Locked in for the Night: Ottawa's oldest jail is the city's hottest haunted hostel

The Carleton County Gaol still steadfastly stands in downtown Ottawa, but instead of inmates, the jail now hosts guests looking to spend a haunted night in the city’s oldest prison. The hostel is on Lonely Planet’s list of world’s spookiest buildings—with good reason.

 William James Topley. Library and Archives Canada, PA-012371

William James Topley. Library and Archives Canada, PA-012371

Starting at $72 a night, hostel guests at the Ottawa Jail Hostel are granted the privilege to sleep in cells with bars still intact, with the last working gallows in the country just a short way from where you lay your head (though Canada removed capital punishment in 1976) and a few spectral cellmates to keep you company.

The history of the building is as compelling as it is tragic. Built in 1862, the jail didn’t have glass windows to protect from the elements, and the result was an undocumentable number of inmate deaths. The cells were built to allow the acoustics to bring any whisperings to the guards, which may explain some of the eerie experiences guests have shared.

This, however, doesn’t explain the experience of a group of German tourists. The guests were upset that they hadn’t run into any spectral beings and asked for a refund from the front desk. During their exchange, a drawer from the register behind the counter opened, and a single coin rose slowly until it reached eye level. After briefly hovering, the coin dropped back down. The Germans left without their refund.

Floating coins, disembodied voices, and rattling windows lead to an uneasy night’s sleep, but they’re not the only paranormal phenomena the old county jail has to offer. Perhaps its most famous—and sinister—claim to fame, is the execution of Patrick James Whelan.

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a member of Parliament and Father of the Confederation, was assassinated in April 1868. Within 24 hours Whelan was arrested, and though there remains reasonable doubt to whether he was the murderer, McGee’s relationship with Sir John A. Macdonald ensured his sentence was swift and final. Despite two rejected appeals to higher courts, Whelan’s fate was capital punishment—death by hanging.

 William James Topley. Topley Studio. Library and Archives Canada, PA-027438

William James Topley. Topley Studio. Library and Archives Canada, PA-027438

After spending ten months in the jail, on February 11th, 1869, Whelan swung. 5,000 people came to watch. As they lowered the hood to cover his head, he said his last words: “I am innocent.”

Whelan requested to be buried in Montreal, but officials decided his remains would occupy an unmarked grave on the jail’s grounds. Guests describe a spectre appearing at the end of their beds holding a bible, and many believe it’s Whelan expressing his displeasure about his final resting place.

Whelan wasn’t the only inmate buried on the grounds. Due to the inhumane conditions the jail offered, countless inmates perished there and their bodies—and possibly their spirits—never left.

At 75 Nicholas Street, the hostel is conveniently within walking distance of several of Ottawa’s most iconic attractions, including Byward Market and the Rideau Canal. The price is affordable—but your stay might cost you a good night’s sleep.


Beckett, Emily_Bio Pic.jpg

Emily Beckett is an enthusiastic geek and writer who spent her childhood summer nights poring over Canadian ghost stories with only a flashlight and nylon tent to protect herself. She is fascinated by the chilling events that lend themselves to the birth of alleged spooky encounters—despite her scaredy-cat status.

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Emily Beckett

Emily is an enthusiastic geek and writer who spent her childhood summer nights poring over Canadian ghost stories with only a flashlight and nylon tent to protect herself. She is fascinated by the chilling events that lend themselves to the birth of alleged spooky encounters—despite her scaredy-cat status.