If anyone knows what’s happens in Charleston after dark, it’s Randy Johnson. A tour guide with Bulldog Tours, Johnson leads visitors on ghost tours through the Old City Jail, past graveyards and along the city’s spookiest alleyways.
“When people come to the city, I tell them, ‘Do yourself a favor and take time at night to walk through the historic district,’” Johnson said. “It’s eerie, romantic and one of the better ways to experience the city. That’s when she speaks to you. The oak trees speak, the shadows make their way through the leaves and trees, and you’re likely to see something that strikes you as supernatural.”
Johnson said Charleston really is a city of the dead as ghosts vie for the attention of visitors and locals. Some of these ghosts met with tragedy and may be trying to undo the circumstances that led to their death.
One such ghost caught in this loop is the “trench ghost.” An unidentified woman in her late 20s wearing a haint blue dress may be seen in the graveyard of the Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street. She’s constantly digging in what was a trench or mass grave used to bury those who died from a yellow fever outbreak in 1854. The ghost is looking for her two sons and desperately trying to reunite her family.
Other ghosts are more mischievous and have been known to shove people, play with their jewelry or mess with their phones, Johnson said.
Those ghosts are often found in The Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon on East Bay Street. 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 spirits of those criminals have been known to make an appearance during ghost tours. “They were bad when they were alive, and they are bad when they’re dead,” Johnson said. “They like to mess with you.”
Another ghost-filled spot is the Old City Jail, which 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.
Another great Charleston spirit is known as the “wack-a-mole ghost” seen late at night by people driving near the northwest corner of Broad and Church streets. Drivers hit the brakes fast to avoid striking a man seen sticking out of the street from the waist up. Because he always pops up in different places, he earned the “wack-a-mole ghost” moniker. The man’s real name is William Withers. He was a young man from Kentucky who moved to Charleston to sell race horses to wealthy planters. Withers joined a card game with these wealthy men and gambled away the payment money. Ashamed, Withers hatches a plot. He crawls down into Charleston’s sewer system across from what was the Bank of South Carolina at 50 Broad St. For three months, he tunneled his way to the bank vaults. Withers would pop up through a street drain at night to grab a package of supplies from his one accomplice.
Eventually, Withers succeeded in cutting through the outer walls of the bank, making it as far as the bank’s cellar before getting caught. Withers is dragged from the sewer and arrested on Oct. 8, 1803. Newspapers dubbed Withers the “ground mole.” At his trial just before the verdict, the judge asks Withers if he truly lived in the sewers for three months yet emerged empty-handed. When Withers responded, “Yes,” the judge banged his gavel and declared the case dismissed, saying “Release that man, he has suffered enough.”
Johnson said he’s always researching and looking for new stories. In fact, he just discovered a new story from The Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon.
Blacksmith Casper Stroebel was an immigrant from Germany. The British commissioned him to forge shackles in the dungeon to accommodate all the protestors they threw down there. Stroebel’s sons took an interest in the conflict and, even though Stroebel urged them to say out of it, his sons joined the Continental army. The British invaded the city, arresting Stroebel in an effort to get to his sons. They bound Strobel to the wall of the dungeon using the very shackles he had forged.
The British were never able to lure his sons out, so they released Strobel. But the man had gone crazy during his captivity and he died that night on the street outside the dungeon. Johnson said he haunts the dungeon still and they’ve even captured a video of Stroebel coming out of the dungeon wall.
A city with this kind of deep history, colorful characters and abundance of dark alleys and church graveyards is perfect for those who want to hear about Charleston’s ghostly tales. It’s fun to explore Charleston’s spooky side any time of the year, but fall is a particularly great time to hit the streets after dark to tour historic buildings and cemeteries. And be on the lookout for spirits eager for some interaction with the living.
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. 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. 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.