A city with this kind of deep history, colorful characters and abundance of dark alleys and church graveyards is bound to have a few ghosts – or at least some pretty great ghost stories. It’s fun to explore Charleston’s spooky side any time of the year, but fall is a particularly good time to hit the streets after dark to tour historic buildings and cemeteries.
John LaVerne of Bulldog Tours, which takes groups on haunted tours and ghost walks around the city, admits he’s never been sensitive to ghosts, but he said just the idea of Charleston’s intense history gets to him.
“You can get an interesting vibe if you get away from the hustle and bustle and get into the residential neighborhoods where it’s more quiet and serene,” he said. “You really feel the presence of 340 years of history. Sometimes it can be very overwhelming, like, ‘Wow, it’s still alive.’”
The Old City Jail
This spot is so creepy LaVerne said grown men have run out of it during tours. The Old City Jail housed thieves, murderers, pirates and other seriously scary folks in the 19th century. The jail operated from 1802 to 1939 and most of the original structure remains intact, including the very cells where the criminals stayed. The jail, located at 21 Magazine St., housed some of Charleston’s most notorious criminals, including John and Lavinia Fisher, convicted of robbery and murder in the Charleston area in the 1800s, as well as 19th-century pirates who were held at the jail while awaiting hanging.
The Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon
Here’s another place that will send tourists on a mad dash for the exits. In the daytime, it’s a very school group friendly kind of place, LaVerne said, but at night, it has a personality all its own. Located at 122 East Bay St., the building dates to 1771 and has a storied past. The Declaration of Independence was presented on its steps, the U.S. Constitution was ratified in the Great Hall and even President George Washington visited in 1791.
That’s all great daytime history, but what’s spooky about this building is the cellar – or dungeon – that the British used to hold prisoners during the revolution. Pirates also were held captive on the site of what is now the Exchange Building in 1718.
The Battery Carriage House Inn
Stay in this historic property dating back to 1843 and you just might catch a glimpse of a “gentleman ghost” or a headless torso trying to share your room. It’s suspected that the gentleman ghost is that of a young college student whose family owned the house. The young man jumped off the roof and killed himself. The headless torso most likely hails from the Civil War. The inn is located at 20 S. Battery St., an area that was used actively by the military during the siege of Charleston.
Stories abound of sightings of 19th-century school teacher Zoe St. Amand, who lived in the house at 72 Queen St. with her sister, Elizabeth. Legend has it that when Elizabeth died, Zoe became depressed, lonely and her mental health declined. In 1976, the house was converted to a restaurant – and a little neighborhood dog, Poogan, became a fixture on the porch, greeting the restaurant guests. Poogan died in 1979 and is buried on the property. Diners and restaurant staff have reported seeing Zoe’s ghost as well as the ghost of Poogan. Even guests who stay on the Queen Street side of the Mills House across the street have reported nighttime Zoe sightings.
The Powder Magazine
Charleston’s oldest public building, The Powder Magazine was built in 1713 and is home to more than a few ghosts – or so the legends say. Located at 79 Cumberland St., the building housed thousands of pounds of gunpower for the young city. Visit the museum during the day or, if you dare, join Bulldog Tours on a nighttime Haunted Arsenal Tour when more than a few spirits just might make their presence known.
Hear stories of the guards rumored to haunt the front gates of the building. And learn about Anne Bonny, a well-known female pirate and rabble–rouser, who as a girl came the Charleston area from Ireland. Even at age 14, Anne would hang out on near the waterfront, looking for adventure. She met low-level pirate James Bonny – much to her father’s dismay and objection. Anne and James beat up her father and set his house on fire. Ultimately, Anne tired of James and found love with Calico Jack, who’d recently retired from the pirate life. Anne convinced him to come out of retirement and the two went pirating together until they were captured off the coast of Jamaica and Jack was hanged.
Just about any of the downtown alleys – Philadelphia, Unity, Lodge, Longitude Lane – aren’t terribly well lit and create a creepy ambiance, LaVerne said. “You can easily imagine what it was like 200 years ago,” he said.
With the drunken sailors and pirates, Charleston’s downtown was a rough and tumble place two centuries ago, LaVerne said.
But that simply adds to the spooky allure.
“You can smell the salt air, feel the humidity and know these are the streets the pirates walked,” he said.
Take a Tour of Charleston’s Haunted Side
Can’t get enough of Charleston’s spooky side? Take one of these tours for a dose of thrills and chills.
Bulldog Tours: Ghost & Graveyard Walking Tour, Haunted Jail Tour, Charleston Ghost & Dungeon Tour and the Dark Side of Charleston Walking Tour. Tours meet at 18 Anson St.; purchase tickets at bulldogtours.com.
USS Yorktown Ghost Tours: After dark, come aboard the famous “Fighting Lady” on this guided, 90-minute tour. Meet at Patriots Point ticketing area; purchase tickets at yorktownghosttours.com.
Sandlapper Tours: Hear the tales of lost fortunes, pirate ships and tragic death while riding Charleston’s dark waves. Purchase tickets at sandlappertours.com.
Charleston Ghost Hunt: Adults-only walking tour by candlelight. Meet in front of the U.S. Custom House, 200 East Bay St. Purchase tickets online: charlestonghosthunt.com.
Ashley on the Cooper: Participate in an interactive Murder Walk. Retrace the steps of a killer and unfold an unsolved crime. Meet 10 minutes prior to tour time in front of The Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St. Purchase tickets at ashleyonthecooper.com.
Tour Charleston LLC: Take a nighttime tour of the Unitarian Church Graveyard built in 1772, while hearing stories from the book, “The Ghosts of Charleston” by Julian T. Buxton III. Check in 20 minutes prior to tour time at corner of Cumberland and Concord streets; purchase tickets at tourcharleston.com.
If you love a spine-tingling haunted house, Boone Hall Fright Nights is the place to be in October. It’s a Charleston twist on the traditional haunted house, featuring four new scary attractions. Not recommended for those under 12. Get ticket information at boonehallfrightnights.com.