Bodmin Jail in Cornwall likes to call itself the most haunted place in England. Considering the country has thousands of years of history with murder, mayhem and massacre galore (all of which could lead to ghost stories), this claim is pretty substantial. On the other hand, a woman I met had been to one of the paranormal evening events at Bodmin Jail where the leader brought out a ouija board. As anyone who has seen any movie with a ouija board knows, it is always a bad idea to consult a ouija board (especially in a haunted place). Not surprisingly, the ouija board spelled out a random name that the lady recognised and it completely freaked her out. We didn’t see any ghosts during our (daytime) visit to Bodmin Jail but we were left haunted by some of the stories of the prisoners the jail had housed.
Bodmin Jail is a partially restored former prison which is now open to visitors.
The History of Bodmin Jail
Bodmin Jail in Cornwall was an operational prison from 1779 to 1927. Like the Eastern State Penitentiary we went to in Philadelphia, it was built with lofty goals as a visionary forward-thinking place. For example, Bodmin Jail was the first British prison to hold prisoners in individual cells. As the years went on, these lofty goals went by the wayside.
In 1869, when the law changed so that you could no longer be put in prison for being in debt, Bodmin Jail had spare capacity. The jail gave a portion of its buildings to the Royal Navy to become a naval prison. During World War I, the prison housed some British treasures such as the Crown Jewels.
The thick stone walls meant the Jail was really cold.
Nowadays, Bodmin Jail is privately owned. The complex is enormous and only part of it is open as a museum, restaurant, cafe and obligatory gift shop. It is open for daytime visits and the occasional evening event (ghost walks, parties etc.). You can even get married at Bodmin Jail. I kid you not. You have a choice of a beautiful English countryside setting for your wedding or you can get married in a haunted jail. Nothing so queer as folk.
Bodmin Jail is only partially restored and the rest is still a crumbling wreck.
The Bodmin Jail Tour
The tour of Bodmin Jail gives you a good insight into how society worked in the 19th century. There was a strict adherence to the letter of the law. If you were a kid or an adult, stealing was considered stealing. It definitely did not matter that you were stealing because you were starving. All that liberal compassion came later in history.
The stories at Bodmin Jail left you under no illusion that life was anything but brutal for the poor. My children were shocked to learn that kids from those times were left homeless if their parents died. They had never considered that being a street urchin was preferable to living in a workhouse or orphanage.
The little kid on the right had to do hard labor for stealing celery.
There was a story of one 9 year old boy who was sentenced to death for stealing a tuppence (two pennies) worth of ink. He’d been living on the street since he was 6 years old. He begged and stole for food until he was eventually caught. Instead of the death sentence, he was sentenced to life transportation. It didn’t say where but presumably Australia.
Exhibits within Bodmin Jail
Some of the exhibits are not-very-scary figurines showing prisoners and the day-to-day life of the prisoners.
For example, this guy Samuel Glasson from Truro was sent to jail more times than anyone else in Cornwall. He spent a total of 11 years of his life in Bodmin Jail for various drunk and disorderly charges. He had never actually committed a felony crime but was a miserable drunkard who refused to go home quietly when asked to do so by the police.
Samuel Glasson had the distinction of eating 33 Christmas dinners in jail.
Some of the exhibits were more high-tech and involved holograms. I felt the most powerful exhibits were the photographs, especially of the children, who just leaked bleak and hopeless.
It was the general atmosphere that creeped the kids out more than this hologram.
Everyday Prison Life
Just because you weren’t executed, did not mean that you had an easy time in jail.
My kids were fascinated to learn that prisoners were only allowed to have a bath once every three months! Even they agreed that was gross.
A standard prison cell
The food was basic and barely enough to keep people alive. For the most part, the rations consisted of bread, gruel and cheese. If you were serving hard labor, you might get a few more ounces of food.
Hard labor was supposed to make you a better person and teach you the error of your ways. For example, women who were suspected of being prostitutes were put in jail and made to do hard labor. The jail had examples of women who had been incarcerated for 2-3 months of hard labor.
