In the heart of the historic district, the oldest part of Charleston, sits the Old City Jail. It was in use from 1802- 1939. The building sat vacant for 61 years prior to its purchase by the American College for the Building Arts which has undertaken the job of renovations to preserve this important part of Charleston history. Most of the original structure is still standing today although the original octagonal tower had to be removed after it was damaged by the earthquake of 1886.
The Old City Jail was home to some of Charleston’s most famous criminals. Denmark Vessey was jailed here while he awaited hanging for organizing a slave rebellion in July of 1822. He was condemned to live the rest of his short life in the top of the octagonal tower. At this time the jail filled up with hundreds of inmates who were part of the planed slave rebellion. Most of them were slaves or free blacks but there were four white men who were also jailed for supporting the rebellion.
Other famous residents of the Old City Jail include Lavinia Fisher, her husband and much of their gang. They were convicted of murder and robbery and Lavinia Fisher is still considered the first female mass murderer in the United States. Strange tales abound of bizarre happenings at the hotel the Fishers used as their headquarters.
But this wasn’t only a jail for famous criminals. Charleston was a busy port in the 19th century and often the victim of wily pirates. Many of these pirates met their fate in the Old City Jail. During the civil war, murderers, robbers and pirates were jailed alongside confederate and federal war prisoners.
And what Old City Jail would be complete without a few good ghost stories? Don’t worry, there are plenty of those here. Learn more about the county jail and its colorful history on one of our carriage tours of this important, historic city.