By Dave Fountinelle | firstname.lastname@example.org – Photos By Laci Miranda
California is home to hundreds of famously haunted locations. Some, like the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose and the Queen Mary in Long Beach, have become internationally popular tourist destinations. However, many lesser-known spooky spots throughout the state have also inspired countless local urban legends. The array of stories ranges from incorporeal conquistadors and clergymen occupying old Spanish missions to restless spirits roaming the halls of gold rush era hotels. The Central Valley is an excellent place for fans of the paranormal to celebrate Halloween month with a “ghost tour” of its various haunted sites.
One particular valley location with a dark and deviant past and a prolific paranormal presence is the Bastille, located in the courthouse square in downtown Hanford. In late September, TAPS – The Atlantic Paranormal Society – stars of the hit series Ghost Hunters on Discovery+, paid a visit to the former jailhouse. Along with special guest Chandler Riggs, who played Carl on AMC’s The Walking Dead, the TAPS crew spent the night at the allegedly haunted hoosegow for an episode set to air in Spring 2023. While fans of the series will have to wait a few months to find out what the TAPS team observed during their otherworldly overnighter, Fresno Flyer is here to give you the frightening 4-1-1 on what might be the most baleful big house in the valley.
Kaitlyn Lusk is the Recreational Coordinator for the Hanford Civic Center. She has also become somewhat of an authority on the history of the Bastille.
“I probably only know about half of what really went on here,” she confesses. “But some of it is pretty disturbing.”
The Bastille served as Kings County’s jail and sheriff’s office from 1897 until 1964. Yet, even before the doors opened on the cursed criminal cooler, there was chaos and controversy surrounding its construction. Kings County awarded Frank Sharples’ Exeter Granite Company the building contract. During the construction, a disgruntled business associate shot Sharples in the neck over a payment dispute. Sharples survived, but this would be just the first in a long and increasingly sinister series of events surrounding the spectral slammer.
The first floor of the jail was designed to house the general population. The second floor contained cells for prisoners considered sick or mentally insane. Eventually, the upstairs cells would house female and juvenile offenders as well. Initially, the jailhouse was designed to hold roughly 50 inmates at one time. However, various accounts have reported as many as 260 inmates were packed into the iron and granite building during its nearly 70 years of operation. With that many men, women, and children – some who were violent or mentally ill – packed into a space meant to hold 1/5th of the occupancy, atrocious stories poured from the cold, stone walls into several local news reports. Some female inmates were raped by both male inmates and the guards. The incarcerated women gave birth to their babies inside the jail, where they raised them until they completed their sentences. Juvenile inmates were also abused and tormented by their adult cellmates. Some inmates committed suicide due to the harsh and desparate conditions inside the jail. Some were killed, either by other inmates or the guards. It is this history of abuse, brutality, misery, and death that paranormal experts believe has left the Bastille filled with tormented souls and restless spirits. Former and present employees have no shortage of accounts of encounters with the building’s disembodied denizens.
“I absolutely will not come in here after dark,” Lusk chuckles nervously as she walks through the doorway and into what was once the receiving area for the jail. “And I NEVER go upstairs; I just can’t do it,” she adds.
Lusk shares a story about a co-worker who conducted a tour for a group of school children. After the tour’s conclusion, when students had left the building, Lusk heard the woman screaming from the back room near the cell block. When she ran back to investigate, she found her co-worker standing alone, pale and shaking. “I felt something grab me by the neck!” her co-worker told her. There was no one else in the room.
“I could just feel something in the room that wasn’t right,” she explained.
Lusk has had her own eerie experiences as well. “I’ve heard some things, like strange noises coming from upstairs when there’s nobody up there,” she says. “We do have a lot of homeless people who come onto the grounds, so the first thought is that maybe someone broke in looking for a place to sleep. But, then we go to investigate and there’s nobody there.”
William Eaton – who worked as a bouncer at the Bastille back when it was a bar, restaurant, and nightclub – says that, while he didn’t witness any ghostly apparitions, he and the rest of the crew would often hear strange sounds coming from the second floor after closing.
“There was weird shit that happened after we closed at night. Like groans and weird sounds,” he said.
Cooks in the kitchen also claimed to hear strange noises, groans, and wailing. In addition, they reported seeing pots and pans moving around by themselves.
One of the most famous supernatural inhabitants of the Bastille is believed to be a woman named Mary, a former inmate who hung herself in her cell. Several visitors and employees have reported seeing her ghost walking through rooms, up the stairs, and staring out of the second-floor windows at night.
“Most of the really supernatural occurrences seem to happen on the second floor, where they kept the mentally ill and the women and children,” Lusk recalls. “But people have seen weird things happening all over the grounds outside too.”
Lusk explains that public hangings would take place outside the courthouse square during the days when the Bastille was still an operating jail. Considering the history of violent discrimination upon which many valley communities were built, it’s fair to say that a number of those hanged were likely innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Stories of men and women wearing “old west” clothing walking the grounds of the courthouse square, only to disappear behind a tree or the large stone fountain in the center of the lawn when approached, are common among employees and visitors alike.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its revenant-rich reputation, the Bastille is a popular place for people looking to host events. Currently, the Bastille is in a state of semi-disrepair. Lusk says that sometimes small events occur there, but bookings are held outside for the most part.
“It’s a really beautiful backdrop for all sorts of events,” Lusk beams.
With many first-hand accounts of strange noises, ghostly figures, and unexplained phenomena, the Bastille should be on every ghost chaser’s itinerary this Halloween season. And for those seeking less phantasmal, family-friendly festivities, Lusk says that the City of Hanford is planning to run a haunted house experience for kids and adults on the 3rd floor of the neighboring courthouse. So, spooky spectators of all ages can come down and experience one of the most haunted places in the valley first-hand.
For more information about family-friendly Halloween events at Hanford’s courthouse square and civic center, visit the Hanford Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.