At Bodmin Jail, they had a treadmill which prisoners would walk on to create power for the jail’s corn mill. Prisoners would take turns – 15 minutes on the treadmill and 15 minutes picking apart old rope – for a total of 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. This resulted in each prisoner climbing 10,000 feet per day!! Talk about glutes of steel. The treadmill was only abolished in 1898.
This early day treadmill was a form of punishment. Now we use it for exercise!
The most famous ghost story involves a lady who killed her child. She was unmarried with two children out of wedlock at the age of 28. Her younger son was a cripple. She took up with a soldier who promised to marry her if she got rid of the younger son. So she threw the crippled son down a mine shaft. When the soldier was questioned, he was like all ‘huh??’ He claimed he had never promised marriage or asked her to get rid of her child. A jury took pity on her but a judge decided she should be put to death. She can be seen by children and pregnant women crying her way around the jail.
We thought this sign saying paranormal activity was coming soon was hilarious.
Along with ghosts of prisoners, people have said they have seen ghosts of former wardens and prison officers. Can you imagine coming back to haunt the place that you worked? For example, you could be stuck in a cubicle for your entire life and your afterlife!
Not Such a Pleasant Childhood
My kids pointed out that there were a lot of child killers at the prison. Without access to contraception, and limited other forms of recreation, children were a frequent occurrence in and out of marriage. One man was executed for killing his illegitimate child born to a woman who was helping his wife while the wife was pregnant with their 8th child.
A child’s room at Bodmin Jail
Children were kept in jail with their parents if they had nowhere else to go. If they were old enough, they were put to work doing hard labor or sent out to the quarries. The kids would get picked on by the guards and other inmates. Prison rations were barely enough and so adults would steal food from the children. It was just a battle for survival.
Hangings at Bodmin Jail
About 50 people were hanged at Bodmin Jail from 1785 to 1909.
You can see the town of Bodmin from Bodmin Jail
Before 1868, hangmen had to bring their own rope! Thousands of people would gather to watch a hanging. After the hanging, the hangman would cut off little bits of rope to sell as souvenirs. A hangman could make out very well when you added up his souvenir fees and his services fees. For example, in 1840, 20-25,000 people came to see a double hanging of two bothers. Public hangings were a spectacle – reality TV without the scripting.
See for yourself if you think Bodmin Jail could be the most haunted place in England
Visiting Bodmin Jail in Cornwall
Bodmin Jail reminds visitors that it is an all-weather activity. After all, in England the weather is never certain. We thought this jail was fascinating whether or not you go on a rainy day. Like a lot of places in Cornwall, this attraction is dog-friendly. On the other hand, Bodmin Jail is not wheelchair accessible and I would find it very difficult to navigate a baby buggy through some of the staircases.
Can you imagine spending a day by yourself? Yes, of course. In my harried mother days, I think a day (or two) of peace and quiet would be divine intervention. On the other hand, how about a week, a month or a longer to yourself? I don’t know about you but I’m pretty sure I’d go crazy beyond anything more than a couple of days. Unfortunately, solitary confinement (and the resulting psychological torment) is still a practice in US prisons. The model for the practice of solitary confinement is Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia. Eastern State Penitentiary was the world’s first penitentiary – a place for wrongdoers to achieve penitence for their sins, as opposed to prisons which just punished its inmates.
Background to the Eastern State Penitentiary
Operational from 1829 to 1979, Eastern State Penitentiary was based on Quaker principles of punishment and atonement. Radically for that time, this prison system was meant to lead to reformation of bad characters. ESP became the architectural model for over 300 prisons worldwide including Forest Bank which opened in Salford in England as late as 2001. Today, the ESP building has been designated a national historic landmark.
Founded on Enlightenment Principles
ESP was revolutionary in its time because previously people who had been jailed were generally placed in large holding pens. Prison was a place for punishment meted out injudiciously by prison guards. The members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons met in Benjamin Franklin’s house (naturally) in 1787 to create a new type of prison based on Enlightenment thinking. It took them 30 years to convince Pennsylvania that they should be start a new type of prison system.
Why Isolation and Silence?
