Ghosts of double hanging still linger at jail-turned-B&B in New Brunswick

B&B hotelier Natasha Marsh leads a small group of visitors along the corridor facing six jail cells converted into hotel rooms inside the Dorchester Jail.

The guests are on a tour of a 150-year-old institution that calls Dorchester, New Brunswick home, and it’s not far from where the Memramcook River connects with the Petitcodiac.

Revenants of the Auburn Layout for prisons haunt the halls, but it’s not just outdated prison reforms that are present. But if you spend the night in the Dorchester Jail, you may very well be hanging with the former residents as well.

Graffiti from its days as a prison is carved into the stone walls, the more vulgar content covered up with a fresh coat of paint, Marsh added. But for the most part, the paint is original to the building built in 1875. The two-metre-by-three-metre cells have been converted into rooms for weary travellers, looking to get a good night’s sleep.

The current building, now a bed-and-breakfast and home to Marsh, her husband Bill Steele and their daughter, was built on the site of the original prison in 1875.  It was a federal prison from 1875 to 1880 and then shifted to a provincial prison. It closed the doors on its prison career in 1998.

The Dark Side

On the other side of the jail — the Dark Side — are smaller cells, used to hold those on death row. They would be kept on the floor below and would bear witness as those hanged descended through the trap door. It was a pain in the neck that would remind them of their fates.

A young red-haired boy bolts back to the entrance, declaring he didn’t like that hallway and Marsh lets out a laugh.

“The main reason why this is called the Dark Side is because right now we are directly beneath death row,” Marsh admitted, during the August tour. “They started upstairs and actually came through a trapdoor in the ceiling and stopped right here, where we’re standing.”

Inmates in solitary would be awoken between 12 a.m. and 3 a.m. by the sound of the trapdoor falling open. Jail employees would cut the rope, place the body on a gurney and wheel it by those inmates left behind in the cells. Then the body would be buried right outside the windows.

Marsh admitted that she had been in the hallway cleaning and had the sensation of being watched.

“I’ve caught reflections of people standing beside me and behind me in the telephone closet,” she said. “I have to walk through Death Row to do my laundry.”

Those on death row would be moved from their cell upstairs and wait their 30 days before it was their time to slip off the mortal coil.

It wasn’t just about death in the upstairs portion of the jail. A small section converted into a bed and breakfast room used to be where the female inmates were housed. Dorchester Jail was a men’s and women’s facility for about 40 years.

Brothers grim

There are allegedly 27 men buried on the property where Marsh and Steele live.

“They’re all unmarked, so we don’t know where exactly they are, but they’re back there somewhere,” Marsh admitted, with a wry grin. “We don’t mow the grass where we think they are because we don’t want to bother, disrespect or disrupt anybody. I’ve got to live here with them, so we play nicely.”

There’s an old photo made into a banner on the second floor where death row was. It’s Arthur Bannister, then 17, saying goodbye to his mother May one last time before he was hanged with his brother Daniel, 20.

The two Berry Mills residents were convicted of murdering Philip Lake, his wife Bertha and their son Jackie during a botched kidnapping. Their 15-year-old sister Frances was with them as well but no charges were laid against her. In an April 7, 1936, Globe and Mail article, the Bannisters were referred to as dim-witted and were merely acting out the wishes of their mother May, who was considered the brains behind the plot.

“Mom was going around town telling a bunch of different men she had had their baby, and in reality, what she was doing was pushing a doll around town in a carriage,” Marsh said. “Because of the period when this happened, they didn’t understand mental health or inbreeding.

“The boys were inbred and yes, they were 17 and 20, but mentally they were like six- or seven-year-old children,” she added. “So, mom used that to her advantage and she manipulated her boys into kidnapping her a baby so she could extort money from these different men.”

May Bannister wanted the boys to kidnap five-month-old daughter Betty Ann so she could use the infant to blackmail a businessman in Moncton. She would serve three and a half years in Kingston Prison for Women.

The two were hanged together, with one rope around both of their necks, at 1 a.m. on September 23, 1936, and it is alleged that they took 21 minutes to die. The abolishment of double-hanging sentences was carried out due to that suffering.

 After the Bannister boys were executed, their bodies were never claimed, so their bodies were placed together in a single coffin and buried on the grounds.

Brian Baker/The Superstitious Times
The Dark Side is the portion of the Dorchester Jail where the bodies of those hanged at the jail would be collected from the end of the noose.

