Note: Due to Covid, the HI-Ottawa Jail Youth Hostel is currently closed. The ghosts must be going crazy (or maybe they’re enjoying a break from budget travellers sleeping in their cells). We look forward to a festive re-opening. In the meantime, this is what you can expect.
On a personal list of dubious achievements, being incarcerated for something silly does have a certain appeal. Perhaps it shows that even honourable, noble lives have roguish moments. Perhaps it’s because one night of prison re-affirms the benefits of freedom. Perhaps it’s just something interesting to say at a dinner party, provided the words “misunderstanding,” “no criminal record,” and “that was an adventure!” are used in the story. Of course, the reality of prison is entirely devoid of charm. There’s nothing fun about being locked in an institutional cell, denied the joys of modern life, surrounded by people that actually deserve to be there. Still, The Great Canadian Bucket List demands adventurous transgressions, and fortunately, I found a prison cell where I could leave with my reputation, and criminal record, healthily intact.
“When they chained up the naked prisoners on the cement floor in pure darkness, were they on their backs?”
These are the kind of details arresting my curiosity standing outside the “Hole” cells in the basement of the HI-Ottawa Jail Youth Hostel. For 110 years, the thick-stoned building on Nicholas Street was known as the Carleton County Gaol, an imposing hell designed to imprison the city’s most notorious offenders. Built in 1862 as a model British prison, the reality was far less respectable. Tiny cells crammed with both men and boys (as young as five years old), reeking of excrement, the floor crawling with bugs and rats. The Gaol was eventually shut down in 1972 due to inhumane living conditions, and opened the following year as a refurbished youth hostel. The new owners clearly knew the lengths backpackers will go to save a buck. Budget travellers spend the night bunking in the original cells, drinking beer in the canteen that once fed prisoners slop, and waking up in fear with blood-drained ghosts hovering over their beds.
OK, I made the ghosts part up, but just barely. Ghost Walks Ottawa hold nightly prison tours in the old jail, guiding the public and hostel guests to some of the original, unrestored sections of the prison, recounting trials and tales, and revealing why this has been called one of the world’s most haunted buildings. After touring the punishment cells, my Ghost Walks guide Adriane leads me to the 8th floor, still in its original state. The cells are punishingly small. She paints a vivid picture of life for a 19th century prisoner, and explains the sad, short life of Patrick J. Whelan, the man who murdered Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the Father of Canadian Confederation. Whelan met his maker at the jail during the last public execution in Canada. I’m led to the actual gallows, thoughtfully decorated with a hangman’s rope. Five thousand people watched Whelan squirm for ten minutes, clearly desperate for wholesome entertainment. Even though Adriane has been guiding tours in the old jail for over a year, she’s edgy and freaked out as we wander through Death Row. She nervously tells me about doors slamming, disembodied voices, guests reporting ghosts at the edge of their bunks…seriously! I bid her adieu, retire to my cell, slam the iron bars shut, and make sure it’s locked from the inside. Lying in my bed, I try not to think about the poor miserable bastards who rotted away in Cell 4. It’s deathly quiet, save for the snoring of someone in an adjacent cell. Although the walls are thick, the vaulted ceilings were designed to carry sound so guards could hear even the faintest whispers. I somehow fall asleep, but wake up in a cold sweat at 4am. Worse, I need to pee, which means I have to leave the safety of my cell and walk down the long, dark hallway. At the point of bursting, I muster up the courage to get up and walk to the bathroom, but decide to film the whole thing, just in case I become the first guy to catch a ghost on camera. Relieved, I return to my cell, toss and turn for hours, and praise God, Jesus, Buddha, Allah and Elvis I’m a free man, condemned to spend but one night in Canada’s only prison hotel.