Ghost stories from America’s jails

Many people recognize the clank of a jail cell door, even though they haven’t heard it in person. Having toured many historic jails in Texas for her book Just Visitin’ Old Texas Jails (2007), local author Joan Upton Hall confirms, “It’s a very real sound. It has such an awful note of finality. I would hate to be put in jail and hear that sound because you know you’re not leaving unless [your jailers] want you to leave.”

It seems that Joan can’t escape prison, either. Shortly after she finished Just Visitin,’ her editor suggested she write about jails all over the country, but Joan put her foot down. “‘Whoa!’ I said. ‘I’m not traveling all over the United States to visit old jails.’” But her editor had a better plan. Unlike Just Visitin,’ Joan’s book Ghostly Tales from America’s Jails is an anthology. Joan is the editor and also a contributing writer. From the comfort of home, she collected stories from around the country regarding historic jails and the inmates who perhaps never quite left their mortal confinement.

Just Visitin’ includes one or two scary ghost stories. “It wasn’t intended,” Joan says. “That’s just what happened.” She had encountered a few “feelings” of the prickling-on-the-neck variety while researching jails with her husband, Don. But one particular run-in with an oppressive spirit in a Texas jail left the normally unflappable Don exclaiming, “What was that?” Joan says, “He never laughed at me again.” It was that event and other “prickles” that gave birth to the idea of Ghostly Tales from America’s Jails.

As in Just Visitin,’ the chapters in Ghostly Tales are arranged by the age of the prison, oldest to newest, with the oldest dating from 1610 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is 70 years older than the Old Salem Witch Jail in Salem, Massachusetts. To be included in the book, the jails had to be open to the public for visiting. Many are museums that highlight a building’s unique history, but others house offices, shops, or bed and breakfasts.

Stories were contributed by ghost hunters, tour guides, teachers, and grandmas. Some of the stories are just what a reader might expect of a ghost story—sobbing apparitions, scurrying sounds, cold spots in an otherwise warm room. But other stories, according to Joan, “are downright scary.” Some, such as the story of The Old Slave House, resonate with historical travesties.

The majority of the hauntings in the stories involve prisoners determined to wreak unhappiness in the next life, while “some ghosts,” Joan writes in the book’s introduction, “seem to think they’re employees—if not owners—of whatever business has found new digs in an old jail. At the 1872 jail, turned B&B, in Arkansas, the long-deceased sheriff checks the locks for his guests—or does he think they’re prisoners?”

And no book about jails, spirit-challenged or not, would be complete without a chapter about “The Rock,” Alcatraz Prison. Before its inception as a prison facility in the mid-1800s, Alcatraz Island was already known as “Evil Island” by Native Americans. Housing some of the 20th century’s most dangerous and infamous criminals only enhanced its mystique.

Ghostly Tales from America’s Jails is a fun read, full of history and mystery. It has something for everyone, believer or skeptic. Are the events described in these stories factual? That’s something readers will have to decide for themselves, but to quote contributing writer Patricia Morse-McNeely, “Only the ghosts in residence would know—and they are not talking.”

For more information about Joan and her books, visit her website at www.joanuptonhall.com.

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