Spooky Cornwall

  One of Cornwall’s most intriguing buildings reveals a ghostly past.


As I walk the dank corridors in the basement of Bodmin Jail, my senses immediately sharpen. My eyes strain to see beyond the iron bars of the cell where condemned prisoners were once held. In the corner of the room, dimly lit by a shaft of soft light, I sense something moving. Looking again, I see there is nothing there but in the eerie silence of the empty cell, I start to understand why the jail has become a magnet for ghost hunters and paranormal experts, eager to glimpse the sight of a departed soul who met a gruesome end at the gallows.

Bodmin jail overlooks the town like a grand châteaux. Its steep-pitched roofs and imposing tower are more reminiscent of Southern France than east Cornwall. But despite its flamboyant exterior, this jail was renowned for its appalling conditions and gruesome public executions. Originally built in 1779, it was remodelled in the 1850s and finally closed in 1927. The final hanging took place in 1909 when 24-year-old William Hampton became the last condemned man to swing from the gallows for murder.


Coming back up from the dark interior of the prison into daylight, I sit outside at a large round table with Mark Rablin, resident medium at Bodmin Jail. In the bright sunshine and with Mark’s laid-back demeanour, it’s hard to imagine that anything ghostly could be going on here. It’s only when I glance over his left shoulder to see a large blue sign that reads “Execution Shed”, that the history of Bodmin Jail starts to reveal itself.

“Fifty Five executions took place here” says Mark “The jail held the most dangerous criminals in Cornwall. One of the most wicked was a man named James who murdered several women. I see him here in the prison quite often”. It’s such a throw away line, it doesn’t register until Mark passes me a photo. “He appears quite often at our paranormal evenings. He’s a bit of a flirt and walks around blowing on ladies’ necks,” chirps Mark. In the photo, taken only recently, I can make out a ghostly figure wearing a jacket and black a hat. It’s a young man with pronounced cheekbones and large staring eyes; he’s looking arrogantly back at the camera. Am I really looking at a murderer that was hung here and now roams the dark passages of the jail? Despite the warm morning sunshine, I shiver.  

Mark reveals there are around 12 ‘ghosts’ that call Bodmin jail home and some of them have good reason to be restless. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries the law was tough and it wasn’t just serious crimes like murder that carried the death penalty.Stealing a watch, as 22-year-old William Congdon did in 1787, or setting fire to a field of corn, as in the case of Elizabeth Osborne aged just 20 in 1813, could see you hanging from the gallows, too. As entertainment, public hangings were a great draw with thousands of spectators travelling to Bodmin to witness the hangings of the more infamous criminals. The double hanging in 1840 of the Lightfoot brothers who were convicted of the brutal murder of Neville Norway near Wadebridge, attracted a crowd of over 20,0000, some of whom arrived on specially commissioned trains.

Mark reveals that it was in the jail that he discovered his paranormal powers. “I came here on a charity night for a bit of fun,” he says. “But as soon as I went down to the basement, stones were thrown at me and I saw ghostly shapes. Something was trying to communicate with me”

Up until then Mark had been a lorry driver but had just given up work after having a heart attack driving home one evening. After his experience at the jail, Mark decided to take a diploma in psychic development involving Reiki and energy healing and Bodmin Jail is where Mark thinks he really should be.

“I was born in Northampton but I have researched my family tree and discovered that my family originally came form Camborne. One of our resident spirits at the jail called Jeremiah popped up in the basement and said he recognized me. My energy has been here before. I was here when they built the jail. This is where I am meant to be”

The jail holds paranormal evenings every month which are always sold out well in advanced. “All kinds of people come to our evenings,” says Mark. “Sceptics and ghost hunters: I teach them how to channel their energy. The most haunted place in the jail is the basement and with the combined energy of fifteen people we try to manifest the energy of departed souls. At the moment Elizabeth Commins who killed her illegitimate child in 1828 is very active. She is always seen carrying her infant son. She wants to show us she has him back and they are reunited”

I approach the question of “What are ghosts” with some apprehension, as Mark seems totally matter-of-fact about the whole think without a hint of spooky showmanship you'd generally associate with the subject.

“It’s a manifestation of energy and energy never disappears. When we die our human form degrades but our innate energy is stored around us. Ghosts are never aggressive, they just want to tell you something.” With the scenario of the film “The Sixth Sense” playing in my mind I ask Mark if it’s necessary for it to be dark to conjure up ghostly energy. “That’s purely for TV”, he says, “Although being deprived of your senses does sharpen your mind” Mark insists that the Jail’s paranormal evenings are not ‘fright nights’. “Visitors can genuinely learn something about the past here and Cornwall is an ideal place to find ghosts, the secret is in its very bedrock: granite. Its complex geological structure holds energy from the past, you can feel it everywhere”

Info at www.bodminjail.org