A journey to discover what really lurks behind the walls of the Old Adelaide Gaol

Ever wondered what a ghost tour at the Old Adelaide Gaol is like? On The Record contributor Emily Schinella has been on a journey to find out (image source: Adelaide Haunted Horizons)

By Emily Schinella|

Standing in the front of a pair of ageing-white double doors, I couldn’t help but feel slightly overwhelmed. As crime and paranormal junkie who doesn’t mind indulging in a horror movie or two, I am not easily scared. However, I couldn’t quite shake this feeling of unease. As a ghost tour first-timer, it made sense to start with one of South Australia’s oldest buildings, the Old Adelaide Gaol. Opening in 1841, the Old Adelaide Gaol was the first permanent Gaol to open in the state. It was the site of over forty-five executions, and since its closure in 1988, there have been numerous reports of alleged paranormal sightings.  

The air is particularly crisp, and the sky is dark and cloudy. The perfect night for a ghost tour. This particular ghost tour is run by local company, Adelaide Haunted Horizons. The brainchild of author and paranormal investigator Alison Oborn, Adelaide Haunted Horizons has been hosting its thrilling ghost tours at the Gaol since 2002. They have since branched out to host tours at several other spooky locations including, Glenside Hospital’s Z Ward, the Adelaide Arcade, and the National Railway Museum. Despite expanding their paranormal portfolio, Alison explains the Old Adelaide Gaol is still a focal point for Adelaide Haunted Horizons. 

“It was not well-known back in 2002, but since promoting it, it has become one of the best-known haunted locations in Adelaide,” Alison said.

“I have a huge passion for not only the paranormal but also history and heritage. 

“It is important to preserve this history and buildings for future generations.

“We are not the owners of our history, we are the custodians/caretakers, and we should keep it safe for the future.”

Waiting for our tour to begin, I take the opportunity to explore the front exterior of the Gaol. It looks the same as it does in pictures, albeit slightly more derelict. The paint on the doors and front facade is now chipped and peeling, and the bars on the windows are rusting. Despite this, the Gaol remains in surprisingly good condition for a building that has been standing for one hundred or so years. The organisation behind the Gaol’s upkeep is none other than the Adelaide Gaol Preservation Society Inc.

The Adelaide Gaol Preservation Society took reign at the Gaol not long after its closure. Opening a museum, as well as hosting ghost and historical tours, they have been instrumental in preserving the Gaol’s legacy as a significant South Australian landmark.  

“We believe that it is vital that people, both local and international, know what role the Gaol had in the forming of our state, how many notable historic events and characters it is linked to and how it is still relevant today,” Sarah, a volunteer from the Adelaide Gaol Preservation Society said.

“This is why preserving the Gaol is so important,” she said.

The topic of preservation came up a lot as I was conducting my research on the Gaol, especially because the fate of the Gaol remains up in the air. With so many new developments going up around South Australia, it’s not certain what buildings will remain, even if they’re heritage listed. With the potential fate of the Gaol lingering in the back of my mind, I feel fortunate that I was able to seize the moment and take the opportunity to explore the Gaol.  

As time zeros in on the hour, we are introduced to our tour group leader, Craig. A seasoned paranormal investigator, Craig has worked with Adelaide Haunted Horizons for over a decade. As a veteran paranormal investigator, Craig incorporates many personal experiences into the tour. Making our way through the white double-doors, that unsettled feeling returns as I recall Craig saying that this tour wasn’t for the faint-hearted. I couldn’t help but wonder, what exactly am I getting myself into?

Our first stop on the tour is the original 1841 cell block. The room is split in half by a small metal fence. Beyond the fence is a large gaping hole in the ground, which has several old bricks sitting in the middle. Craig explains how a few years back, workers were completing some repairs in this particular space when they came across several intriguing items. The items found included a teacup, saucer, sewing needles, buttons, and a child’s baby tooth. With no evidence that there was ever a child residing at the Gaol, and with many of the items found dating back the to the early 1800s, historians and archaeologists are convinced that they are from when the site of the Gaol was a small farmhouse. Having not come across this information during my research, I was fascinated and couldn’t wait to get home and begin Googling away to find out more.

