BARTOW — Being sent to jail probably sounds scary to most law-abiding citizens, but how much scarier would it get if the jail was … haunted?
Travel to the Polk County city of Bartow this month, and you’ll have a chance to find out.
For the ninth consecutive year, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office is inviting the public to visit the old historic jail in downtown Bartow (at 455 N. Broadway Ave.) for the annual Haunted Jail Tour, one of the most popular spooky events of the season. This year, the theme is “Phobia: Face Your Fear,” and anyone looking to get into the Halloween spirit in an appropriately creepy way now has their chance to find out just how scary jail can be.
Carrie Horstman, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, noted that the annual Haunted Jail Tour has become a popular attraction in Central Florida every October, right in time for the Halloween season. And the sheriff’s office is raising these scares to also raise money to benefit The United Way of Central Florida. As Horstman noted, “This is a fun event each year, and we also raise money for charity.”
What Happens During the Haunted Jail Tours?
Each year, the Haunted Jail Tours have themes — two years ago it was “The Ghost of Calvin,” the legendary story of an inmate who committed suicide and still haunts the area, and last year the ghoulish theme was “Asylum.”
But it’s also important to keep in mind that this is also a family-friendly event, and if the little ones are too young or nervous to go through the haunted jail, there’s going to be a separate room with treats and games.
“Bring the whole family for a night of fun,” Horstman said.
There will also be food and drinks for sale every night. There’s a requested $6 donation, and everything raised will be used to help the programs at the United Way.
“Last year, we donated over $23,000 to this great organization,” Horstman noted, while she added that this year, the sheriff’s office got assistance from the Winter Haven Chick-Fil-A “for feeding our volunteers, who spend many hours in advance of and during the tour.”
This year, those volunteers included agency members, their family members, Polk County Explorers, and high school students.
Is The Polk County Jail Haunted?
But is the jail truly haunted? That definitely seems to be the consensus, considering that over the decades there were inmates who stayed there on their way to execution and others who committed suicide in their cell. Over the years, both inmates and sheriff’s deputies have reported eerie sightings and happenings there.
In an article titled “Haunted Polk: A Brief History of Local Haunts,” author James Colter writes that the old jail is definitely on the list of haunted Polk County sites.
“Inmates have seen people walking the hallways before deputies were supposed to pass by, and officers have seen people in cells that were not supposed to be occupied. One ghost that has been seen many times is Calvin, an inmate that killed himself in the six-block area …. While one deputy was searching files, the back of a shelf flew off from across the room and nearly hit her in the head. Another deputy in a first floor holding cell felt her hair being tugged when no one else was there.While making their rounds, deputies have seen shadowy figures in the hallways that disappear once the lights turn on. One deputy claimed to have heard someone clicking a counter as if performing head count when officers no longer use such methods.”
What Else Is There To See in Downtown Bartow?
If you do decide to check out the Haunted Jail Tour, make a full night of it. It wouldn’t hurt to go a little early and check out Bartow’s historic downtown, which includes one other haunted hotspot.
Bartow itself is a very historic city, founded in 1851 as Fort Blount, then renamed in honor of Francis S. Bartow, the first brigade commander to die in combat during the American Civil War.
The old Polk County Courthouse Museum is at 100 E. Main St. in Bartow, directly across from the new courthouse. It was built in 1883 and has been a museum since 1997.
The courtrooms, now used for ceremonial events, have their own ghostly legends, including a Lady in White who haunts the building.
The basement, which can only be accessed by elevator, is also a special place, one where visitors and employees have heard agonizing screams – possibly from the victims of an explosion in the boiler room.
When Are the Haunted Jail Tours Being Held?
The Haunted Jail Tours will be from 6-10:30 p.m. tonight and then on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 25-26, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office old jail at 455 N. Broadway Ave. in downtown Bartow.
This year’s eerie theme is “Phobia: Face Your Fear.”
To learn more about the tours, call the Polk County Sheriff’s Office at 863-298-6200.
On a separate note, because of Tropical Storm Nestor and the heavy rains it brought to Central Florida, tonight’s Haunted Halloween Hayride & Happenings, hosted by Polk County’s Parks and Natural Resources at Loyce Harpe Park in Mulberry, has been canceled.
Jeremy Maready, communications supervisor for Polk County, noted that “The cancellation comes following flooding debris left behind by a series of storms that recently moved through the area. Those who had purchased advanced tickets will be refunded. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..