When I booked tickets for the Haunted Walk of Ottawa’s Ghosts and the Gallows tour, I simply thought that it would be an entertaining evening.
My cousin, who had moved to the desert state of Arizona in the United States 10 years ago, was visiting with his girlfriend, who had never been to Ottawa or to Canada before and this seemed like a unique way for them to see Canada’s capital city.
None of us are particularly brave, but I assured them that the tour had more to do with historical facts than ghostly encounters—though I failed to mention that this particular walking tour focused on the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel, which is often said to be one of Canada’s “most haunted buildings.”
What is now known as the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel was formerly the Carleton County Gaol, a maximum security prison that was operational from 1862 to 1972. This building is also the site of the last public hanging in Canada, where Patrick James Whelan was hung in 1869 after being convicted of assassinating Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation. The prison was closed in 1972 due to unsanitary conditions and, after refurbishment, the hostel opened to travellers one year later.
After meeting our guide at the corner of Sparks and Elgin streets, we set out with a group into the ByWard Market neighbourhood. As we walked through Ottawa’s downtown core, home to one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada, the guide stopped to tell us about several historical locations, including the high-end Courtyard Restaurant, which is said to be haunted by a woman in a long black gown.
Late at night, the beautifully dressed Victorian-era woman, who was tragically a victim of fire many years ago, appears on the second floor. If provoked by a server or a passerby, the woman proceeds to play with light switches and bar equipment, causing widespread panic amongst the restaurant’s staff.
Up to this point in the tour, we’d been standing outside of supposedly haunted market-area buildings, which made us feel secure. It was just past 8 p.m., the ByWard Market was bustling with people heading out for a late meal and we were quite far from the Courtyard Restaurant’s second floor. Then our guide announced that the next stop on our tour was the Ottawa Jail Hostel.
As we walked towards the ominous, imposing, iron bar-clad building, a soft rain began to fall and the once gentle autumn breeze turned into a cold, bitter wind. It was as if something was telling us not to disturb those who might still dwell there.
Once inside the building, we followed our guide to the hostel’s eighth floor, which is close to its original condition with regular cells located on the right and death row cells on the left.
As we walked up the staircase lined with black “anti-suicide” metal grates, we couldn’t help but notice that the atmosphere had changed. It was cold; the air was stuffy and thick. It was hard to breathe. Somehow we got the feeling we were no longer alone.
At the wooden eighth floor doorway, our guide instructed us to follow her before disappearing into a dark hallway.
Knowing the building’s history and having grown up in its hostile shadow as an Ottawa resident, I hesitated—as did my two companions. But reluctant to find ourselves on the other side of the doorway alone, we gently (and discreetly) held onto the backpack of the stranger in front of us, closed our eyes and let him lead us through the darkness to the group.
As we then stood in a pool of light provided by a small glowing lantern, the guide proceeded to tell us about the horrible conditions inmates used to be subjected to at the jail, such as a lack of plumbing and the bitter Canadian cold. The original jail building did not have any windows and many inmates suffered, not having access to polar fleece, Gortex or other modern conveniences!
Our guide added that one place a prisoner did not want to end up in was Solitary Confinement, where they were stripped of their clothes, chained to the wall and left in complete darkness. Though we did not visit it on our tour, the Solitary Confinement area still stands today in the hostel’s basement. If one is brave enough to visit it, our guide noted that you’d notice a miserable energy and see scratch marks on the walls.
Next, we moved to the building’s left side, where there are four dark death row cells.
I have to mention that though the hostel is warm and welcoming for travellers; the eighth floor is far from it. As it is kept in its original condition, it is generally off limits to hostellers. Guests cannot spend the night there.
This floor is where a prisoner would have spent his last days—moving in a count of four cells from #1 to #4, before finding himself at the end of a rope. Big, heavy iron doors used to seclude the fourth cell from the rest of the floor, but our guide explained that they were taken down as they had a “nasty” habit of slamming shut and sealing themselves without explanation.
As we stood there in the lantern light, our guide invited us to step into one of the cells. Though the cell locks have long since been removed, we could not bring ourselves to enter a cell. We stood there quietly, contemplating how these prisoners would have spent their last few days. We also couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched and silently told to leave.
Years ago, the hostel even had a Death Row Dare in place, which meant that if a guest was able to spend an entire night on their own in a death row cell, their stay would be complimentary. According to our guide, that dare has never been completed as every guest ran out screaming in the middle of the night.
We then moved down a staircase towards the gallows and an anxious feeling set in. These last few steps would have been taken by a prisoner just before his death. Our guide cautioned us to walk carefully at this point, as many hostellers and tour guests have reported being mysteriously pushed towards the gallows. There have also been reports of visitors experiencing sudden shortness of breath.
As we turned down the staircase and saw the infamous iron trap doors, the display noose placed over the gallows began to swing slowly and melancholically in the breeze. Silence fell over our small group, which followed our guide down the stairs to the jail’s exterior courtyard.
Once outside, our guide explained that after a death at the prison, an inmate’s body was simply buried in the courtyard in an unmarked grave, adding that many bodies were found near the building during the construction of the nearby Mackenzie King Bridge in 1954. Our tour ended in the former prison’s courtyard, which is now the hostel’s outdoor pub, Mugshots.
Though many people have reported hearing voices, strange sounds and seeing ghostly apparitions in the old Jail Hostel building, we did not experience anything of the sort on our tour—nor did we want to.
As I walked away with my two companions, we were excited that we had gotten a glimpse of Ottawa’s darker past on our tour. But we were even more grateful that we weren’t staying on the hostel’s eighth floor for the night.
The Ottawa Haunted Walk offers four different evening walking tours that are available year-round. French-language tours are also available.