Rattling windows. Doors that creep open on their own. Voices coming from empty hallways.

For guests of the Ottawa Jail Hostel, this is a regular part of their accommodation.

Located in the downtown core a few minutes’ walk from Parliament Hill, the grey stone building that used to be a jail stands majestic in the glow of the sunset, even as the shadows creep in. Known as one of the most haunted buildings in Canada, the hostel is a regular hot spot for curious guests and ghost-hungry tourists.

“The Ottawa Jail Hostel is meant to be a lot of fun, unlike it was for those individuals who spent time here for the first 110 years,” says Leonard Belsher, a tour guide with The Haunted Walk.

Opening in 1862, the Carleton County Jail housed men, women and children who were sentenced to prison terms with a maximum of two years. As the jail had the only gallows in the area, those convicted of a crime and sentenced to death would await execution in the jail’s death row on the eighth floor, one of the most haunted parts of the building.

The fate of those who were kept alive wasn’t much better than those who were executed. Belsher says that in the early days of the jail, there was no glass in the windows and no heat. A severe water shortage in the 1870s meant inmates couldn’t bathe. In the 1880s, the building’s wood was infested with insects and the wood had to be removed.

“The inmates had to sleep on the floor for a long time,” Belsher says. “They were actually sleeping on cold wet surfaces which, of course, would cause illness, disease and so on. A lot of death took place in this building, and it wasn’t at the gallows.”

But some of those who passed away haven’t quite passed on. There are frequent accounts from visitors, tourists and even hotel staff about ghostly visions.

“The building is haunted, which attracts a lot of people to stay here,” Belsher says before recounting how four German tourists who stayed at the hostel a few years ago were put in their place. After spending an uneventful night, they demanded a refund, upset they hadn’t seen any ghosts. Belsher says the desk clerk explained that they were in a hostel and there were no guarantees of spectral encounters. As the discussion turned heated, the cash drawer behind the counter opened and a coin slowly started rising until it was at eye level. 

“It hovered for about five seconds before dropping back down to the drawer,” Belsher says. “The four men were stunned to silence. They quickly and quietly grabbed their bags and made a hasty exit.”

There have been many accounts of ghostly occurrences, including windows and doors rattling on their own and voices calling out in empty hallways and cells.

One of the most famous resident spirits is Patrick Whelan, who was executed at the jail in 1869. He was accused of murdering politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the Fathers of Confederation. Though Belsher says there was scant evidence that Whelan committed the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Although the judge agreed to Whelan’s body being sent to Montreal for burial after the execution, Belsher says the authorities decided instead to bury him somewhere on the jail property. Whelan had warned before his death that because he was innocent, no grass would ever grow on his grave. As Belsher points out, there is no grass on the property’s parking lot or yards.

A few years ago, Belsher says that a couple of students on a tour of the jail believed they could find the spot where Whelan was buried and started jumping up and down in the parking lot, taunting Whelan’s ghost. “At exactly the same moment, both boys were struck with profound nose bleeds,” Belsher says.

The boys had learned their lesson: never jump on a man’s grave.

Photo gallery

Leonard Belsher, a guide at Ottawa’s The Haunted Walk, leads the way inside the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel, one of the most haunted places in Canada. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

Guide Leonard Belsher locks in visitors as they tour what used to be the Old Carleton County Jail. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

Looking down the winding stairs of the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

The hangman’s rope, where executions used to take place at the Old Carleton County Jail. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

Below the gallows, tour guide Leonard Belsher pauses to discuss the ghostly occurrences at the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel, formerly the Old Carleton County Jail. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

Tour guide Leonard Belsher leaves the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel yard, which has now been converted to Mugshots, Ottawa’s only jail bar. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

Tour guide Leonard Belsher exits what used to be the entrance to the Old Carleton County Jail. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

Tour guide Leonard Belsher pauses in the glow of the sunset just outside the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel’s walls. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

Looking down at the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)

Tour guide Leonard Belsher heads into 46 ½ Sparks Street in Ottawa, the location of Ottawa’s The Haunted Walk. (Photo: Jessica Burtnick)