Old St. Johns County Jail: A Haunting Experience
Tour an unusual jail – by day or by night – that once housed some of Florida’s most notorious criminals.
With its striking pink stucco exterior designed in the Romanesque Revival style, the Old St. Johns County Jail just north of the downtown Historic District in Old Town looks more like a charming hotel than a jail.
But don’t let that innocent-looking façade fool you. Inside these walls lies a secure fortress – constructed back in 1891 by the same company that built San Francisco’s Alcatraz, no less – that once housed some of Florida’s most dangerous criminals.
And you can tour the jail to hear their stories in vivid detail as costumed deputies lead you as “prisoners” through men’s and women’s cell blocks, common areas, sheriff’s living quarters, various displays of guns, the first fingerprint kit used in Florida and more.
You can also see the maximum security area and “Death Row” cells where the most dangerous criminals were held, the gallows where executions were conducted and a unique “birdcage” cell that makes for a great photo-op.
Don’t relax too much, though. There comes a time on the tour where you’ll be offered the opportunity to try to escape. Better be ready!
A Fascinating Historic Attraction
Old St. Johns County Jail was financed by millionaire industrialist Henry Flagler, who struck a deal with the county to build a new $10,000 jail at a different location. The existing jail stood on land Flagler needed for the construction of his new Ponce de León Hotel, which is now the stunning home of Flagler College. Flagler also intentionally designed the new jail to look pleasant from the outside, so as not to turn off guests staying at his posh nearby hotel.
Built to hold up to 72 prisoners, the northern wing of Old St. Johns County Jail consisted of a general population and maximum security area, a women’s section and a lower level kitchen. The southern wing included an office for the sheriff and living quarters for his family. The building served as the county jail until 1953, before re-opening as a tourist attraction the next year.
Jail tours today are even more enjoyable, thanks to a series of extensive renovations that have both preserved and restored Old St. Johns to its former glory – and earned it a spot on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places in 1987. (Please note, however, that a new wave of renovations began in early 2018, so be sure to call ahead to make sure the attraction is open before you visit.)
Haunted Jail Tours
For the brave of heart, the Old St. Johns County Jail is the final stop on Old Town Trolley’s Ghosts & Gravestones Tour (among others) meaning you can tour the jail at night – if you dare!
You’ll hear countless hair-raising stories of supernatural occurrences that have been reported here, including cold spots, strange odors, unexplained banging noises, wailing and laughter, barking dogs, orbs of light and, yes, even an apparition or two.
The Old St. Johns County Jail & Old Jail Museum are located at 167 San Marco Ave. just north of the downtown and are open every day except Christmas. Tours depart every 20 minutes from 9 am to 4:30 pm daily, in addition to evening tours offered some nights.
Things to See & Do in Old Town
And while you’re in the heart of Old Town, be sure to take in some of St. Augustine’s other signature sights in this unique area.
At the Oldest Store Museum, you can watch clerks, a butcher and a “snake oil” salesman demonstrate the latest “technologies” for turn-of-the-century living, including a goat-powered washing machine and various tonics.
At the St. Augustine History Museum, scan artifacts and previously unpublished photos to learn about the history of St. Augustine and Florida under Spanish and British rule.
And at the Spice & Tea Exchange, pick from a wide range of exotic spices, teas, olives oils, extracts and more to take a taste of St. Augustine back home.
For more information on these and other attractions, check out our Things to Do page.