For one-hundred-and-ten years, from 1862 to 1972, it housed Ottawa’s killers and crazies, but today the Carleton County Gaol called home—if only for a night or two—by travelers looking for an inexpensive and unusual place to stay. The Ottawa Jail Hostel, part of the Hostelling International network, was converted into a hostel in 1973 but still retains much of its original trappings, from its heavy, studded doors to its black iron bars and, yes, even its gallows. And, of course, the place is haunted.
I stayed at the Ottawa Jail Hostel during a recent trip to the Nation’s Capital. I grew up in Ottawa so, though I was aware of the hostel . . . well, who stays in a hostel in one’s own city? But I figured this was the perfect opportunity to try something new and different. So I booked a cell online—and yes, they’re cells, not rooms. The one I slept in was nine feet by three feet and included an air mattress on a cot and . . . that’s pretty much it. The space between the foot of the bed and the door was just big enough to hold my bag and boots.
The hotel offers regular ghost walk tours of the former prison, including its death row, which has been restored to its original state. Part of the tour includes a peek at the still-functioning gallows. Among others, Patrick J. Whelan spent his final moments dangling from the Carleton County Gaol’s noose. Whelan is famous for having assassinated Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a father of Canadian Confederation (and popular bar namesake). Over 5000 people showed to see Whelan swing from the gallows. Whelan is the jail’s most famous execution, but also its most famous ghost. He has been spotted by guests and staff alike, usually standing at the foot of a bed or in his old death row cell.
If the place is haunted, however, it is unlikely that Whelan is its only ghost. Even for its day, the conditions at the jail were considered inhumane, with up to 150 prisoners, including women and children, stuffed into ninety cells, most of the 3X9 sort I occupied, and more recent excavations have uncovered countless unmarked graves. You know some of those tortured souls have to still be roaming the prison’s halls.
When I did the ghost walk, just as we were passing the gallows, the trap door dropped open, scaring the living daylights out of most of the group . . . and our guide. She insisted that this had never happened before. Do I believe her. Uh . . . no, not for a second, but it’s pretty fun stuff. For the record, I did not see any ghosts during my stay. But if I’d been truly motivated, I could’ve recruited a fellow guest or two to join me around the Ouija board that sat just outside my cell door, maybe call a ghost over to our side for a chat.
The Ottawa Jail Hostel is perfectly located just a few blocks from the Byward Market and Parliament Hill. Its staff is friendly and helpful and the onsite Mugshots bar is a great place to grab a drink and chat with fellow travelers. Just be prepared to deal with the hotel’s non-living residents . . .
Ottawa’s Jail Hostel is located at 75 Nicholas.