Deep green leaves slowly begin to burst with vibrant shades of gold, orange and red. The relentless Charleston heat dulls to a comfortable chill and pumpkin patches, hayrides and corn mazes announce to the world that fall is finally here. Along with the calming scents of cider and the welcoming embrace of oversized sweatshirts comes the thrill of horror movies and ghosts, also known as Halloween. In Charleston, however, ghosts are anything but the campy image from old films – the real deal just might exist.
Ghost tours are not just a fun fall activity in Charleston, they are a part of the city’s history. Tours are offered year-round, ready to showcase all the thrilling tales of grave yards, alleyways and houses. Charleston’s history runs deep – in the soil where the bones of those who have died on the peninsula over the last few hundred years lie. It’s no wonder that ghost tour companies have a rich body of stories to share with tourists from all over the world.
The Old Charleston City Jail is a significant landmark in history and ghost stories alike. Built in 1802 as the Low Country Prison, the jail stayed operational until 1939 when it was shut down due to prisoner mistreatment. Over the course of its history, roughly 14,000 people died in the jail. Bulldog Tours takes visitors into the walls of the beaten down, cinderblock jail to tell its story.
The Old City Jail Tour is not for the faint of heart. Small, claustrophobic walls creep in on guests who become swallowed by the darkness. Even without the stories, iron-barred gates and ominous noises leave visitors with goosebumps. Lavinia Fisher, the United States’ first female serial killer, is one of the jail’s most infamous prisoners. Tour guide and dead medium Randy Johnson spends a lot of time in the jail and has heard several stories of people seeing a translucent woman wearing a white dress lurking through its corridors.
Mike Brown of Old Charleston Walking Tours has seen similar paranormal activity outside the gates of the Unitarian Church. The tale tells of a girl buried in a white dress who haunts the graveyard. The girl is speculated to be the subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee.” Brown recalls in August 2013 when a member of his tour group suddenly collapsed. He thought the incident was a result of heat until the lady asked what was behind the gate, explaining her sensitivity to spirits.
The same situation has happened 13 times since.
Stories such as these are easily brushed off by people who do not believe in ghosts. Even so, there is something to be said about the amount of validity that can be found through research. “One of the nice things about Charleston is the history of the city has been recorded in such meticulous detail,” said Brown. Having been a tour guide for nearly 22 years, Brown has spent his time piecing together the puzzle between ghost stories and history. “The way I normally find out about something is someone will come on my tour and tell me about a weird incident,” said Brown. “Then maybe three months later someone else will come along and say a similar weird thing happened in the same area. Then you might have a story.”
Brown’s primary interest is history, but he feels that collecting information on the ghost stories of Charleston adds another layer. “That is the big difference between what I do and what you see on a ghost hunting TV show. They go and they are there for five or six hours, whereas I have the advantage of sitting in the same places year after year after year and you get little pieces of the story coming to you in your own time,” said Brown. Charleston ghost tours are not built from campfire horror stories trying to scare everyone – they are slowly constructed over time with the help of credible history.
Randy Johnson from the Old City Jail has a similar perspective. Given the jail’s gruesome, inhumane past, he believes it’s almost impossible that ghosts do not prowl the halls. Due to the astronomic number of people mistreated there, Johnson feels they come back to haunt the living for what people did to them in life. The Old City Jail was originally filled with twice the amount of inmates than the legal limit. Later on, it became a war prison, then regressed back to a jail before it was finally shut down. With years of appalling history packed into the three-story building, the City Jail’s walls always have a new story to tell.
Creepy as they may seem, Charleston ghost tours are typically a family-friendly experience. Guides are not there to scare, but rather to tell a story. Whether sweatshirt or tank top weather, ghost tours are a unique way to learn more about Charleston history.
*This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The Yard.