The only troubling sound I heard the night I spent in the Jailer’s Inn in Bardstown, Kentucky was the sound of a cell door closing. There are two reasons I found that disturbing. First, the jail was shut down late in the twentieth century, so there are no inmates, and it’s unlikely the staff was strolling through the cell block at that time of night.
Second, I was going to spend the night in one of those cells.
The first jail in Bardstown was built on this same property. It was a wooden building, and one of the resident couples found themselves in a heated argument. The story goes that the wife went to the authorities and argued that her husband should be locked up. The authorities obliged. Later on the wife decided she wanted her husband back, and devised a cunning plan. She would burn the jail and spring her spouse.
This she did, but not altogether successfully. She was caught and given the option of a year in jail, or 40 lashes in the public square. She opted for the beating, and the county and town of Bardstown opted to build the next jail of stone.
The Jailer’s Inn, or the Nelson County Jail as it was known then was built early in the 19th century, expanded at the end of the century and remained in use till 1987. Most of the names of the inmates are forgotten now, petty criminals and vicious thugs alike. John Dillinger spent the night on his way to another facility up north. One young lady incarcerated for intoxication had the bright idea to slick herself up with soap and try to pass through the gap below the door of her cell, and found herself stuck.
When you enter the Jailer’s Inn, now on the National Registry of Historic Places, you’re struck by how nice it is, 19th century decor and feel, provided you’re in the older part of the building, where the jailer lived with his or her family. It’s a quite nice bed and breakfast, tastefully stocked with antiques and the hint of southern charm you find in Kentucky. The back garden is a nice place to sit, particularly in autumn as the leaves were starting to change. The mornings were getting a bit nippy, so rather than breakfast in the courtyard as is their custom, we were moved into the front parlor, the morning after our visit. The place was full, and there was a lot of talk of ghosts at the big table, but nobody had experienced anything too unusual during the night.
Life as a outlaw is not always fun
You are always out there on the run
You stay ahead of the law for a while
And say screw the world, with style
When the party’s over,
you can always ride
But sooner or latter there
will be no place to hide
You may never know where
they hell you are
You just roam from bar to bar
You may son be known as one of the best
Like Frank and Jesse and all the rest
They were the outlaws who rode thru hell
But even they ended up in jail
So before you head out for life of crime
Think of all the outlaws still doing time
Graffiti on a cell wall in the Jailer’s Inn Bed and Breakfast, Bardstown, Kentucky
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The afternoon before, as we walked though the doors of the Jailer’s Inn in Bardstown, the lady behind the counter was charming, the decor was lovely and it wasn’t immediately obvious that you were in a jail at all. Unless you caught the fact that the stone walls were over a foot thick when you passed through them. This was the old part of the jail, built in 1819, and later the living quarters for the jailer and his family.
Notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James were kin to the jailer at one time, and used to on occasion visit Bardstown and the Nelson County Jail. Legend has it that Jesse stayed in the Talbott Tavern next door, and used to visit the family in the jail, even when he was a known outlaw. His ghost is said to be seen in the tavern still.
When they do serve breakfast outside, you eat just across from where many people were hung, and you’d have had an enviable place to watch it from. When you sleep in the cell, you get a hint at what the poor schmucks must have felt the night before the met their doom. As I lay there in the dark, I couldn’t help but wonder if they slept in the same bunk I now lay in.
We were staying in the Jail Cell, the only room which was still a cell at the end of the jail’s history. It has original bunk beds, albeit with slightly better mattresses and nicer pillows and sheets. The door to the room is solid steel and as you enter the back portion of the jail, added on in 1874, you realize you’re not in a hotel. On the walls are various momentos, a gallows hood and handcuffs, photos of a hanging that took place in the yard outside.
It’s no Holiday Inn hallway outside the room. Steps lead up to other cells, you see their barred doors down the hallways and it’s very industrial and rather shabby. For someone looking for an authentic jailhouse haunting experience, it’s Shangri La.
The only unfortunate thing about the Jail Cell room is the decor. Elvis plays a prominent role … Jailhouse Rock you know. I have an aversion to Elvis, it’s a long story and I’m not going into it here. James Dean makes an appearance as well, and I’m not particularly a fan of him either. I’ve been known to rebel, but never without a cause.