Walking through a large, dark courtyard, we emerge out our next location on the tour, the mess hall. The mess hall is where the inmates would meet every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is nothing out of the ordinary in this room, and yet something feels incredibly eerie about it. Whether it’s because my eyes can’t adjust to the darkness or the claustrophobic feel of the room, I find myself looking over my shoulder often, expecting to find someone or something lurking there. I am overcome by relief when Craig explains that what I am experiencing is quite a common feeling within the mess hall, with many visitors getting the desire to leave the room. As we head to our next location, I discuss the unnerving feeling I felt in that room with the other visitors. It was striking how similar their experiences were to my own. One woman even recalls how she felt the hair on the back of her neck prick up — proving that you don’t have to physically experience something with your eyes to get spooked on a ghost tour.

Making our way through the Gaol’s museum, we reach a small room filled with glass display cabinets containing artefacts from the Gaol including guard uniforms, inmate uniforms, a pair of rusty handcuffs, and some old prison paperwork. I couldn’t help but cringe as Craig explains how he once encountered the spirit of a little girl. It was particularly unnerving given that the spookiest scary stories and horror films are the ones that contain ghost children, who are often not what they seem. Had I experienced what Craig did, I think my heart would fall into the pit of my stomach. I am suddenly brought out of my reverie by one of the girls on the tour. She says she felt her hair being touched. While there could have been an innocent explanation for this occurrence, she was standing at the back where there were no items that her hair could’ve gotten caught on. 

Trekking across the prison yard, I am nervous yet excited about our next stop on the tour, the execution tower. The execution tower is where some of the forty-five of the executions took place. Approaching the hanging tower, Craig opens up the large-steel-door and orders us to sit on the benches around the trap door that once sealed the fate of three inmates. As I eye the decaying trap door by my feet, Craig begins discussing the hanging process, and I’m left feeling more than slightly disturbed. The hangings seem like nothing though compared to the barbaric crimes some of the inmates committed. One inmate brutally butchered his wife and children after God allegedly told him to do so in a dream. As expected, the execution tower has an incredibly eerie vibe. It feels slightly claustrophobic and uncomfortable, even more so after Craig shows us images of investigators who were scratched and bruised in this very room. A considerable weight feels like it has been lifted off my shoulders as we prepare to leave the execution tower. The energy in that room was unwelcoming and unsettling. 

My adrenaline hits fever-pitch as we embark our final stop of the tour: the condemned cells. The location was home to the Gaol’s worst of the worst inmates and was also where the majority of executions took place. It was where two inmates created their very own Ouija Board to spook another inmate, leading to a myriad of unexplained activity being reported in the cell. Not only have some claimed to have been grabbed and pushed in this particular cell, but Gaol guards even recorded unexplained activity in a night log while the Gaol was still operating. 

For the final moments of our tour, we’re given the opportunity to test our limits in a twenty-minute lockdown, where we sit alone in an executed convict’s cell in the dark. After being placed in a cell by Craig, I shut the heavy-duty metal door, sit down on the large-metal bedframe in the corner and turn off my flashlight. As my eyes adjust to the darkness around me, I glance around the room. Not much bigger than a cupboard, the cell is bear and has nothing but a bed and a haunting image of the cell’s previous occupant on the wall. There is a name above the image, Percival William Budd. I later learnt that William Budd was charged and sentenced to death in 1919 for murdering a man and stealing his car. Wary of the prospect of being touched or grabbed by something I can’t see or explain, I push my body up against the wall. As I sit and wait for the lockdown to be over, adrenaline has my heart thumping hard in my chest. In theory, twenty minutes doesn’t feel like a long time, but it feels like I have been sitting in this cell for hours when Craig finally signals us to come out. Perhaps this is because we don’t often sit in the dark with just our thoughts.

After saying our goodbyes, I drive home with my friend who joined me on the tour. We spend the whole ride talking about our experiences and what we learnt on the tour. While I didn’t experience any ghouls or ghosts on the tour, I was able to stimulate my senses in ways I haven’t before. I even got a little scared.

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