Commonly referred to as the Old Jail, the former Charleston District Jail was built in 1802 and operated as such until 1939. In 1822 renowned architect Robert Mills designed a fireproof four-story wing, which was later demolished so the current octagonal wing (pictured below) could be added in 1856.
The rear tower of the jail was damaged in the 1886 earthquake and subsequently removed, as was the original fourth floor of the main building. However, the jail is more known for its ghosts and abject prisoners than its architecture.
Among this prison’s most infamous occupants was the notorious Lavinia Fisher, who was hanged in Charleston in 1820. The first woman in South Carolina to receive the death penalty, she also is credited with being America’s first female serial killer, though she officially was convicted of highway robbery, and her role as a murderess remains unproven. According to legend, her last words were, “If anyone has a message for the devil, tell me and I’ll deliver it myself.” Although Lavinia was interred at nearby Potter’s Field (now MUSC), she is widely believed to haunt the jail, where she was held for a year before her execution.
Marauding pirates in port and Federal prisoners of the Civil War were also housed here during the jail’s sordid history. Denmark Vesey was famously held in the jail’s ominous-looking tower as he awaited being put to death after his slave rebellion plot was discovered; four of his white supporters were also jailed here, though they were not hanged.
It has been speculated that as many as 10,000 people, or more, have lost their lives here during the jail’s operation. Graffiti can still be seen in upstairs cells, etched into the damp prison walls.
The building was purchased by the Housing Authority of Charleston in 1939 after the jail closed. It remained empty during the following decades until the American College of the Building Arts acquired it in 2000. The college was founded in 1998 and originally located at McLeod Plantation on James Island. The school offers Bachelor of Applied Sciences in the Building Arts in six craft specializations, and students frequently host galas and tours to benefit the school’s programs. In October of 2016, the college relocated to a restored trolley barn on upper Meeting Street.
As stated above, the Old City Jail is rumored to be haunted, and Bulldog Tours have access to the jail for ghost and history tours until late 2019 for curious onlookers. Haunted or not, the historic building is well worth a look to those interested in the Romanesque Revival jail, its legends, and its ghosts.
In the fall of 2019, plans are underway to completely renovate the structure as a mixed use property. On the ground floor, a museum of the storied history will be laid out. On the upper floors, the former cells, and officers quarters, will be reconfigured into office space.
Historic Pictures of Old Charleston Jail
More Pictures of Old Charleston Jail