Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Jail Visit with Students- Hopefully Not the Last Time!

On April 23 it was the last regular class for my College of Charleston course "Beyond the Grave: What Old Cemeteries Tell and Teaching the Living." The activity planned for this final session was anything but regular.

My intrepid students on their way to jail! 
We visited Charleston's notorious Old City Jail, which more accurately should be called the Charleston District Jail.

It was raining as we left our classroom for the 10-minute walk to Magazine Street where the jail was constructed way back in 1802.

I was appreciative of my students not complaining about the walk in the rain. They were, in fact, pretty excited- if not a bit scared- about the "haunted" tour that awaited us. What a way to end the semester we all agreed!

The rain made the jail look even scarier 

Randall Johnson, our guide from Bulldog Tours, was excellent. I have been on these tours maybe half a dozen times with a different guide every visit.  Each guide has been very good, with different stories to go along with a few mainstays.

Johnson, a self-described "homey from West Ashley," sure looked ghost guide part in his black clothing from head to toe, including the bowler hat on his head.

The rain had eased by our 7 p.m. arrival so he was able to give us a quick overview of the jail's origins, its long history of difficult if not deplorable conditions for prisoners, and its probably long overdue closing in 1939.

"Fourteen thousand people died here," Johnson said, "so there are lots of spirits inside."

One of the better light rooms inside the jail 
With that chilling tidbit, we entered the austere Gothic structure.

Johnson dropped a reference to the one detailed research book about this old jail.  I asked him later to repeat the title and author. And since then I ordered, received and have started reading David C. Scott's "Abode of Misery: A Compilation of Facts, Secrets and Myths of the Old Charleston District Jail."

Scott is a retired newspaper journalist. With that background, I know there will be lots of fact versus fiction examination.

This book is available on Amazon
 One thing I have learned already from this book is that the Gothic architecture was itself seen as a deterrent to crime.

The thought was to make the structure look so foreboding that no one in their right mind would want to end up there, thus criminal intent would be quashed.

Maybe that worked on some people, but there were enough people that it didn't that the facility built for 159 prisoners, according to Johnson, would always have a high occupancy rate.

During the Civil War, its numbers surged to 1,200 when Union POWS were brought here. When finally closed in 1939, the population was at 250, Johnson said. 

Randy Johnson told his stories with a flourish, for sure! 
Ghost stories are a big allure to the jail tour.  Johnson did not disappoint, sharing many accounts of strange sounds, apparitions, orbs and guides and visitors being touched and scratched by...what?  Something not of this world!

One of my males students, after the tour, lifted his shirt, telling us that something had scratched his back!

A couple students also produced photographs they took that showed something (or someone!), shadowy figures or round orbs in their shots.

Reminders of the prisoners who once toiled here

In one room on a wall are quite a number of marks left by prisoners. This one to the left has what looks like the year 1927 engraved. There are also initials and drawings.

A softer tabby-type surface was an original construction material. Johnson said the death sentence room upstairs was fortified with iron walls after some escapes occurred.

Heavy iron doors can still be opened and closed today

It is neat to see so many original features still intact in and around the 216-year-old structure.

Truly an imposing prison back then!

Online I found this circa 1888 photograph of the jail, courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society.

Some of the upper level features were heavily damaged by the Great Earthquake of 1886 and had to be removed, never to be rebuilt. It truly looked like a fortress or castle back then.

Contact Bulldog Tours if you dare! 

As our tour ended, Johnson had some final words with us outside where the rain had returned.

The jail tour lasts 45 minutes, which is about right lengthwise, I'd say.  I'm sure some of the students couldn't wait for it to end!

Soggy class photo 

Johnson obliged me by taking this class photograph before we departed.

Old wheelchair is a nice museum piece!

Last summer, the Charleston Post and Courier reported that someone had bought the Old District Jail and is planning to turn it into (ugh!) offices.

Perhaps this was the last time I will be able to tour the jail.

I expressed my opposition to this office plan with this letter to the editor.  One of my suggestions is that the tours continue and that a very unique and interesting museum could be installed here.

I learned from the "Abode of Misery" book that a museum was set up in the jail in the 1980s but that it didn't last very long.  But maybe the time is right for another try. Charleston has become such a popular tourist destination that I'm sure a museum would receive lots of visitation.

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