I’ve just photographed a ghost. A disembodied face, grey and pixelated in the darkness of the night. It looks like a boy, no older than 14; submissive, long nose, angular jaw, eyes downcast. I won’t know he’s here until I review my photos later, pinching the screen over an indiscernible smudge of light to reveal an ethereal, impish figure. I’m glad he’s keeping his hands to himself.
Cell 17 at the Old Melbourne Gaol is notorious for paranormal happenings: women having their hair stroked, men thrown from the doorway, cameras seizing up and a guide dog refusing to enter. “Weird stuff happens in that cell,” says in-house guide Trevor Poultney, as he leads a group of wannabe ghost hunters through the jail – some skeptics, others ardent believers, many just slightly terrified.
Though I’m in the agnostic category, what I’m about to see and hear is hard to refute. Next year marks nine decades since the Old Melbourne Gaol, a mid-19th century bluestone building on central Melbourne’s northern fringe, was decommissioned. Once home to some of the city’s most dangerous criminals, the jail was also a place of reckoning; 133 people were hanged here including its most infamous inmate, bushranger Ned Kelly. It’s been a lifetime since the 93 cells have been occupied but, speaking to the staff here, I sense that some prisoners never left.
“In all the years I’ve worked here, I’ve never known a site supervisor who hasn’t had a weird experience when they’ve been in here by themselves,” says Poultney, a master storyteller and creator of the night ghost tour. “Most of them report [being] followed by heavy footsteps. Other people have heard chains clanking, keys rattling, doors slamming.” It’s an eerie, grim place with six rows of cells divided across three levels, stone walls, steel doors, bolted locks, a hangman’s noose and barely a smidgen of light.
Melbourne has had a particularly scandalous history with convicts, gold rush-related crimes, opium dens, gang wars and infamous characters such as murderer Frederick Deeming, who many believe to be Jack the Ripper
Poultney leads us across the flagstone floor where, he says, a site supervisor was kicked in the calf by someone who wasn’t there. Hours later, the jail erupted in a cacophony of shrieking voices and rattling locks. She quit three days later. Then there’s the creepy case of the footsteps: someone running, a rush of air and wet footprints puddled on the floor. Poultney even has a photograph to prove it.
He tells us stories of a stocky man in a waistcoat and broad-brimmed hat seen leaning over the balustrade by the gallows, and of a woman and young girl in 19th-century dress known to loiter on the top-floor gangway. It all sounds a bit fanciful, but Poultney produces photos, provided by visitors, with haunting similarities. He’s an affable, earnest kind of bloke and I’m enthralled. And a little bit scared.