In a past life, Ottawa was the most dangerous place in Canada and in 1862 the Carlton County Jail was built to house criminals with minor infractions like robbery as well as some of the worst criminals on death row waiting their ultimate fate, mostly by hanging (yup, at the time Canada had capital punishment). Today, it’s a converted hostel where hundreds of backpackers around the world come to crash for a few nights, but staying at the HI Ottawa Jail is just as eerie as it was 150 years ago.
Entering the jail, I could see the structure of the prison was generally left the way it was built. Limestone on the outside and ghostly chills on the inside. The cell blocks were made up of small spaces of only 9×3 feet and a barred door. Conditions were harsh here. There was no air conditioning or heating to endure the Canadian winters. The windows were only protected by iron bars without any kind of glass to shield them from the elements. In the winter months, cold and snow easily blew into the cells and in the summer, insects infested them. For 12 hours a day inmates would be locked into their confined cell, let out only so guards could keep an eye on them when they were awake. Not having the luxury of bathrooms, guards gave them buckets once a day to relieve themselves, other times they would live in their own unsanitary conditions.
To escape the harsh conditions or their inevitable fate, many prisoners committed suicide by plunging themselves through the stairwell down 8 storeys. Eventually safety nets were hung across the stairwell to prevent prisoners from escaping their own sentence. Holes were also drilled in each step so workers could recognize between a guard’s shoes or a prisoner’s.
The courthouse nearby the hostel decided a prisoner’s fate. To transport them, guards used the enclosed underground tunnel. For those that weren’t so lucky, inmates sat waiting on death row for their final day. I couldn’t help but think, the last public hanging in Canada actually happened in this very place where I was standing. Patrick Whelan was hanged for assassinating Thomas Darcy McGee, one of the founding Fathers of Confederation.
Today, the hostel is one of the most haunted places in the world and some say Whelan’s spirit still lingers the hallway of Death Row or seen walking toward the Gallows. More than 5000 people came to watch the gruesome hanging on February 11, 1869. The corpses of inmates were often burned then buried in the makeshift graveyard behind the jail (where you might still stumble on some unmarked graves). I remembered my encounters at Pére Lachaise but this time it was after dark! In 1972, the jail closed down because of unsanitary conditions.
How to get here: 75 Nicholas Street, Ottawa
Where to book: You can book here on Booking.com
I was a guest of the Haunted Walk tour. All opinions are my own.