The cell has a fully functioning bathroom and shower, which the inmates wouldn’t have had. Nor would they have had the air conditioner in the window. But this is Kentucky and summers are brutal. Even in the fall, it would get incredibly warm in the cells, and I wasn’t looking for that authentic of an experience.
In the daylight it’s a fairly cheerful place on the inside, particularly in the older part of the jail. Even the jail cell felt a bit jaunty with the 1950s kitsch.
Come nightfall, the mood changes, it’s a different ambiance, Outside, looking at the 18 inch thick walls, or inside back in the cell blocks, it’s downright menacing.
We wandered the cells a bit before dark, but we pretty much avoided them afterwards, except for a couple of cursory walk throughs. I’m not one for sitting in the dark staring at electronics trying to turn the supernatural into a science project. It’s been my experience, that it’s more important to be tuned in to the experience rather than dialed in on high tech gadgetry.
I also don’t feel complete sobriety is necessary for these excursions. I’m not out to prove the existence of ghosts. I already believe, so that task is up to someone else. I’m there to stay in interesting places and hopefully in the process descend into a nicely morbid mood. If I feel like I could be on the set of a Hammer horror film, I consider it a nice place to stay.
That said, I got the living shit scared out of me next door once at the Talbott Inn, so I had some hope at least.
The Travel Channel listed the Jailer’s Inn Bed and Breakfast as one of the Ten Most Haunted Places in the United States, though in reality that seems to be something of a stretch. The current owner, who has owned the place for years claims to have never witnessed anything himself, though he does admit the Jailer’s Inn has a unique presence, and says his pets seem to have picked up on it as well.
He’s lost at least one employee, who while cleaning a room in the older part of the jail looked up to see a man glaring at her in the mirror. She turned to find no one there, but when she went back to her task and looked once more in the looking glass, she saw him again.
Most of the unusual occurrences in the Jailer’s Inn in Bardstown are fairly innocuous, footsteps, unexplained voices, things turning up missing, only to reappear later someplace else. Televisions have been known to change channels spontaneously. I always thought that was a shit excuse for a haunting, as electronics can be affected by a number of natural interferences.
Then one day in the house I grew up in, which I knew to be haunted, something unusual happened. My dad was reclining in his easy chair, the remote control on his lap. Suddenly the TV changed channels. He looked at the remote, picked it up and switch it back. It once again, switched to the same channel. He once more switched it back. It then switched to a number of channels, all while sitting on dad’s lap without him touching it. I watched this and pretty quickly picked up on what made this unusual. Many of the channels contained only static, no programming. As the TV went from channel to channel, it avoided those channels without a signal, which couldn’t have been done randomly. Dad tossed the remote control in the floor.
Since then, when I hear about a TV changing channels, I perk up my ears.
“Soon to be Free”
Once I was in the Nelson Co. Jail
They said I was there for raising hell
I tried to tell them that
I was only drunk
But they laughed
and showed me a bunk
They tried to break my soul into
But that’s one thing they’ll never do
They took me away
from the one I loved
And placed me in a cell above
But one day soon I’ll be free
And then it’ll be my ladie and me
When it’s all over and done
I will no longer hafe to run
I’ll be free to live my life
Me, my child and my lovely wife
Graffiti on a cell wall in the Jailer’s Inn Bed and Breakfast, Bardstown, Kentucky
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Hauntings at the Jailer’s Inn
Long ago, one of the earliest jailers died, and his wife took over for him. She was known to be hard, but kind, and many inmates commented on how good the food was. Unless you ran afoul of her, in which case you found yourself on rations of bread and water, and soon learned to toe the line.
Mrs. McKay as she’s known is thought to be a friendly presence in the Jailer’s Inn, but never the less it’s disturbing to wake up in the dark to find her standing at the foot of the bed, looking down on you. Which could explain why on occasion, guests have been known to pack up and leave in the middle of the night.
Bardstown’s own Patti Starr, a prominent ghost hunter who runs ghost tours of the town found an article in a 1909 issue of the newspaper which talked about ghosts in the jail, and in particular one ghost.