We bought a jail

Bill Steele wanted to do something unusual for his retirement, and he wanted his retirement home to be a unique place that wasn’t “crazy expensive”.

Originally hailing from Toronto, Steele and Marsh were no strangers to the inexplicable. Steele worked for the City of Toronto for 30 years out of 400 Commissioners Street and allegedly the old night watchman would be seen.

“To have my retirement in a cool, unique place that keeps my mind stimulated, it was perfect for me,” he said while standing outside the jail with the sun shining down. “That’s what I searched for, for the longest time, and I found this place.”

Steele grinned and bared no signs of concern over the property’s grim history.

“When I found out that people were buried in the backyard, I thought that was the greatest thing,” he said, with a laugh. “I’ve dreamt about that, living in a cemetery. I know some people think it’s kind of weird, but that’s me.”

Much like his spouse, Steele said he has a hundred encounters where “something’s up with that”. Most often Steele sees people walking by out of the corner of his eye, or he’ll see something peeking out from the jail cells.

When he first moved into the jail, the warden’s quarters experienced issues with the electricity at 1:10 a.m. every morning.

“The whole place electrically goes nuts for about 20 minutes,” he said, adding that when he uncovered that was the time when the Bannister brothers had died, and were left hanging for 20 minutes, he included it in the tour of the jail.

Once their story was shared, the electrical phenomenon stopped.

Steele admitted he doesn’t take part in investigations or seances, as it hits too close to home for him. But he does allow shows like “The Other Side” (Season 6, Episode 3) to film on location.

“I always tell people, if you don’t believe that things happen, come spend a night,” he said, with a laugh. “Don’t take my word for it. I’m not promoting it or anything.

“I was kind of open-minded before, but once I moved here, this place sold it, hands down.”

Brian Baker/The Superstitious Times
Some of the artwork that remains on the walls of the Dorchester Jail. The jail closed in 1998.

A night in jail

Kim Moser is the host of Eastlink’s “Haunted”. She has had the intriguing experience of exploring the bed and breakfast twice.

The first time, Moser was overnighting with her friend Jen Patridge in Cell 1 and doing some preliminary work to practice with her cameras to piece together an episode for her YouTube channel “Kim’s Darker Side”. Unfortunately, she was unable to put together a segment about the prison, but she did return for a two-night investigation for her series, “Haunted” just after Hurricane Fiona.

“It was really great because I got my feet wet with the first investigation with my friend Jen,” she said, during an August phone conversation. “We were the only people in the jail at the time, and we were genuinely freaked out a few times.”

One of those few times included an experience in Cell 5, where she and Partridge were setting up an experiment. Known as the “poker room”, Moser and Partridge set up four cards on the bed face down. As they conducted investigations via the Estes method throughout the rest of jail, in particular the common room, they became overwhelmed and suspected they were communicating with May Bannister. When they returned the cards matched the same playing cards on the wall.

Partridge is not one to scare easily, Moser recalled, but she was visibly upset by the experiences they were having.

“She looked like she was on the verge of crying, and I was like okay, we need to calm down; we need to regroup,” Moser said, adding they went to Marsh to get assistance in investigating the cells on death row.

What they learned from Marsh was that a previous investigation team stirred up some ghosts, literally. One female investigator from the previous team had taunted the Bannisters by referring to them as “Mama’s boys”.

In response, Moser and her colleague, along with Marsh, addressed the elephant in the room and treated the spirits with respect. The next morning, they went down to the Dark Side to investigate and a male voice said a name over the spirit box. The two went into the jail cell and the spirit box said, “Close the door”.

Moser said she told Partridge to exit the cell, especially after feeling a pull on her back. The door on the last cell in the Dark Side is always kept open as there is no key to open it. Once the voice of a young girl came over the spirit box and said, “Feed them now”, Moser said they opted to get breakfast upstairs instead of using the spirit box any further.

When they arrived at the common area, Marsh was waiting for them with muffins and coffee.

The second investigation with the “Haunted” team, Holly and Amelia, had Moser looking for the unmarked graves of the Bannister Brothers with dowsing rods. But in this instance, they were seeing shadows in the cells at the end of the Dark Side.

“Amelia just started talking and she was going to say, ‘I have this trigger object with me, so feel free to use it’. And as soon as she said that one of the cell doors slammed and we ran out of there as fast as we possibly could.”

Slamming doors aside, the entities at Dorchester Jail have also been known to get very handsy, especially in Cell 5. The double meaning of “poker room” is not lost on those who spend the night in the cell, as they experience poking and phantom touches.

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