By most standards, Vishi Garig’s working conditions at the former Clay County jail are downright deplorable.
Paint is peeling from the white stucco-over-red brick building’s 120-year-old walls, many of the doors are rusted, and cobwebs are commonplace.
Also, Garig’s fully convinced the place is haunted.
“Just as an example,” she says, “one morning two or three years ago, I could see through my peripheral vision … that there was someone standing at the end of the hall where the bathroom is. It was like a partial person — and as soon as I turned my head, he was gone, just like that.
“Stuff like that happens all the time here.”
To boot, Garig works alone.
“To me, that’s exciting; things like that don’t scare me like they do most people,” she said.
“Besides,” she added, unable to resist: “they are in jail.”
Indeed, Garig says being among apparitions and inexplicable sounds at the former detention facility — where it’s like Halloween 365 days a year — may be the best job she’s ever had. After all, she’s a longtime paranormal investigator and was a county volunteer for five years before landing the part-time paid gig as the archives specialist.
“Lots of people get creeped out in these buildings,” she said. “Some people, including my mother, won’t even go to the bathroom here because it’s located in an old cell block. But I’m comfortable here. At home, even.”
Garig has extensively researched and documented the jail’s history. The building was erected in 1894 with material manufactured by The Pauly Jail Building Co. of St. Louis, a still-existing firm that pioneered “tool-resisting steel,” offered special plumbing fixtures that could never be clogged, and built-in secure windows that allowed prisoners a little daylight.
The Clay brig housed men, women, children and mental patients, and hosted some births (the children of deputies who lived at the jail). The darker history told by jail records includes a sheriff being assassinated and dragged into the jail; an inmate slitting his own throat; and five executions by hanging and a suicide occurring outside on the lawn between the jail and courthouse.
“Oh, the courthouse is haunted, too,” Garig said, assuredly.
With all of the mystery and violent history within its walls, the jail’s exterior setting is postcard pretty under a canopy of Spanish moss-laden oak trees on the perimeter of the grassy Clay County governmental compound at State Road 16 and Gratio Place. The jail, which was expanded in 1903 and the 1920s, and closed in 1972, is three years younger than the old St. Johns County jail in St. Augustine, which as the oldest jail in Florida is a popular tourist destination. The Clay jail was renovated in 2003 for historic and archival purposes.
Garig maintains Clay County’s historical records, books and other collections; and, she is the authoritarian on its history and haunts, which are the focus of frequent paranormal investigations. Indeed, Garig is a member of the CAPE Paranormal Investigations team that conducted the first ghost-hunting expedition of the jail in 2009.
Because groups from throughout the Southeast and beyond say they consistently record paranormal activity in the empty cells, the jail is increasingly becoming a tourist attraction. Clay County charges $20-a-head for nighttime investigations; the money collected is used to enhance the archive program, such as acquiring scanning equipment and purchasing books documenting the county’s history.
On Oct. 15, the jail and courthouse will be spotlighted on Syfy television’s “Ghost Hunters,” which features paranormal investigators’ probes into places thought to be haunted.
“Being on Ghost Hunters is big-time and it will bring a lot of worldwide attention to Green Cove Springs,” Garig said. “We’re already booked with paranormal investigations through February, and this will bring a whole lot more attention and tourism to Green Cove. And I can’t say enough about how professional the entire Ghost Hunters cast and crew were.”
On a recent Friday night, Michelle Vance of Newberry and a team of Amelia Island investigators returned for one of their regular outings at the jail. In their pursuit of what they believe is paranormal activity, the crew uses electromagnetic field meters, digital thermometers and video recorders, among other equipment. They also extensively research the sites they visit.
Vance said the jail has as much “activity” as any location she has studied, and she’s recorded frequent “electronic voice phenomena” — sounds resembling speech found on electronic recordings.
“We like to come here because it’s very active — a lot of energy,” said Vance, an investigator and case manager for Paranormal Research Organization of Florida. “The cell doors creak when no one is there to do that, and there’s a situation with one spirit in the jail, well, I won’t go in there alone with him ...
“Knowing that there’s more than just life and death is what excites me about doing this work and keeps me coming back,”
Paranormal investigator and author Jamie Pearce of Orange Park hails the Clay jail as a mecca for ghost hunters.
“Historic Haunts Investigations came here in March 2013 and the building didn’t let us down …” Pearce said of the jail in her book, “Historic Haunts of the South.” “Vishi … announced to the spirit inmates that it was visitation day. That seemed to draw them all out.”
Vance said she begins her investigations by announcing her presence and making it clear that recording equipment is present.
“I always thank them for participating,” she said.