The Bastille is a historic building in Kings County, California. It served as the sheriff’s office and county jail from the late 1800s era of the Wild West to 1964.
The building is in downtown Hanford, the administrative seat of Kings County and the most populous city in the San Joaquin Valley region of the greater Central Valley.
The Bastille has a long history of paranormal activity dating back to the early 1900s.
The Bastille was Kings County Jail
Kings County was previously part of the neighboring Tulare County but acquired independent status in 1893. The authorities constructed new administrative buildings in Hanford after the city became the county seat.
They finished construction on the courthouse in 1896 and completed an adjoining building that housed the county jail in 1897 (Parker Bowman, Hanford Sentinel, 2021).
They named the county jail building the Bastille, after the historic medieval fortress in Paris, France.
Successive French kings used the Parisian Bastille as a state prison, and it became a symbol of dictatorial and oppressive monarchical rule. A crowd stormed the fortress on July 14, 1789, to gain access to its ammunition stores. The Storming of the Bastille was a symbolic event that marked the beginning of the French Revolution that ended monarchical rule in the country.
Construction of the Bastille
Kings County authorities awarded the contract to build the Bastille to a company known as Exeter Granite Works at a value of $10,000. They later reviewed the contract value upward to $14,000 (Parker Bowman, Hanford Sentinel, 2021).
Hanford Sentinel estimated that when adjusted for inflation, the price tag of $14,000 for a contract awarded in the 1890s was equivalent to about $415,000 in June 2021.
Randy Shaw, a city of Hanford official, told the Sentinel that Exeter Granite Works proved a competent contractor. The level of craftsmanship exhibited in the construction of the building, including the confinement cells, was of a very high standard.
As a testimony to the quality of the craftsmanship, a 1907 report by the Sentinel claimed that no inmate ever escaped from the Bastille’s vault-like cells.
The Bastille contract award was controversial
Despite the excellent work done by the contractors, the contract award proved controversial. Frank Sharples, a competing contractor, alleged that officials corruptly awarded the contract to his competitor.
Sharples was a prominent businessman and a controversial figure in the San Joaquin Valley region.
A Hanford Weekly Journal report dated May 12, 1891, reported on a dispute that nearly ended fatally for Sharples. A business associate who alleged that Sharples refused to pay a debt shot him in the neck after a heated argument.
Sharples reportedly tried to dissuade the person from discharging his weapon by raising his hands and pleading. Presuming the worst after the gunman fired and shot him in the neck, Sharples reportedly shouted that he was dead.
But he fully recovered from the gunshot wound.
The Bastille layout
To better appreciate the significance of the pattern of alleged paranormal activity in the Bastille, we shall briefly examine the layout of the building.
The Bastille had several cells organized into sections to hold inmates safely and securely.
The rows of cells on the first floor held male inmates. The cells on the second floor held inmates determined to be mentally or physically ill. Other cells on the second floor held female inmates and juvenile offenders.
Most of the inmates at the Bastille were not hardened or career criminals. They were ordinary citizens of the American frontier who had a brush with the law for various minor and major offenses. They included vagrants, drunks, delinquents, and petty criminals.
However, there were occasions when the jail hosted hardened career criminals.
The Wild West
The Bastille had its fair share of Wild West oddities in the years it served as a county jail with an adjoining courthouse.
Shaw told the Sentinel about a weird incident that involved a man who felt aggrieved by a ruling. The man reportedly forced his way on a horse into the building and rode up the stairs to confront the bemused judge.
Occasional firearms exchanges in and around the building left lasting marks on the walls.
The jail closed in 1964
The jail eventually closed in 1964. Officials used the building for storing public files for some years before agreeing to a petition to allow the Kings County Art League to convert it into an art gallery named The Bastille Gallery.
After the art league moved from the building, several businesses, including restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, occupied it until 2009.
The Bastille has been empty since 2009 after a nightclub moved out.
The horrors of the Bastille
Although the Bastille only had space for about 60 inmates at once, there were times it held up to 260 people.
The overcrowding led to inhumane conditions. Vulnerable inmates, especially women, the old and young, suffered brutal atrocities at the hands of the guards and other inmates. Many who could not bear the hardships at the Bastille committed suicide.
According to local folklore, the tragic history of extreme suffering, misery, and deaths was behind the stories of paranormal activity at the Bastille.
The ghosts and spirits of tortured and brutalized people continued to haunt the building years after they died.
The first reports of alleged paranormal activity at the Bastille occurred in the early 1900s.
A few years after the jail opened, an inmate reportedly committed suicide. Local newspapers reported that shortly after the suicide, two other inmates caused a disturbance in the night when they claimed they saw the deceased in their cell.
Claims of paranormal activities continued after the jail closed in 1964.
Is the Bastille haunted?
