Wednesday, June 12, 2013
One of Charleston’s grand old buildings once housed pirates from all over the world as well as the indigent, rambunctious, unruly sailors who needed a time out. The Old City jail was home to those who got in trouble for various crimes from pick pocketing and loitering to not paying taxes. This grim place also held Civil War Union POW’s and prior to the war, imprisoned slaves waiting to be auctioned.
Public executions were common place and they were held on Saturdays as a source of family entertainment.
South Carolina’s first female serial killer Lavenia Fisher was executed in the gallows in 1819 after she and her husband John were accused of serial murder.
They ran a hotel on the outskirts of town near Spruill and Dorchester roads called the Six Mile Wayfarer. They catered to merchants who came in and out of the city trading goods.
The jail, now owned by the American College of Building Arts, is open for tours through Bulldog Tours.
Guests can learn about the legendary story of the Fishers, who according to Wikpedia were charged with murder and robbery.
“After a short period, many reports were made to the local sheriff’s department about guests disappearing at the couple’s inn. Due to lack of evidence, and the popularity of the couple with many locals, these complaints came to nothing. Lavinia Fisher would always invite men to dinner and ask many questions about their occupation, trying to find out if they had money or not. She would send them up to their rooms with a cup of tea that was actually poisoned. Once the men would drink their tea and go to bed, her husband would go to the room to make sure they were dead by stabbing them. Another version of the legend was that the tea would only put the men to sleep for a few hours. Then, when they were almost asleep, Lavinia would pull a lever and the bed would collapse and drop the victim into a pit. Some believe that there were spikes waiting at the bottom of the pit,” the website notes.
John Laverne, founder and owner of Bulldog Tours, now leads guests through the dank hallways of the Old City Jail, relaying the stories of the men and women housed there over the years.
He said that the legend goes that on day of execution Lavenia Fisher’s final request was to be hanged in her wedding dress. He said she walked up to the gallows, stood on the box and took the noose and tightened the rope around her neck herself. The crowd stood there in a state of shock because her final words were something like, ‘if anyone has a message for the devil give it to me. I will deliver it personally for I’ll be seeing him in a minute.’ And then she jumped, the rope caught and she died.
According to Laverne within hours at the courthouse and the jail many claimed to see an image of a woman in long flowing dress moving through the buildings.
This is just one of the many stories told on the Haunted Jail Tour.
Bulldog Tours got its name because Laverne is a 1991 graduate of The Citadel. During his senior year Laverne did an internship with the local tourism commission and the director told him to take a carriage tour. “That was life changing for me. I wanted to do that for rest of my life on some scale,” he said.
He was a tour guide for three years and eventually got what he called “a real job.”
But he still gave tours for fun. After several years Laverne began contemplating starting his own company.
Ten years ago he did and today he said he loves going to work everyday.
Bulldog Tours is not just any tour company. Laverne purchased a day time tour company that offered customized corporate tours and purchased a culinary tour company in town. His idea was to make them sustainable tours.
That has translated into $1.9 million charitable donations for preservation of three historical landmarks. “We realize people love Charleston because of the buildings, the architecture and the history,” he said.
He started doing tours through the Old Exchange Building at night as part of the Charleston Ghost and Dungeon Tour. He approached officials at the Old Exchange, and said, “You don’t use the building at night. Let me give tours at night for fun and raise money to preserve and restore the building.”
It quickly took off and became one of the more popular ghost tours in town.
Several years later the American College of Building Arts purchased the Old City Jail to start a four year private college to teach people the tried-and-true methods of building and fixing things using carpentry, masonry and stone carving.
“I approached them because I’ve always loved that building. Bulldgog Tours had a good run at The Exchange and I asked if they would be interested - and we came up with a partnership.”
In addition he has added the Circular Church which features the oldest graveyard in town and again tour proceeds go to the church.
To date, $600,000 has been raised for the school by giving tours at night.
The haunted jail tour is a mix of history and some ghost stories a well.
“I’m not a big ghost person, but I love buildings and their history,” Laverne said.
“The people are fun, engaged and we give them something tangible to see and touch and feel.”
Laverne said he has always been a skeptic about ghosts, despite living in nine historic homes in Charleston. He’s always heard rumors about the jail being haunted. But he had no true idea until he experienced for himself some bizarre, unexplainable occurrences there.
“When we first started giving tours the building had been vacant for 60 years. We had to get a certificate of occupancy and approval from the fire marshal. We installed exit lights and brought everything up to code to make it function safely for the public - especially at night,” he said.
It took two weeks to do that and in that time period Laverne said he was there a lot by himself.
“I heard all kinds of noises, cords would be unplugged when they were minutes before plugged in.”
He also heard first-hand accounts from workers and project managers and engineers.
At the end of the day there would be two to four inches of saw dust on the floor.
The workers would set the alarm and go home.
The next morning they would come back to find hundreds of foot prints, (shoes, bare feet, boot prints) and the alarm never tripped.
“The Old City Jail is a very interesting, living, breathing historical landmark,” he said.
So far more than 10,000 people have taken the tour. “We’ve had lots of feedback of weird things that have happened and thousands of pictures come in every year with interesting images of orbs and unexplained light sources of images that could possibly be a ghost.
In one instance he said a door came off its hinges and slammed up against a wall during a tour. People have fainted on the tour after feeling a rush of weakness.
All tickets are available by phone at 843-722-8687 or online at www.bulldogtours.com.
The tour, which lasts about 45 minutes, has been featured on “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures,” “Paranormal State” and The Food Network.
Laverne said the tour is not for small kids but they have had 7-year-olds who think it is awesome and then grown men who have “flipped out” and run out of the building.
Reservations are required. Fee parking is available and the tour runs 360 nights a year. Tours are offered at $18 for adults and $10 for children. Not young children friendly, but parents can be the judge. It recommended for 8-years-old and up.
Bulldog is the only tour company in Charleston that has night-time access to The Old Exchange Building, The Old City Jail (home of The American College of the Building Arts) and The Circular Congregational Church.
Bulldog Tours acquired Charleston’s premier daytime history tour company, Charleston Strolls, which is available to the public as well as corporate and school groups. Charleston Strolls offers a daily history tour that departs from The Mills House Hotel at 10 a.m. every day of the year.
In March of 2008, Bulldog purchased Culinary Tours of Charleston, which guides guests into Lowcountry restaurants and eateries for kitchen tours, tastings, food history and chats with the chef. The tours are two and one half hours and are a way to walk, talk and taste your way through Charleston.
All tickets are available for purchase at The Bulldog Tour office located at 40 North Market Street (inside the Rainbow Market), by phone at 843-722-8687 or online at www.bulldogtours.com. Meet at the office for the tour 15 minutes in advance unless otherwise indicated.
Guests may change their tour date or time with 24 hours notice. Tours take place rain or shine unless weather is severe.