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Believe It or Not

Antony Gormley, “Learning to Think,” Places With A Past, Spoleto Festival, 1992

Anyone that has spent any time in the Old Jail has a ghost story. Over the past four days, Andra has told you mine.

This is MTM, and the ghost story you have been reading really happened. Mostly.

Of course, my way of telling the story has always been drier, more factual. When I was on the faculty at the CAC-Charleston I had shop privileges, and the CAC Shop was in the tower part of the jail. One late night I was in the shop: it was close to midnight, I was alone (as far as I knew), and I was working some wood. I’m certain all the doors between the shop and the rest of the jail were secure; the padlocks were all on my side of the doors, and I saw that they were locked. Moving back and forth between the table saw room and the jointer room and focused on my work, I stopped cold when I came back into the jointer room and the door to the jail proper was wide open. You now know what I saw: a single light burning above an empty chair in an empty room.

But reporting the facts short-changes the truth. Herein lies the ingenious method of our beloved blogger and author: Andra weaves a web of words, characters and settings, enticing the unsuspecting to succumb to her storytelling. Before her series, I never much thought of the person that sat in that chair, of how they got there, of what they experienced in its clutches. The soul of the torturer was as opaque as the crumbling masonry walls that soaked in the shrieks, the sound of flagellated flesh, the cries of the vanquished.

Like John Coffey in the Green Mile, she breathes life into words….Each night I get to watch Andra’s alchemy of taking a sliver of reality and turning it into universal truth. Good storytelling polishes facts, impressions and lies until they shine with resonant beauty. Whether it is one of her mind-blowing fiction series or a random daily post, the inspiration is always a pale shadow of her resultant creation. More than anything, the scenario is the setup for developing a character and their voice, in a similar manner to how she approached developing the essence and mannerisms of any character she played when she was acting. Her inveterate “What am I blogging about tomorrow?” can lead the most mundane prompt on a wild ride that eventually lands in your inbox (if you are wise enough to subscribe). Imagine the riches begging to be unleashed in her novels!

Like all the best stories, ghost stories are a shared commodity. They belong to everyone: the teller, the listener, the subjects and the spirits. The chill we feel, the morbid curiosity that draws us in, the disbelief and the dread unite us in the bonds of human uncertainty and faith. The continuity of architecture is an empty vessel without the stories that play out within their walls.

It is a tragedy that the Old Jail has been turned into a cash cow for an ostensible institution of higher learning. Tasked with the charge of preserving and restoring the jail, its current owners have let it fester and fall apart. Instead of rejuvenating it, they reap from it. The paddy-wagon in the picture from day one of the series? Sold for scrap. The jail itself has been turned into a spirit sideshow, with ‘ghost tours‘ nightly. And it is slowly dissolving before our eyes, until it too is merely an apparition, no longer able to contain the years of human experience that have given it its own soul.

My biggest fear is now that the ghosts’ stories are for sale, that the ghosts will be moving on out. And the tragedy of that is that the ghosts’ stories will become fossils, not the living breathing reminders of lives lived and lost, often violently or tragically, of our common bonds of life and mortality.

This guest post by MTM ends the series Jailhouse Rock, set in and around the Old Charleston Jail. If this is your first visit to the series, please click here to read the first installment, here for the second, here for the third, here for the fourth, here for the fifth, and here for the final installment. And, if you’re ever in Charleston, do not miss the Old Jail….just don’t take the blasted ‘ghost tour.’

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. So, The Shadow Ninja is working a little wood, perhaps a snippet of wood (alcohol)?? Mmmmmmm.

    August 26, 2012
    • mtm #

      Power tools and alcohol lead to a whole different kind of horror story, one I studiously avoid

      August 26, 2012
  2. MTM, I love your words as much as Andra’s. You two are a power team of creative energy.

    August 26, 2012
    • mtm #

      Thank you. I could never live up to Andra’s passion or productivity, but I try to honor her body of work when I get the opportunity to flog her blog.

      August 26, 2012
  3. Good summation MTM. That picture is probably the creepiest of them all to me. Hate to think that the scariest days for the Old Jail could lie in its future, not in its past. This seems to be the case with too many historic structures and venues when monetary interests become paramount.

    So, what did you do right after this? Leave quickly? Change your underwear? Swear off all meat other than BBQ and bacon?

    August 26, 2012
    • mtm #

      Of course, I had a seat in the chair, lit up a cigar and communed with the spirits…and THEY told me that life was short and I should start eating bacon and Scott’s barbecue. (Not even a ghost could persuade me, but Andra did).