In a drunken rage, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, Martin Hill shot and killed his wife, who was believed to be pregnant at the time. He was captured and locked up in the Nelson County Jail as it was known at the time. He paced the floor of his cell, knowing he was in fact doomed and the gallows would be waiting for him outside in the courtyard. Then he took ill with an unknown sickness. HIs body wracked with pain, he held on for a while, his moans and groans eventually giving way to screams which echoed within the stone walls of the jail. Eventually he died, robbing the hangman of a payday.
According to the 1909 article, “Prisoners who have since been confined in the jail hear strange sounds in the cell where he died. He is heard, it is alleged, pacing up and down, as was his wont, during his confinement. He is also heard to groan and toss relentlessly upon his bunk, and, as a climax to the whole, the blood curdling scream he omitted while struggling in the throes of death, rings again through the stone corridors with thrilling distinctness.”
Starr believes the most active ghost is that of his wife, Esther, who she believes followed him into the jail in spirit form, and remains there still. She also believes that the region’s unique geology, limestone and calcite caverns running below the surface which helps bring Bardstown and much of Kentucky fame for its bourbon, also explains many of the hauntings.
According to Starr, “Some of the properties in limestone are similar to properties that you might find in crystals. The property of calcite is to hold memories, so to me, that’s probably why it’s so awesome to ghost hunt in Kentucky.”
And of course, the courtyard in the back where the gallows stood is thought to be haunted. Guests report feeling watched, as though they’re not out there alone though the eye can detect no living beings. I can vouch for that, for after seeing the photos of the hanging inside, it’s hard to scrub those images from your mind.
The hangman’s target in those photos is Phil Evans, who was charged with rape in October of 1893, put in a not guilty plea on November 9 of that year, was convicted two days later and hung on January 5. The photos show a teeming crowd within the stone walls, and included a line of men perched upon the walls to watch the gruesome spectacle.
One guest relates that he was having a conversation with a nice man in the courtyard, was momentarily distracted and when he turned once more to speak, found himself alone.
The Jailer’s Inn scene of multiple hangings
Kentucky has the distinction of being the last state to allow public executions. By the roaring twenties, all executions were held in private within the confines of prisons and jails, except for the most heinous charge of all, rape. Executions for that crime was still held in public, and in fact, the last public execution found the defendant not even charged with murder, a young black man, so that his execution could be held in public, as a murder conviction would have him executed in prison.
I have my own relationship with the gallows.
My uncle, three or four times removed was one of the most famous hangmen of the twentieth century. Actually he hated that term, and never pulled the lever himself.
George Philip Hanna witnessed a hanging gone wrong when he was 22 years old, and became obsessed with providing a more humane demise for the condemned. He lived in Epworth, Illinois, near where I grew up, in the spot where my ancestors came into Illinois. As a little boy, when we’d pass the house where he’d lived, my grandfather would tell me “that’s where the hangman lived.” He’d died a couple decades earlier, but that was enough to set my young morbid mind into overdrive.
Hanna took part in about seventy hangings, and carried his own scaffold, rope and hood for the condemned. Actually he carried two hoods, giving them a choice between black and white. He’d meet with them prior to the hanging, give them advice on how to ensure it went well, and they didn’t suffer. Horror stories about hangings abound, from not enough of a drop and an agonizingly long time strangling to death, to too long a drop and the head coming off entirely. Hanna wasn’t always successful, in one case the rope broke and they had to go through the whole process again, with an injured and rather put out condemned man. But he had a lot better odds than most hangmen.
As hangings were public events, it was always a good idea to have a clean drop and quick death. As the twentieth century heated up, hangings became more and more of a spectacle. He put the noose around the neck of southern Illinois’ resident gangster, Charlie Birger, who ironically enough, my other grandfather used to work for, delivering firewood to his hotel. Hannah plied his trade into Kentucky as well. My dad went along for one delivery, and my grandfather told him to get down in the floor of the truck and stay there. Being the curious sort, dad popped his head once, saw a group of men milling about, watching grandpa unload, armed with machine guns, and quickly ducked back down.
It should be noted Hannah helped many black men meet their maker, including two at once on one occasion. Were they all guilty? The fate of black men accused of rape in the south during the time is legendary, but that wasn’t an issue that concerned Hannah. He only wanted their ending to be as painless as possible.
