Seated at the head of East Bay Street in historic downtown Charleston, SC is the Old Exchange Building. On this site, during the early colonial settling of Charles Towne, was a guardhouse situated on top of the battery–a wall that fortified the early city. The original battery wall is all but gone now, except a small section of the “Half Moon Battery” that was uncovered below the Exchange. It was here, in this early guardhouse where the infamous pirates of the day were imprisoned–the most notable of which was Stede Bonnet, a comrade of Black Beard. The current building, which replaced the guardhouse and was constructed in 1767, served many functions during its history. But its primary function was a customs house as merchant ships would dock on the Cooper River and bring their wares into the city. A storage vault under the building was often utilized for these merchants until the Revolutionary War came along. The vaulted area beneath the Exchange became known as the Provost Dungeon–basically a make-shift prison during both the British occupation and after the American colonists liberated the city. Like most prisons of the period, conditions were crowded and filthy–often leading to disease and certain death for the prisoners.
With this long history of pirates and prisoners of war, it’s not hard to believe the tales of ghostly spirits wondering the place. Indeed the air is thick with supernatural energy! I’ve heard of more than one person who absolutely refused to go into the Provost Dungeon, sensing the angry spirits within. Once inside the dungeon area, there is a mixture of authenticity and pure camp. Animatronic dolls dressed in bad colonial costumes are scattered throughout the dungeon in tableau indicating the prisoners held there. The Daughters of the American Revolution own the building and I wish they would take all that crap out of there. I feel it would be far more effective and honorable to the history and the people who died in this dungeon to clear out all of the badly dressed retail mannequins.
The rest of the building is, honestly, pretty ho-hum. The main floor serves as a large gift shop with some incidental exhibits and the upstairs Great Hall is rented out for receptions and events. Don’t get me wrong, there is some amazing history that has taken place in this building. I simply don’t believe it is currently being utilised in its best light.
So for the Macabre Tourist, can I recommend it? Unfortunately, I can’t. If the cheesy mannequins went away and the exhibits were upgraded to museum quality, then I would wholeheartedly recommend the tour. But as it stands, I recommend saving your money and visiting the St. Philips Church graveyard or better yet the Magnolia Cemetery for a true macabre experience. Even if you are not looking for the macabre experience and wanting a good history tour, I still say save your money. There are plenty of authentic experiences to be had in Charleston, but the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon is a tourist trap.