Thursday, July 9, 2015

HGB Podcast, Ep. 55 - Old Charleston Jail

Moment in Oddity - Hardy Tree

In London’s St. Pancras Old Church's cemetery stands a tree that is known as the Hardy Tree. The tree was named for the author Thomas Hardy. In the 1860s, the London rail line was in need of more room and it was decided that part of the cemetery would be the perfect spot to route one of the lines. The bodies needed to be exhumed and moved. The job was dumped on an architectural firm's lowest employee who just happened to be the future famous author Thomas Hardy. Hardy moved the bodies, but he was left with another issue: the hundreds of headstones left in the yard. Hardy noticed an ash tree off to the side that was not near the future railway. He decided to move the headstones over to the ash tree. He placed the tombstones in circles around the tree. Many were practically on top of each other. As the years have passed, the ground around the tree has absorbed many of the stones. And the tree itself has grown around some of the gravestones. It creates a stark image of life and death melding together. And one thing is for sure, the Hardy Tree certainly is odd.

This Day in History - Corn Cob Pipe Invented

On this day, July 9th, in 1869, the corn cob pipe was invented in Missouri. Henri Tibbe was a Dutch immigrant who was a woodworker. On July 9th, a local farmer came to him with a corn cob that he had whittled the middle out of and asked Tibbe if it was possible for him to use his lathe to refine the process. Tibbe gave it a try and soon the corn cob pipe was so popular that the Dutchman discontinued all his other woodworking and focused entirely on making pipes. The corn cob pipes were cheap, although many considered them unelegant. Corn cobs were dried for two years and then the lathe was used to hollow them out into bowl shapes. The outside was lacquered, usually after being dipped in plaster. Shanks made from pine wood were inserted into the bowls. Corn cob pipes are still popular today because they require no break-in period. The Missouri Meerschaum Company is the world's oldest and largest manufacturer of cool, sweet-smelling corn cob pipes and they have been doing it since 1869. The company was founded by Tibbe and his son. The name Meerschaum was derived from the German word for sea foam and is the name for Turkish clay that is used in more expensive pipes. Tibbe tacked on the Missouri part as a coy play to elevate the pipe's appeal. So next time you see a Popeye cartoon, you know where that corn cob pipe came from!

Old Charleston Jail

The Old Jail in Charleston, South Carolina is an architecturally beautiful building that dates back to the early 1800s. The jail has seen its share of thieves, murderers and even pirates. A stone building that has stood for centuries tends to carry far more than just memories of years gone by. The spirits of those who were locked inside the structure still seem to resonate within those walls. Death may not have been the end for those condemned. Do some of these people still carry on in the afterlife? Let's explore the history and hauntings of Charleston's Old Jail.

The city of Charleston is one of the original cities in America, dating back to 1670. English colonists were the first white men to come to the area and in 1680, they officially laid out a plan for the city that was similiar to other cities with block squares plotted out. The city was originally named Charles Town in honor of King Charles II. The city was a prime location as a seaport, but it eventually grew even more successful in other economical ways. Rice, cotton and indigo all contributed to that success. Charleston was long considered the capital of the south. Charleston also holds the inenviable position of being the location for the start of the Civil War. The first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston. Charleston took a long while to recover from the devastating effects of the war. Trade and industry helped the city to thrive again.

When Charleston was initially plotted out, a four acre square of land was set aside for public use upon which several buildings were later constructed. These included a poor house, a workhouse for runaway slaves, a hospital and a jail. The Old Jail was built in 1802 and was four stories tall. A two story octagon tower was built atop the four stories. Robert Mills was an architect known for building fireproof buildings and in 1822 he designed a fireproof wing with cells for the jail. This wing was later replaced in 1855 by architects Barbot & Seyle with an octoagonal wing. They made other alterations to the building, which included the addition of the Romanesque Revival details. This type of architecture is known for its towers and round arches and dates back to Medieval times. An earthquake badly damaged the building in 1886 and the tower and top story were removed.

