New Brunswick·Point of View

My night in a 200-year-old jail that's listed on Airbnb

A jail in Dorchester, N.B., has been sold to an entrepreneur from Ontario who is transforming it into a bed and breakfast. The CBC's Brett Ruskin was among the first guests to stay in one of the former jail cells.

'I don't know why they'd want to do it,' says former resident

Former Dorchester, N.B. jail becomes AirBnB

4 years ago
1:38
A jail in Dorchester has been sold to an entrepreneur from Ontario hoping to transform it into a bed and breakfast. Guests will stay in real jail cells. CBC's Brett Ruskin stays the night. 1:38

When I checked in to the jail, I was shown the room where I would spend the night, handed a key and told "a lot" of people had been killed in the building. 

"And probably more than we know about," said Bill Steele, owner of the jail in Dorchester, N.B.

A cell like this one will cost roughly $34 per night when the old jail in Dorchester, N.B., opens as a bed and breakfast. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Steele and I were on the top floor of the two-storey brick building built in the early 1800s. He bought it in March and took possession of it this month. Steele paid between $100,000 and $150,000 for the property — but that's not what he wanted to talk about.

"That's where they hung the noose," he said, pointing at the ceiling. "And they dropped down through to the first floor through a trap door where you're standing."

I took a step to the left.

The worst of New Brunswick's criminals were hanged through that trap door from the time the jail opened until the mid-20th century. A new linoleum floor covers the door now — but just knowing it was there was enough.

Reminders of the past 

The jail was filled with these reminders of the past. Steele's plan is to preserve and share them.

He wants to turn the Dorchester jail into a bed and breakfast and has listed it on the online hospitality site Airbnb. Steele says he's received hundreds of inquiries. 

Before he swung open the barred doors, I asked to stay a night. The CBC paid $34 and I was given my pick of the six two-metre-by-three-metre cells.

The cells where guests can stay are two metres by three metres. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

The black bars were rough to the touch and paint was peeling from the wall. The air in the cell was musty and cool.

It didn't smell, considering there was an old toilet in there. Calling it a toilet is, perhaps, an insult to modern plumbing. It was a bowl, recessed into a short wooden box, with a hinged lid.

Steele said it was decorative and that I should use the bathroom facilities with running water upstairs.

Later on, I made the mistake of trying to close the lid on the old toilet. Not only was the wood oily, but there was also something green on it. It was firm, sticky and coated my fingers with a gooey, mint-smelling substance.

I rushed out to my vehicle for a palm-sized amount of hand sanitizer — a luxury unavailable to the former residents of the jail.

I still don't know what the green stuff was.

The main hallway in the Dorchester jail leads to the cells where paying guests will sleep. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

To help him learn more about the jail, Steele invited Joyce Barker for a visit.

Barker, whose father was the jail guard in the 1940s and '50s, had lived in the jail for years. She didn't think it was an odd place to live while she was there, but she can't figure out why anyone today would pay to stay in a cell overnight.

"They're crazy," Barker said.

"I don't know why they'd want to do it. But if that winds their watch, then OK."

Joyce Barker lived in the jail during the 1940s and 1950s. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

She also said she had no doubt there was paranormal activity in the jail, which has been the scene of a killing, at least one suicide and dozens of hangings.

"Sure it's haunted," Barker said. "We don't know who they are, but the rocking chair has rocked in the living room when we lived here."

'I see you'

Although it had been a warm day, the temperature overnight dropped both outside and inside. I was happy I'd brought a sleeping bag — at Steele's recommendation — because even though he brought me a heater, there was still a slight chill in the air.

The jail was quiet and dark, and I felt like I was in a stone cavern at the centre of the village.

I fell asleep staring at penciled drawings on the wall. There was a hand, with an eye drawn into the palm. "I see you," it said next to the hand.

An image remains on the wall inside a cell in the Dorchester jail. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Overall, the discomfort from the bed, the cold and the claustrophobia were mostly offset by the uniqueness of waking up to sunlight streaming in between jail cell bars.

Steele said he has received requests to stay at the jail from across the country. It officially opened to guests this week.

Wi-Fi throughout the jail offers remarkably fast internet access. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brett Ruskin

Reporter/Videojournalist

Brett Ruskin is a reporter and videojournalist covering everything from local breaking news to national issues. He's based in Halifax.

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