Many locals believe that ghosts and spirits of generations of inmates who suffered untold deprivations haunt the Bastille.
Shaw told the Sentinel that many locals, visitors, and tourists reported paranormal experiences inside the Bastille and on the grounds. But he was skeptical of the claims. He said he worked in the building for more than 12 years during day and night hours and never witnessed paranormal activity.
While he did not believe the claims, he never discouraged people from sharing their stories because he considered them good for tourism.
However, other locals believe that eyewitness testimonies prove the Bastille is haunted. Many reported hearing strange noises, apparitions, and other mysterious phenomena.
According to Kaitlyn Lusk, an official at the Hanford Civic Center, most of the paranormal activity occurred on the second floor, where they used to keep juvenile, mentally ill, and female inmates.
The case of Mary who hanged herself
Dave Jones told the Sentinel that there are many stories about people hanging themselves in their cells at the Bastille. However, the case involving an inmate named Mary was the best known.
Local legend says Mary was a victim of abuse at the jail. She hanged herself in a cell on the second floor when she couldn’t bear the torment any longer. Her ghost allegedly still haunts the second floor of the Bastille.
Visitors reported seeing her ghost wandering through the rooms on the upper floor. The apparition walked up and down the stairs during the night. People outside the building also reported seeing her looking out the windows at night.
Jessica Szalai ghost encounter
Jessica Szalai claimed she had multiple paranormal experiences during visits to the Bastille.
On one occasion, while attending a dinner meeting at the Bastille, she felt her eyes irresistibly drawn to the balcony on the second floor.
A waitress who noticed her eyes transfixed on the balcony came to her and asked in a whisper whether she could see anything. At first, Szalai did not see anything, but she did not know why she kept looking. There was just something about the balcony that transfixed her gaze.
But later, she glimpsed a dark shadow near the balcony rail. She said it resembled the silhouette of a male person. The apparition startled her and she showed a visible reaction.
An inmate hanged from the top floor
The restaurant manager also noticed Szalai gazing at the balcony. Guessing she might have seen something, the manager told the visitors about a county jail inmate who hanged from the top floor.
Kaitlyn Lusk’s ghost story
Kaitlyn Lusk, an official at the Hanford Civic Center, also shared stories of alleged paranormal activity at the Bastille. She claimed she avoided entering the building in the dark and never ventured upstairs alone.
Lusk told the story of a co-worker who claimed something grabbed her by the neck while she was alone in the building. The woman had just conducted a group of schoolchildren around the Bastille. She was alone in the house after the children left when she came under attack.
Lusk also claimed she experienced disturbing paranormal experiences. She heard strange noises and disturbances from upstairs when nobody was there.
She said that when she heard the noises, she thought a homeless person had broken into the building. But when she went upstairs to investigate, there was nobody there.
William Eaton used to work as a bouncer at a nightclub that occupied the building after the Bastille Gallery moved out.
He said they never saw a ghost in the building but frequently heard strange sounds from the second floor. The sounds were loudest after the establishment closed, but no one was ever able to trace the source.
He said the restaurant kitchen staff also reported hearing agonized groans and wailing. There was a lot of poltergeist activity: Pots and pans moved and banged noisily.
Public hangings at Bastille
Public hangings also used to take place in the courthouse square next to the jail.
Lusk believed the ghosts that haunted the courthouse were innocent individuals hanged for crimes they did not commit. She believed that there must have been many such cases in the days of the American frontier when discrimination, violence, and injustice were regular occurrences.
People reported seeing apparitions of people wearing clothes from the Old West era. The ghosts would walk into the square and disappear mysteriously behind a tree or the fountain in the middle of the lawn.
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Top image courtesy of Armona used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.
|Address||The Bastille, 113 Court St, Hanford, CA 93230|
|Activity reported||Haunting, Poltergeist, Shadow Figures|
Where to find
In the media
The premiere episode of Ghost Hunters Season 16 aired on Travel Channel on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. The episode featured the Bastille in downtown Hanford, California.
TAPS team members Jason Hawes, Steve Gonsalves, Dave Tango, Shari DeBenedetti, and The Walking Dead actor Chandler Riggs, investigated the old Wild West county jail with a history of strange activity.
https://hanfordsentinel.com/news/local/the-bastille-is-a-reminder-of-hanfords-wild-west-days/article_c790a2ae-f03c-5525-aab0-4c2f79b48250.html, “The Bastille is a reminder of Hanford’s Wild West days,” accessed on April 5, 2023.
http://fresnoflyer.com/haunted-hanford/, “Haunted Hanford,” accessed on April 5, 2023.
https://www.ourvalleyvoice.com/2021/06/17/hanfords-bastille-up-for-sale-again/, “Hanford’s Bastille up for sale again,” accessed on April 6, 2023.