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Interview: Bulldog Tours
Ghosts in Oyster Point (a.k.a Charleston, SC)
By Christine Stoddard
So far Quail Bell has given you some insight into ghost groups in Richmond, VA, Baltimore, MD, and Atlanta, GA. Now we're taking you to Charleston, SC for a few words from owner John Laverne about how the paranormal and the historical collide at Bulldog Tours:
For those not familiar with Charleston, SC, could you give them a sense of the history and wonder there? What makes it a uniquely haunted city?
Charleston was founded in 1670 and is said to be one of the most haunted cities in America. Why so haunted? Many ghost experts believe we have such a large number of ghosts due to our tragic history (Revolutionary War, Civil War, five major fires, earthquakes, epidemics, hurricanes, and tornados). During such tragedies, many people often lose their lives unexpectedly and reside on earth [as ghosts] in hopes of completing any unfinished business. Until their business is finished, we have lots of spirits lurking in the shadows. Charleston also has a tremendous amount of old buildings and homes where many generations of families have lived and died. Many of the deceased residents of these old houses decided to never leave. My lighthearted belief is that we have lots of ghosts because Charleston is so wonderful [that] one life here just isn’t enough.
Now talk about yourselves. Who exactly are you and what ignited the idea for Bulldog Tours?
Bulldog Tours was founded in 2001 and has earned the title of Charleston’s premier walking tour company. We are a group of devoted people that love our city and love sharing it with others.
After taking several years off from being a full time tour guide, I found myself longing to give more than the occasional tour. On a bike ride one night I noticed a rather large group of people on a ghost tour and was surprised to see how that genre of tours had become since I originally started giving tours in 1991. A couple of blocks later on this bike ride I passed by one of my favorite historic treasures, The Old Exchange Building. I thought to myself, “How great would it be to take a ghost tour through that building’s Pre-Revolutionary DUNGEON at nighttime when the building isn’t being used?!” Weeks later I approached the Director of the Old Exchange and offered to give them a large percentage of our admission fees in exchange for exclusive tour rights at night. That was the birth of The Charleston Ghost & Dungeon Tour. That tour quickly became the most popular ghost tour in town and the formula of raising money for historic preservation proved to be a success.
Not long after that, I approached the newly formed American College of Building Arts and asked if I could use their campus headquarters, The Old City Jail, for nightly ghost tours (Haunted Jail Tour). They agreed and we have since been giving tours of Charleston’s most haunted building. Next came a partnership with The Circular Congregational Church to use their graveyard (oldest in Charleston) in our Charleston Ghost & Graveyard Tour.
After establishing our foot in the ghost tour business, I bought a daytime history tour company (Charleston Strolls) to give us all something to do in daylight hours.
After giving a celebrity chef a ghost tour one night, and asking her a zillion food questions, I realized we should be doing food tours in Charleston. This led to me purchasing Culinary Tours of Charleston which has been a blast and allowed us to share the amazing history behind our unique Lowcountry cuisine.
Tell QB readers a bit about The Old Exchange and what inspired you to raise over $1.7 million for its preservation.
The Old Exchange Building had always been near and dear to me. It is such a wonderful building filled with a rich history of pirates, patriots, and presidents. The Old Exchange has the history and the hauntings. Ever since I started Bulldog Tours, I wanted to give back to the city and its historical treasures. I chose the Old Exchange Building for that, and to date have raised over $1.7 million to help these buildings. It feels good to help out such a beautiful landmark in my city.
You have a whole whopping list of tours! So, could you give the quick run-down of the Ghost & Dungeon Walking Tour, The Dark Side of Charleston Walking Tour, The Ghost & Graveyard Walking Tour, The Haunted Jail Tour, and the Charleston Strolls Walk with History?
Yes, we do have a lot of tours to offer. On the Ghost and Graveyard tour, you’ll get an EXCLUSIVE opportunity to walk inside the gates of Charleston’s oldest graveyard after dark. You’ll learn about the history of Charleston’s haunted graveyards and hear tales about the famous individuals who found their final resting place in the Holy City. On the Ghost and Dungeon tour, explore the Holy City’s streets, back alleyways, churches and PRE-REVOLUTIONARY DUNGEON through the dark edges of Charleston’s Haunted Historic District. On the Haunted Jail Tour, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes tour that is sure to frighten all those who dare enter this historic site. Dark and sinister, the Old City Jail housed some of Charleston’s most infamous criminals, 19th Century pirates and Civil War prisoners. In The Dark Side of Charleston, you’ll take an uncensored look at Charleston’s true history–a history full of corruption, prostitution, crime, scandal and sordid affairs. On our Charleston Strolls tour, you’ll get a chance to tour where carriages and motor coaches are not allowed as you take a fascinating stroll [that reveals] Charleston’s rich history and colorful past. As for the culinary tours, what a great way to walk, talk, and eat your way through such a wonderful city.
Your website gives nice bios for each of your guides. But who are they really and where do you find them?
Bulldog Tours is made up of a staff of about 50 tour guides, all licensed by the City, some seasonal, but most are year-round employees. All of the tour guides are unique, charismatic, masterful storytellers, with a plethora of entertaining facts, legends, and historical nuggets. Most of our tour guides were born and raised in Charleston, however we do have what we call “transplants” that came to Charleston many years ago, and loved it so much, they never left. Some of our guides have been touring in Charleston for over 25 years. Our tour guides range in age from 25-80 years old, and each one has their very own personal stories of Charleston.
How has Bulldog Tours evolved in the past decade?
Bulldog Tours originally operated from my cell phone and home office (guest bedroom). We have grown to having a full-time staff and a Market Street shop that’s open 360 days and nights a year.
What's your favorite Charleston ghost story? Don't worry--you won't spoil anything for potential tour-goers.
My favorite Charleston ghost story would have to be that of John and Lavinia Fisher. Together, they owned a hotel, the Six Mile Inn, which they managed in the early 19th century. The hotel was located six miles north of Charleston. After a short period, many reports were made to the local sheriff's department about guests disappearing. Due to lack of evidence, and the popularity of the couple with many locals, these complaints came to nothing. Lavinia Fisher would always invite men to dinner and ask many questions about their occupation, trying to find out if they had money or not. She would send them up to their rooms with a cup of tea that was actually poisoned. Once the men would drink their tea and go to bed, her husband would go to the room to make sure they were dead by stabbing them. Lavinia and John Fisher were soon found guilty of highway robbery and hanged. Lavinia is said to have the last words of, “If you have a message for the devil, give it to me now.” She is said to still haunt the Old City Jail today.
What are you planning for the near and, heck, even the far future?
The future of Bulldog Tours is contingent upon people visiting Charleston and having a desire to have fun. As long as that happens, we will be here. As far as offering other tours, stay tuned, we always have something exciting in the works!
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