In 1822, a fireproof wing, designed by Robert Mills, was added. The building was renovated again in 1855, when an octagonal wing was built to replace Miss’ fireproof ring. During the Civil War, Confederate and Federal soldiers were held prisoner at the Old Charleston Jail Some of these Union prisoners were black soldiers who had fought with the 54th Massachusetts. In 1886, the top floor and tower were removed after they were damaged by an earthquake. Prisoners continued to be held in the Old Charleston Jail until it was finally closed in 1939. The old building remained vacant until 2000, when it was stabilized before being completely revamped as a part of the campus for the American College for the Building Arts.
The Old Charleston Jail’s haunted reputation lies largely on the fact that so many people suffered there. The jail was designed to hold 128 prisoners, but it was not unusual for more than 300 people to be held there at any one time. Under these extremely cramped conditions, disease ran rampant. Prisoners also had to face the likelihood of being raped or attacked while serving their sentence in the Old Charleston Jail. The most unruly criminals were starved, shackled, and tortured. By the time the Old Charleston Jail closed, approximately 10,000 had died there.
The most notorious prisoners in the Old City Jail were Lavinia and John Fisher. In 1819, the couple ran an inn known as the “Six Mile House.” The story goes that a man named John Peeples had left Georgia in a horse-drawn wagon and was on his way to Charleston late one evening when he decided to spend the night at the Fishers’ inn. Lavinia, a strikingly beautiful woman, offered him a glass of tea, which he accepted but did not drink. He became nervous when the couple asked him how much money he had with him, so when he retired to his room for the night, he slept in a chair by the door instead of in the bed. Suddenly, he was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange sound. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, Peeples stared in awe as the bed disappeared through a hole that had opened up in the floor. A faint beam of light in the room illuminated a grisly pile of bones inside the hole. Panic-stricken, Peeples jumped through an open window and rode off into the night.
The next morning, Peeples told his story to the authorities in Charleston. The sheriff’s deputy and a group of deputized citizens rushed to the Six Mile House, where they found the bone pit under the bed in the room where Peeples had stayed. The tea the couple had offered Peeples was found to contain an herb that would have put him into a deep sleep for several hours. John and Lavinia Fisher were immediately arrested, along with five accomplices, and placed in the Old Charleston Jail. Following a swift trial, her husband and the other men were found guilty. After her husband was hanged, Lavinia appeared before the court in a flattering white wedding gown in the hope that her beauty would convince the court to spare her life. Fearing retribution from the hundreds of people who had gathered around the courthouse, the judges found Lavinia guilty and sentenced her to be hanged. The story goes that as she stood upon the gallows set up on the Meeting Street Road, Lavinia cried, “If any of you have something to tell the devil, tell me now because I’m about to see him.”
The story of the woman known today as the nation’s first female serial killer did not end with her execution. Her ghost has been seen hovering around her grave in the Unitarian Cemetery. Lavinia’s spirit is also said to be an active presence in the Old Charleston Jail. Jewelry other personal possessions, such as rings and handkerchiefs, are occasionally “spirited away” by an unseen hand. Some people claim to have been “pushed” by some sort of invisible force. Other weird occurrences that cannot be directly attributed to Lavinia have also taken place in the Old Charleston Jail. Cold spots have been detected in the jail during hot summer days. Cell phone conversations are occasionally disrupted. Tourists have captured numerous orbs and EVPs while touring the old jail. Some employees and tourists have experienced shortness of breath on the main staircase.
The Old Charleston Jail’s resemblance to a medieval castle is fitting considering the pain and suffering that thousands of prisoners endured within its walls for over a century. The paranormal activity witnessed by hundreds of people over the years suggests that some of the anguish of the former tenants may have imprinted itself upon the very fabric of the old jail. It is also possible that the spirits trapped inside the Old Charleston Jail continue to make their presence known so that their inhumane treatment will never be forgotten.