Monday, August 22, 2011

A Haunting in Ottawa

Ed. Note: I warned you all there would be more.

If anyone ever tells you that Ottawa, Ontario, Canada - our Nation's Capital - has a night life, they are either liars or their idea of 'night life' is vomiting outside the faux-Irish pubs in the Byward Market. Rest assured, Ottawa's sidewalks really do roll up once the Peace Tower clock strikes 6pm.

So there we were - myself, my wife, and my youngest kid - in Ottawa on a July evening wondering what we could do to pass the time once the Sun disappeared. By chance, I spied a brochure in our hotel's lobby that provided the answer: Ghost Walk!

For the timid and the uninitiated, a Ghost Walk is a basically an escorted night-time walking tour through an old neighbourhood. Along the way, your escort (typically clad in a black cape and carrying a candle-lantern) will stop from time to time to act out a spooky tale ripped from the pages of the town's history. I've noticed these things popping up in many old Canadian cities: Ottawa, Quebec City, Halifax, Kingston - even here in my sleepy London, Ontario environs.

I'd actually done one of these Walks several years ago in Quebec City with my oldest kid in tow. It was a foggy night in one Canada's oldest towns and we had a blast (that's another story), so I figured that shuffling down the dark alleys of our Nation's Capital should be good for a fright or two (beyond seeing one of those Byward Market dandies hurling up their Guinness).

I made the necessary reservations for our chosen evening with Haunted Walks. It turned out they were offering 2 different tours: one that was a standard walking tour and one called 'Ghosts and the Gallows' that would concentrate more on Death Row in the historical Old Carleton County Jail. The decision to take the Gallows tour was easy - it had a disclaimer that it was not suitable for young children. That said to us that the joint would be full of ghosts!

Because luck is always on our side, the horrific rainstorm that swept through Ottawa that day blew itself out early enough that our Gallows tour was still a go. We met our guide, Maura, at the appointed place shortly before 9pm. While there were literally dozens of people who'd shown up for their Ghost Walk, it turned out that they were all there for the 'standard' Walk - creampuffs all. In contrast, the Gallows tour would only include 7 brave souls, including ourselves. Luckier yet, 4 of those souls (another family) ended up cancelling at the last minute (creampuffs perhaps?), so Maura would be giving the Crazylegs-Clan-Minus-One a private tour!

During our short jouney from the shadow of the Parliament Buildings to the Carleton Jail, Maura stopped a few times to spin a spooky story. While she gave it her all, it was a little bit of an odd experience. Number one, she was performing for an audience of 3, and I felt the weight of responsibility to 'ooh' and 'ahh' with a little extra gusto. Number 2, for all of its age and significance, Ottawa has a lot of modern buildings and they just don't provide the right atmosphere (compared to someplace like Quebec City).

Maura leads the way to the Other Side.

Awkwardness aside, walking up to the big doors of the Carleton Jail provided ample atmosphere and the promise of spooks inside. By reputation, the Jail is supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in North America. I'm guessing there are many old buildings with the same designation, however. While the Jail actually serves as a youth hostel these days, the upper floor containing the jails has been preserved as-is and is off-limits to guests according to some rather impressive padlocks.

Up the stairs we went, where Maura produced a ring of keys to let us into the off-limits jails. Our first stop was the jail cells, where Maura would relay a number of ghost stories - many of them involving Hostel guests attempting to spend the night in the cells and losing their nerve before dawn. The best story - and I hope it's true - involves a few German guests who, upon complaining to Hostel attendant about the lack of ghostly goings-on, were treated to a coin mysteriously levitating in front of their eyes for a solid 5 minutes before falling to the floor.

Inside the Carleton Jail front doors...

...and up the dimly-lit back stairs.

The first thing that struck me about the jails, besides the obvious fact that they are extremely cramped, was the silence. With the 4 of us standing at the end of the cell block, the silence seemed like it should be anything but silent. It was the kind of hissing silence that played tricks on your ears and made you think you heard the whispers of the poor bastards that might have called the place 'home' for awhile. 

Maura left us alone for a moment while she went to unlock the doors that would later take us to Death Row. We tried to take a few touristy pictures inside the cells, but the lighting was too dim for the camera to properly focus. After a few nervous giggles about our photographic skills, Maura called us to come through the door. I lingered behind for a few moments longer, running my camcorder with an embarrassed hope that maybe I'd capture something from the Other Side - just like on the ridiculous 'ghost hunting' shows that populate the 3-digit channels on my TV. I will admit that the hairs on the back of my neck did stand on end and I was quick to re-join our little band of ghostbusters down the hall.

Alone in the cells awaiting my Casper encounter.

Death Row is a handful of cells apart from the main cellblock and separated at one time by a set of 2 heavy iron doors. I say 'at one time' because the doors have since been removed by Hostel staff. The story goes that the doors were notorious for slamming shut on their own, often with people dangerously close to being hurt. The final straw came when a Ghost Walk escort had her finger crushed in the doors, which prompted the doors to be removed. Adjacent to Death Row is a plain wooden door that hides what is today a storage room but, back in the day, was where the executioner would emerge when the Gallows were in use. Maura told stories of mysterious noises - talking, thudding, etc. - eminating from the behind the doors. We heard nothing, of course.

Death Row!

The executioner's door.

Having seen the cells, we made our way to the Gallows. I'm not sure what I expected, but the Gallows are easy to miss. It is basically a closet-sized room tacked onto the side of the building. There is a noose, a lever, and a trapdoor that opens 3 stories above terra firma. Maura's story at this stop involved the hanging of a fellow who protested his innosence and spoke a curse to the ground below his noose. According to Maura, there are dozens of instances of Walk guests who, when standing on the ground below the Gallows, have endured spontaneous nose-bleeds - not quite a pox on their houses, but a curse nonetheless. In case anyone is wondering, we had no such affliction. 

As a post-script to the Gallows, Maura pointed out a more informal gallows in the same stairwell, where it is thought (but not proven) that the old-time jail guards may have carried out their own sentences out of sight of the offical Gallows. We were told that, sometimes, Walk guests get an irrationally uneasy feeling when passing this way.

The Gallows awaits another deserving crimnal.

A more informal place to string a rope.

By 10:30pm we had seen what Maura wanted us to see and followed her back to the Byward Market, which Haunted Walks' office calls home. Predictably, they have a small gift shop and, predictably, my son bought a book. We bid our good-byes and thanks, and picked our way through the street people and the tipsy revellers that populated the streets between Maura and our hotel.

As a post-script to the story, I was quick to inspect my video footage on our return home to London a few days later. While my rational brain knew there would be no extraordinary audio whispers or unexplained balls of light chasing through the cells, my more imaginative grey matter hoped otherwise. Alas, there was nothing, not even a technicolour puddle of Guinness for shock value.

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