People sentenced ESP were placed in isolation and silence. Each 8×12 feet cell had a bed, a work bench, a latrine and a bible. Overhead in the cell, a window let in skylight and also reminded inmates that God could see all.
There was a little door to the outside where the inmates were allowed fresh air in individually walled 8×12 areas for 2 half-hour breaks during their 12 hour day. The solitude and silence were supposedly instrumental in helping inmates reflect and atone for their sins. During the 12 hour days, the inmates worked in a trade such as shoe making or weaving or prayed.
Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary
ESP is an impressive structure even today as it lies in ruins. It has been a tourist destination from the beginning because of its novel approach and gigantic structure. You can see Philadelphia’s skyline in the distance over the ruins of the buildings.
The Original Architecture Plan
The original cellblocks work like the spokes of a wheel off a central round room. Guards could stay in the round room and see down the lengths of each of the cellblocks. Originally the cellblocks were only one floor high and could accommodate 450 prisoners. The soaring halls are supposed to remind prisoners of church.
Surveillance Mirrors at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (Photo credit: ESP, Albert Vecerka)
The outside of ESP is built like a medieval fortress – impregnable and impressive. There are even murder slits in the towers – a detail from medieval times which in 19th century Philadelphia was merely decorative. The slits don’t go all the way back to the other side of the wall. The whole complex was supposed to inspire fear in anyone who thought about breaking the law.
ESP in Practice
With the increase in the prisoner population, however, later cellblocks were made to be two floors high. The halls were long and the ceilings vaulted – an architectural design meant to convey the feeling of being in church and inspiring penitence. By the early 20th century, isolation was no longer a feasible option and the cells contained 2-3 men each.
This gate lead to the hospital ward. One of ESP’s famous prisoners, Chicago mob boss, Al Capone, had his tonsils removed here. Capone eventually got moved to another famous prison, Alcatraz in San Francisco.
By the way, my son loves the kids’ book series, [easyazon_link identifier=”0142425222″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Al Capone Does My Homework[/easyazon_link] about the life of the warden’s kids who live at Alcatraz. ESP is where he first heard about this notorious gangster and I guess it made an impression! For a recent World Book Day, he chose to dress up as Al Capone.
Electronic State Penitentiary in Popular Culture
ESP is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the world. Presumably many of its inmates went mad after years of prolonged isolation.
Charles Dickens was an early famous visitor to ESP in 1842 on one of his visits to the United States. He thought the system was well-intentioned but a form of torture which messed with a human being’s mind.
I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers … I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.
– Charles Dickens in “American Notes For General Circulation”
Charles Dickens was prescient as an article recounting the stories of people in solitary confinement relates. The stories are chilling and it does seem like being buried alive. Unlike the original intent, it seems the current incarnation of solitary confinement does not allow working in a trade. The only thing to do is read or watch television.
The site has been used in various television and film projects such as Brad Pitt’s 1995 film Twelve Monkeys and the 2008 Transformers sequel.
Tours of Eastern State Penitentiary
ESP is today run as a museum which is open most of the year.
Children under 7 years old are not allowed to tour ESP. I had not planned on taking my 8 year old son on the ESP tour but he found it fascinating. I needn’t have worried that he would find it scary. A natural chatterbox, he found the concept of not speaking to anyone really hard to understand. For children 7-12 there is an activity pack scavenger hunt.
There is a audio tour guide narrated by the actor Steve Buscemi which provides really interesting narrative and background on ESP. My son was fascinated with the stories told on the tour guide and we had some interesting things to discuss afterwards.
Terror Behind the Walls
ESP runs a well-received Halloween party. It’s part of the Terror Behind The Walls spectacular every autumn that runs from September to November. It’s considered America’s number 1 haunted house attraction special effects, 6 interactive attractions and over 30 performers.
Terror Behind the Walls Haunted House at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (Image credit: ESP, Randall Wise)
ESP is a fascinating look at historical means of achieving punishment and redemption. We clearly are still grappling with the same issues although I think we have veered far towards punishment and pretty much forgotten redemption.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.