      August 26, 2012
      • I like that way of dealing with the problem. Excellent! Now, where’s my BBQ??

        August 26, 2012
      • mtm #

        Urp!

        August 26, 2012
  4. What a story to share, MTM, and one whose threads Andra wove hers you expertly. You are a good team, both with you distinct styles and gifts. My Tom would have loved those shop privileges, even in such a spot. What an opportunity the powers that be are missing in letting this structure decay. Thanks for this post.

    August 26, 2012
    • mtm #

      I have recounted my story on many occasions, but I will admit it never had the visceral effect that Andra’s telling brought forth.

      August 26, 2012
  5. So glad you used this exhibit photo to illustrate the story conclusion.

    I share your concern for the old jail and so many buildings in Charleston.

    August 26, 2012
    • mtm #

      Funny that today’s P&C has an article titled ‘Preservation is Big Business’ but then never actually looks into the business of preservation in Charleston. The jail irks so much because the entity in control is a ‘preservation’ business.

      August 26, 2012
    • I’m trying not to reply to comments today, but I just had to say that I loved the installation art that we used to have around here. This is a twenty-year-old example.

      August 26, 2012
      • Aguess #

        I agree on the installation art. Those were the days when we looked forward to Spoleto not just for performances behind closed doors but the visual art that would transform familiar places around the city. A provacative end to a great series.

        August 26, 2012
  6. How great to hear from you MTM! Love your sentence, “Good storytelling polishes the facts.” So true–and something Andra does so well.
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    August 26, 2012
    • mtm #

      It is always daunting to sit in for Andra…I think she can dash off a whole series in the time it takes me to craft one post.

      August 26, 2012
  7. I’m going to quote, and deftly apply one of the greatest lines in cinematic history:
    Chevy Chase’s character in Caddyshack – “Don’t sell yourself short, judge. You’re a tremendous slouch.”

    You, MTM, are a tremendous writer. Totally different from Andra, but with a voice just as distinctive. And I loved how you paid homage to your lovely bride.

    August 26, 2012
    • mtm #

      Well, thank you….but to paraphrase Emile Borel: ‘a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.’
      Now, I feel quite certain that in 250 years, Caddyshack will be seen as a masterpiece of 20th Century culture, so any quote lifted from it in my honor is a tremendous compliment.

      August 26, 2012
  8. What a clever way to bring the series to conclusion. I certainly agree with you, MTM, about Andra’s talent for taking an idea and creatively running with it, incorporating character voice and vibrant color. Or in this case, a cold, dark story completely absent of color. I appreciate the way you’ve stepped in to give a current perspective on the jail, MTM. I’m a researcher, and I enjoy facts and context to any story I’ve enjoyed. I’m really sorry to hear about the way the jail is slowly crumbling and it truly is a shame that the ghosts are just another commodity. Debra

    August 26, 2012
    • mtm #

      I am glad you liked the series. I certainly did!

      August 27, 2012
  9. So well written. And I feel your sadness and loss. But here’s a thought. What if, instead of being cheapened, the ghosts are being released? What if, when you saw that light above the chair, you set free some tortured soul? What if every tourist turns loose another dead prisoner? And what if those ghost tours give the ghosts a chance to escape bonds that have confined them past their lifetimes? What if some of them need more than one person to hear and understand their anguish?

    August 27, 2012
  10. Beautifully put.

    I mentioned to Andra after the first part of the series that I felt similarly about the Liberty Hotel in Boston, that the ghosts would have to have moved on, because there was no room for them amongst the $15 cocktails, elegant ballrooms, and wealthy scenesters to treat the lobby like a nightclub.

    I know I’m supposed to be pleased that the Charles Street Jail wasn’t torn down to build a new high rise hotel, but for me it’s like they stripped out the soul of the place.

    August 27, 2012
  11. Beautiful tribute to Andra’s word weaving, MTM! And to the ghosts and spirits who haunt the jail.

    August 27, 2012
  12. How awesome!!!! I know that word does not even begin to describe all the emotions I’m feeling after reading your post, and even though I am unable to put into words how your post affected me…may I just say…that it did.

    You really “get” her and that just warms my heart. I love your love and support for each other.

    August 27, 2012
  13. I’ve really enjoyed this spooky series!
    Sorry to hear that the old jail is being somewhat exploited.

    August 28, 2012
  14. That’s too bad. A common problem for old buildings, I’m guessing, but sad every time it happens.

    August 28, 2012

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