During its 137 years in operation, the Old City Jail held within its stone walls some of the city's most notorious convicts. Some have been vindicated by history; others are remembered as monsters. For a few, their guilt or innocence remains a mystery.
In 1822, some of the last pirates of the 19th century awaited the gallows inside that dungeon of a building. The same year, when Denmark Vesey's slave revolt plan was foiled, Vesey himself lived out his final days in a now-demolished tower of the jail before he was hanged. If Charleston is actually, literally haunted, then surely the Old City Jail has some ghosts of its own.
And while it is a cliché by now to say that Charleston is haunted — the stuff of paid docents and touristy kitsch — five true believers locked themselves inside the jail as the sun set on Oct. 19 to prove that otherworldly forces were at work. Zak Bagans, host of the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures, says hundreds of people had recommended the jail as a site for one of the show's signature "lockdowns," nights spent trapped in a haunted place with cameras and audio recorders rolling. Finally, as the show neared the end of its fourth year, Bagans and his crew made a trip to the Holy City to set the record straight. For this episode, scheduled to air in late December, the veteran ghost hunters introduced a twist: They would bring with them a 16-year-old boy and his father, winners of an online video contest, to witness every creak and hair-raising gust of air. Going in, Bagans had no doubt that the place was haunted.
"When we go to locations, we're not really going to find out whether or not they're haunted," he said on the afternoon of Oct. 18, after he and his team had spent the day poking around Charleston and the jail in search of especially haunted spots. "We go to places that have dark history off the hook."
For those familiar with the show's format, the Old City Jail is an obvious fit (despite the fact that it safely houses the American College of the Building Arts). The interior is poorly lit with few windows, and with all the lights off, the iron and stone interior takes on the aesthetic of a medieval death chamber. Add to that creaky cell doors, a near-total lack of upholstered furniture that creates an echo-chamber effect, and a mostly historical folklore that includes homicidal maniacs and high-seas vagabonds, and the jail was ripe with opportunities for Bagans' intrepid co-explorers to shake their night-vision cameras around and whisper, "Dude, did you just hear that?"
The most enticing legend for the crew was that of Lavinia Fisher. In 1820, a reportedly beautiful woman named Fisher lived out her final days in the jail after being convicted of highway robbery. She and her husband, John Fisher, are said to have murdered an untold number of travelers at their Six Mile Wayfarer House and hidden the mangled corpses in their cellar. At her execution on Feb. 18, she wore a wedding dress and announced to the crowd, "If anyone has a message for hell, give it to me — I'll deliver it" before leaping from the platform to hang herself rather than wait on the executioner's timing.
"People think you're full of shit, people that don't believe in ghosts," Bagans says. "It puts you in a different class, and so when you know something exists that others don't, you come across as different. It's like that movie Fire in the Sky. When they get sucked up into the UFO and then they get dropped down back on the earth, they're not the same anymore."
Bagans' special guests for the Charleston episode were Dakota Laden, 16, and his father, Rob Laden, both of Lakeville, Minn. Dakota believes wholeheartedly in the existence of ghosts, whereas his father is a bit of a skeptic, but both have seen things they cannot explain. The family built its home on a strip of land that, unbeknownst to them, had been used by a Satan-worshipper to sacrifice animals in the olden days — or so goes the local legend of the Booger Woods.
Dakota and his father got on the show by winning its online Mashup Challenge with a music video that blended clips from the show with original footage shot in Minnesota. Dakota, a budding filmmaker who has amassed more than 50,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, dressed up as Bagans for the video and lip-synced in front of a room full of green fog.
A day before the lockdown, Bagans and his co-hosts, Nick Groff and Aaron Goodwin, cracked jokes about ghost farts and jokingly threatened revenge for the Ghost Adventures parodies that Dakota had posted to his YouTube account. Dakota laughed nervously. Speaking seriously, Goodwin said he hoped to learn something from the lockdown, since he's learned a lot in the four years he has done the show.
"I think there's God, there's the Devil, and there's something else," says Goodwin, who used to be a devout Baptist. "Now I'm starting to realize it's a big game, because why are little kids running around when they're supposed to be in Heaven? That's what my goal in life is, to find out what the real deal is, and when I pass — which I'm not afraid of death anymore — when I pass, I'll be living it, finding out all kinds of stuff, so I'll probably be hunting it even when I'm dead."