The jail housed a variety of prisoners and many times there were far more prisoners within the walls than the building was meant to hold. Up to 300 prisoners were held sometimes in a structure meant for 130. This made bad conditions worse. Sickness would wreak havoc in the building. The historic record indicates that during the time that the jail was open, up to 10,000 people died there either from injury or illness or because they were condemned to die. That's a lot of people. The jail was in use for 211 years, closing its doors for prisoners in 1939. Criminals were denied food, whipped and shackled.

The people locked up in the Charleston Jail were guilty of many different crimes. Some were just common thieves and others were murderers. Still others were civil rights activists. Denmark Vesey was one such prisoner. He was a freed slave who organized meetings in his home and collected guns and ammunition for a rebellion that he was planning. Nine thousand slaves were to join forces to fight for rights and freedom, but several of the slaves worried that they would fail and be in bigger trouble than they already were, so they betrayed the other conspirators. Denmark was arrested and incarcerated at the Charleston Jail. He was tried and hanged along with 35 other blacks. His revolt would have been the largest. Instead of bringing freedom, laws were tightened on blacks. Civil War soldiers served time at the jail. Members of the 54th Massachusetts were some of those who did time. That regiment was made famous in the movie "Glory." Other federal prisoners were held during the war along with Confederate soldiers.

Jacque Alexander Tardy was a pirate who lived from 1767-1827. He was known as Tardy the Pirate. He was a small man who walked with a cane. Tardy was born in France, but fled to Hispaniola with his parents during the French Revoltuion. The Haitian Revolution forced the family to America where they lived in Philadelphia. Tardy took on the trade of being a tinsman, but later he joined Captain John Smith on the USS Congress. He would later try to steal the Captain's valuables and sell them to the crew and he was publically flogged. He loved poison and had a penchant for poisoning those with whom he had issues. Captain John Smith seems to be his first victim. Later, he sailed aboard the Maria for a return to Charleston, South Carolina and he poisoned the Captain and seven other crew by putting arsenic in their hash. Tardy blamed the ship's cook who was hung for the crime. The same thing happened aboard another ship named the Regulator and again, Tardy blamed the cook. A confidant turned him in, but he was only tried for conspiracy and served seven years at Walnut Street Prison. He later tried to steal a boat and was caught and at this time he was put in the Charleston Jail where he served two years. He would later go on to try to take over another ship with some other men and ended up slitting his own throat in the Captain's quarters to avoid capture.

America's first female serial killer was housed at the Old Jail. Lavinia Fisher was born in 1793. She married a man named John and the two ran a hotel in Charleston named Six Mile Wayfarer House because it was six miles outside of town. It was a popular place for men to stay at while traveling. The problem is that these men never checked out. They just disappeared. The missing men were reported to the police and they began to notice that all the men could be traced back to the Six Mile Wayfarer. Lavinia and John were good at what they did. The authorities could find no evidence of wrong doing. And the town loved the couple. So the police just dropped the investigation. Sometime later, local townspeople heade over to the hotel, but they found no wrong doing. Things changed for Lavinia and John when a nice young man stopped by to see if their was a room for the night. Lavinia said they were full, but invited him in for tea. He introduced himself as John Peeples and he chatted with Lavinia for quite a while giving her far too many details about his life. He didn't like tea, so he had left it untouched and when Lavinia left the room, he dumped it out. She returned and told John they had a vacant room. After getting inside his room, John had a weird feeling. Lavinia's husband had stared at him all night in an unsettling way as he chatted up Lavinia. He also felt he had shared too much and perhaps he might be robbed. He decided to sleep in a chair by the door rather than the bed and good thing because in the middle of the night he was awakened by a loud noise. He was shocked to see the bed disappearing into a hole. John jumped out the window and rode his horse to the police who arrested Lavinia and her husband.

When the police searched the hotel they found Charleston's Murder Castle. There were secret passages and mechanisms that opened floorboards. A sleeping herb was found and police believe these herbs were used to put victims to sleep. The remains of 100 people were found in the basement along with belongings of many people who were not the Fishers. John and Lavinia were tried and sentenced to hang, but they were given a chance to repeal. As they waited in the Old Jail, they hatched a plan to escape. They made a rope from linens and John shimmied down first. He broke the rope and Lavinia was stuck in the cell. He couldn't leave without her, so he returned to the jail and they were put under better security. They were hung on the gallows behind the jail on February 18, 1820. John went quietly, but not Lavinia. She ranted and raved and refused to walk to the gallows, so she was carried. Her last words were, “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me – I’ll carry it.” She flung herself off the gallows and hit the crowd who were stunned by the awful sneer that spread across her dying visage. Historians have never found any evidence that 100 bodies were in the house. Only two bodies were discovered. And many believe that the Fishers were part of a group that merely robbed people. But that doesn't explain why so many men went missing.

