BARTOW — Being sent to jail can be an intimidating, even scary experience, something most law-abiding citizens work hard to avoid. But would you be more willing to go to jail if you knew it was … haunted?
Mark your calendar in October for a visit to the Polk County city of Bartow, because the old historic jail in the city’s downtown at 455 N. Broadway Ave. (the Lawrence W. Crow Jr. building) is once again opening its doors for the annual Haunted Jail Tour, one of the most popular spooky events of the Halloween season in Central Florida. This year, it’s back by popular demand.
What is the annual Haunted Jail Tour in Bartow?
Sponsored by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the Haunted Jail Tour will run 4 nights: Friday & Saturday, Oct. 21-22, and Friday & Saturday, Oct. 28-29.
Carrie Horstman, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, noted that this year’s spooky theme is Doomsday. “And instead of just one tour, we will have two different paths to scare you through the jail,” she noted. “You won’t want to miss it!”
This popular attraction is sponsored for a good cause. While raising plenty of scares, the sheriff’s office is also raising money to benefit The United Way of Central Florida. For a $12 donation to United Way, you can take the haunted tour, or for $20 you can go on both tours. The cost for children under 10 is $5 per tour.
“But if you think the tour will be too scary for your little ones, don’t worry – we will have PCSO members there volunteering to watch your kids in a safe place while you tour,” Horstman noted, while also pointing out that “This is a family friendly kid-oriented event! We’re shutting down Church Street for a street carnival, with arts & crafts booths, games & contests, a cake walk, bounce houses, and our favorite – Dunk The Deputy!” Their school resource deputies have volunteered to sit in a dunk tank.
In addition, Newman BBQ Catering & Events will be on hand, along with Poco Loco Fruta, and D’Lites Ice Cream.
What Happens During the Haunted Jail Tours?
Each year, the Haunted Jail Tours have different themes — the most recent one was “The Ghost of Calvin,” the legendary story of an inmate who committed suicide and still haunts the property, and before that it was “Asylum.”
Tickets for the tour are not pre-sold, but rather sold in-person at the event until the 10 p.m. cutoff. Some Polk County high schools will pre-sell the Dunk The Deputy dunk tank tickets at their schools. The Dunk Tank tickets are $5 for 5 throws. Tickets for the Haunted Jail Tour and carnival games can be purchased through cash or credit/debit cards.
There will be signs available leading the way to the parking area. The Haunted Jail Tour typically lasts about 15 minutes.
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.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..