Ladies and gentleman, it is February 20th, and tonight, we are going to jail.
Well, not exactly. We are going to the Ottawa Jail Hostel, formerly known as the Carleton County Gaol. If you’ve been on the Ottawa Haunted Walk or stayed here yourself, then you’ll know all about this place.
It seems lost now, as a brooding and austere five-story Victorian building amongst the modern high rises and shopping centres. There’s still a pillory on the front lawn, and a faded sign above the courtyard gate saying: ‘Jail Entrance, Entrée De La Prison’. But no prisoners have passed through the doors in forty-five years now, or not a living one at least.
Yes, you guessed it. The building is very, very haunted. In fact, Lonely Planet calls it the ninth most haunted place in the world, and that is what we call a good review.
But first, before our stay begins, the story of the jail itself.
The Gaol was constructed in 1861, with a four story cell block to the rear, the administration block facing directly onto the Rideau Canal, a gallows yard surrounded by walls up to six metres high, and an underground tunnel going to the Courthouse next door. Its architect was Henry Hodge Horsey from Kingston, who also designed many of Ottawa’s notable Victorian buildings like the Banque Nationale and the original City Hall. At the time, the Gaol was considered ‘state of the art’, but as we all know, the standard in the nineteenth century tended to be quite low.
For starters, men, women and children were all doomed to serve their time within its walls—some of them murderers, others pickpockets and the like. They shared sixty cells with one hundred and fifty of their fellow inmates, in unsanitary conditions and without heating in the frigid winter months. Inmates only received one meal per day if they were lucky, while some of them were placed in solitary confinement, naked and alone. So it should come as no surprise that some inmates died before their sentences were up.
Seven years after the Gaol began operation, an important part of Ottawa’s history took place between one Patrick Whelan and the Minister of Parliament for Montreal West, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
McGee was coming back from a Parliamentary debate just after midnight on April 7th, 1868. He ascended the steps towards the boarding house on Sparks Street where he had been staying, and greeted the owner of said boarding house, when he was suddenly shot through the neck. The shot reportedly knocked his dentures right out of his mouth. When others came to the scene, they found McGee dead on the street, with no sign of his assassin.
But it only took the police a day to find the culprit, in a tavern, with a .32 Smith & Wesson pistol in his pocket—allegedly the very pistol that had taken the life of McGee the previous night. The assassin was Patrick J. Whelan of County Galway, a man suspected of sympathizing with an Irish militia called ‘The Fenian Brotherhood’. When brought before the Court, however, Whelan insisted upon his innocence, but it was to no avail. In September, the Court found him guilty and sentenced him to die. Upon receiving the verdict of the Court, Whelan spoke these words:
"I am held to be a murderer. I am here standing on the brink of my grave, and I wish to declare to you and to my God that I am innocent, that I never committed this deed."
It’s not entirely clear if Patrick Whelan was indeed the man who killed D’Arcy McGee, as the evidence against him ended up being circumstantial at best. Nevertheless, not six months after the murder, in front of a crowd of five thousand spectators, Whelan again declared his innocence, before being hung from the Gallows at the Carleton County Gaol.
His body was buried on the property, where it presumably still remains with all the other men, women, and children who perished there. Afterwards, only two more executions took place there, the last being in 1945.
Eventually, in 1972, the outdated and infamously inhumane County Gaol closed for good. However, unlike most of the beautiful buildings designed by Henry Horsey, the Gaol was not demolished. It was instead turned into a hostel, after enjoying a much needed renovation. Guests stay in former cells, tour-goers pass by on the Ghost Walk and spirits linger alongside them. According to the stories, Patrick Whelan is unsurprisingly the most prolific phantom at the jail-turned-hostel. Guests often describe waking up to find Whelan standing over them, or he is seen walking towards the gallows. His spirit is certainly not alone though. There have also been many reports of disembodied screaming and crying, a feeling of intense negativity, and even violent encounters with the more aggressive spectral residents.
So we are going to spend the night with them.