The building was vacant for 61 years after it officially closed. The American College for the Building Arts purchased the building in 2000 and began renovations. Much of the original structure still stands today. There are several tour companies that offer ghost tours of the Old Jail. They are listed below. And the reason there are ghost tours is because, of course, some spirits of prisoners who met their ends at the jail have decided to stay. Even when the building was vacant, cops walking by reported hearing doors slamming and screams. As occurs with renovations in haunted structures, many weird things happened starting in 2000 when restoration efforts were begun. The apparition of a jailer carrying a rifle was seen by workers on the third floor. They witnessed the spirit walk right through the cell bars.

Spooktacular Crew member Jessie who suggested this location to us has been to the Old Jail and had her own unexplained experiences there. She told us that she was on a ghost tour at the jail and had a panic attack in one of the rooms. She also felt as though something grabbed her in a room where POWs of the Civil War were kept. Someone else on one of the ghost tours remarked in a review that "I did see something very strange inside the jail- a large ball of light flying up a set of stairs." Other people who have taken the Bulldog Jail Tour claim that they have been pushed, slapped, touched, choked and scratched. The jail is stuffy and hot, but at times people report seeing their breath and feeling an icy cold draft.

There is reportedly the ghost of a little girl that has been seen, so apparently this jail was like many others and housed children at times. A black man in ragged clothes has been witnessed wandering the cell blocks. A heavy iron door fell off its hinges. A cop was investigating an alarm in 2006 and when he arrived, he found the back door open. He drew his gun and went inside, climbing the spiral stair case. When he got to the third floor he said he felt as though his "arms were wrapped in plastic wrap."

Lavinia Fisher was reportedly buried in the Potter's Field next to the jail and instead of heading off to Hell, she seems to have decided to stay at the Old Jail in the afterlife. Right after she was hung, residents claimed they saw Lavinia's face behind the bars of the cell she once occupied. Lavinia insisted on being hung in her wedding dress and her apparition is seen inside the jail wearing a wedding dress. The dress was white and bright red.

The LEMUR Team from Asheville, North Carolina investigated the Old Jail in 2007. They were the first paranormal investigators invited to the Old Jail. members included Joshua P. Warren and Micah Hanks. Some of their findings were:
  1. The Paranormal PC was set up in the room called "The Octagon," where some of the worst criminals, including the Fishers, were kept. After running undisturbed for an hour, it recorded substantial deviations in magnetism with no evidence of conventional cause.
  2.  Numerous people witnessed "orb-like" anomalies with their naked eyes. And others, primarily females, witnessed cloudy forms, either black or white, swiftly moving down halls. This was most prominent in the basement, and led to an outstanding event around 4-4:30am Saturday morning. Around ten people, including Mark R. Jones and Rebel Sinclair, monitored the basement as the author operated a strobe light. Suddenly, one observer exclaimed she saw a shadowy, humanoid form. Others gasped as they saw it, as well, and were overcome with emotion. The author shut off the strobe light, at which time he witnessed a dark silhouette block light entering the building through a few long, vertical cracks on the facing wall. When he turned the strobe back on, there was nothing visible blocking his view of the light.
  3. Around midnight, the author and several other team members heard the distinct sound of chains being dragged across the floor of The Octagon. All lights were turned on, and though nothing was seen, the sound was extremely pronounced. It lasted less than 30 seconds, and no one was able to document the sound. It never occurred again.
Ghost hunters visited the Old Jail in 2012 and one of their cameramen was scratched. The spirits don't seem so nice at the Old Jail. Is that because the spirits belong to those who were corruptible in life? Could it be possible that people are just imagining these events because of the creepy nature of the jail? Has the stone captured the elements of the past and now what is seen is residual? Is the Old Charleston Jail haunted? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:
Bulldog Tours:
Charleston Tours:

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