Hannah had a morbid fear of pain, which is believed to be why he went to such lengths to spare others pain. He said he was a nervous wreck in the days leading up to the execution, and for days afterwards.
He was put in charge of the mechanics of a young black man’s death in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1927, an event that drew nearly 15,000 people to the small town. People stayed up all night at hanging parties drinking, they sold concessions at the hanging, newspapers from all over the country covered the event, as it was the first time a female sheriff was responsible for hanging a black man. It was a circus, and it was to be the last public execution in the United States.
Hannah never charged for his services, except for a bottle of whiskey, and a request for the murder implement. In that way he had everything in his collection from a machine gun to a brick wrapped in a rag.
So my interest in hangings go way back, even if in truth, I had more or less forgotten about it till I stepped into the Jail Cell room in the Jailer’s Inn in Bardstown.
We were in the area for a concert at a nearby casino, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull for those who need to know, and yes, it was a great show. We hung out at the casino for a while after the show, and though I’m not a gambler – one vice I’ve managed to avoid, I did sample of a number of fine Kentucky bourbons.
Arriving back in Bardstown and the Jailer’s Inn, I continued to alter the mind a bit. We decided to take a walk around the town, which you simply have to do when night falls on Bardstown as it’s an amazing place, and still retains an early twentieth century feel, and older in some spots. We eventually ended up in chairs outside the door of the cellblock, quite likely the door in which condemned men were led out to the courtyard to be hung.
My companion for the night, the infamous Todd Lane, had brought small candles for the room. We both share a first name and we go way back, till I was three years old I believe. Though visually we’re polar opposites, we’re brothers from different parents, and he occasionally accompanies me on my travels around the midwest. As we were the only people in the cell block that night, we kept the heavy steel door open to the room.
Todd Lane has an aversion to light, so the only light we kept on was a small one over the sink. From where we sat outside, it illuminated the room a bit, and in fact was the only light visible inside from where we kept vigil.
It’s a curious phenomenon, that even a dim light like that is quite noticeable when it goes out or is otherwise obscured. I caught it out of the corner of my eye, just for an instant and as I turned to look more closely, saw it was in fact still lit. It seems to be blocked from view for that instant by someone walking past the door, and I saw that Todd Lane caught it too.
It was a moment later when we heard the clinking of a cell door closing further back in the building. We took a walk back there, to see if perhaps the staff had business they were attending to. here were no footsteps, there was nobody living on that floor, except us.
It wasn’t the most terrifying moment of either of our lives, and I’m lucky in that Todd Lane is most decidedly non plussed about most things.
Eventually we turned in, him taking the bottom bunk, me taking the top. It wasn’t the most comfortable bed, not even close, but still much nicer than the mattresses the inmates would have slept on. It was a fitful night for me, not a lot of sleep, listening for noises which are inevitable in a building that old, compounded by the stone and steel so even a mouse scratching would likely echo throughout.
But mostly it was just the feeling, residual memories of those who have lain in that bunk before you. I doubt they slept particularly well either, and the dreams one has in a place like that are often as dark and dank as the grave. Or as Tom Waits once put it ..
And the bricks are all scarred with jailhouse tattoos
And everyone is behaving like dogs
And the horses are coming down Violin Road
And Dutch is dead on his feet
And the rooms all smell like diesel
And you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here.
I don’t recall any dreams in the Jailer’s Inn in Bardstown, Kentucky. I do remember going over the words of a poem written on the wall there by an inmate long ago, thinking of my own family an ocean away who I had yet to meet but who I felt with an intensity bordering on madness. The pain of separation as I was to learn later on is an incarceration of a different type, but one equally brutal.
The Nelson County Jail
When I was young I used to mess around
In a little hick place called Bardstown
When one night I went to get drunk
And I ended up on the bottom bunk
When I woke I felt like hell
I was in the Nelson County Jail
The Nelson County Jail is no place to be
If you got a wife and a baby
So if you fell you hafe to raise hell
Stay away from the Nelson County Jail.
Graffiti on a cell wall in the Jailer’s Inn Bed and Breakfast, Bardstown, Kentucky