The haunting past of Old Shelby County Jail

The old Shelby County Jail is steeped in history and has a dark past. It was also known as the “White Rock Hotel,” which was built in 1891 at the corner of 5th Street and Midland Trail. It was the fourth jail in Shelby County and had solitary cells, holding cells that could accommodate several inmates at once, and was often overcrowded, housing around 30 to 40 people.

Strange Happenings

Within many paranormal circles, the jail is considered one of the most haunted places in Kentucky.

Shelby County’s emergency management director, Chris Spaulding, explained that there have been many strange happenings where a deputy sheriff, dispatcher or random person inside the jail has reported hearing or seeing things that are unexplainable.

Cells inside the Old Shelby County Jail

Interestingly, a few of the cells are left without working light bulbs. While most of the cells are still lit, according to Spaulding, some will not allow a light bulb to last more than a couple of days. County officials cannot explain it but have stopped updating the bulbs unless necessary. Some local residents suggest there may be spirits lingering in the cells that prefer darkness over light.

I’ve learned that the most haunted places and people have endured trauma. I wonder if this is also true for people and places who have experienced great joy. Sadly, in the case of the old Shelby County Jail, I believe the paranormal activity stems from pain, violence and injustice.

Racial Injustice

Over the years, there were a few escapes and at least two lynchings, both of which were African-American — Sam Pulliam and Reuben Dennis. Most infractions were for petty crimes, like theft, but the biggest one of all was looking at or associating with white women. Lynchings were a social and racial control method meant to terrorize black Americans into submission. In a heinous show of white supremacy, photos of victims, with exultant white observers posed next to them, were taken for distribution in newspapers or on postcards.

Sam Pulliam was lynched on July 20, 1891, by a mob of at least 60 white people. The mob formed to pursue him after the wife of a prominent white farmer accused him of assault while her husband was away from home. Reuben Dennis was killed in the early hours of February 15, 1878, at least three white men shot and killed him. The men abducted Mr. Dennis from the Shelbyville home of a Black man named Alfred Rucker, forced him at gunpoint to a nearby field, and fatally shot him.

Violence and Tragedy

Inmates were not the only people to die at the jail. At least two jail officials lost their lives while the jail was still in service. In 1957, jailor Luther Hammond was killed by two prisoners when they surprised him and struck him in the head. Hammond was working out his normal rounds and was carrying coal to the jail cells. When he reached for the door of one of the cells, the two inmates overcame him, striking him in the head with the lock from the cell door. He was found and rushed to King’s Daughters Hospital. His right upper arm was broken, his skull was fractured, and he was badly bruised in the attack. Ultimately, Hammond succumbed to his injuries and died at the hospital a few days later.

In 1983, Deputy Jailer Charles Wentworth was murdered by an inmate in the area connecting the jail’s holding area and the jailor’s house. Two girls came in to visit an inmate and smuggled a 25-caliber handgun into the jail.  The inmate they had been visiting yelled at the deputy jailor, who had only been on the job a few weeks. The inmate said he wanted to use the payphone, which was located near the jailer’s house porch exit. When the deputy brought the inmate up to the phone, the inmate pulled the gun on the deputy and demanded he step aside so he could escape or he would shoot him. The deputy stood his ground and explained that he could not just step aside and allow him to leave. The inmate shot him and left.

After Wentworth was killed, metal retainer inserts were brought in that connected to the holding area. This prevented visitors from having any physical contact with inmates, thus eliminating the possibility of a similar occurrence in the future.
(Old) Shelby County Jail Marker

Not all legacies are great

Shelby County’s emergency management director Chris Spaulding gave journalist Bobby Lacer of The Sentinel-News a guided tour of the jail. He stated that it was frequently overcrowded and housed more people than necessary, leading to its closure in 2001 due to violations. Lacer claimed he felt like a cold blanket embraced him when he entered one of the cells. Lacer said, “While I wasn’t scared, I was physically uncomfortable with my surroundings.”

The old jail is now a popular tourist attraction and is believed to be haunted by the spirits of those who died there.

Recently, three historical markers were erected near the jail to honor the six Black men who were killed by lynch mobs from 1878 to 1911 in Shelby County, including Reuben Dennis and Sam Pulliam.


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