The Licking County Historic Jail has a 130-year-old history, but are ghosts still in the jail? 

The castle-like jail is only four stories tall, but it dominates the landscape with its dark stones and spires that shoot into the sky. Only some old furniture remains, such as rusted metal bedframes or an old dining room chair.  

The old Licking County jail sits right in Newark. Built in 1889, it was able to hold up to 68 inmates. The stone once had a pink hue, but since the building was heated with coal, soot stuck to the limestone, giving it the dark look it has now.  

Originally, the jail was constructed with apartments for both the sheriff and the matron, who was a woman in charge of running the female floor of the jail. There were three floors of cell blocks for men and one floor for women prisoners. 

“I normally don’t go in here,” Nelson Smith says, talking of the sheriff’s bedroom. Smith, who used to live in the jail and now gives tours of it. Smith lived in the jail in the 1960s for about six years during junior high and high school. His mother, Nora Smith, worked as the matron and head cook. 

The apartment was two small bedrooms, a living room and kitchen. 

“I thought it was bigger then, but when I walk in it now, it seems awfully small,” Smith says.  

The room now sits vacant, with an old metal bed frame in the middle. The paint is peeling off all the walls and ceiling. 

Four sheriffs had heart attacks in the room, and three died in the room, Smith says. The other sheriff died in the hospital. 

The sheriffs were not the only people whose lives ended in the jail. 

At least 22 people have died within the walls of the ominous jail—some of those people may have stuck around. The matron’s quarters are allegedly haunted by Mae Varner. She tried to overdose on painkillers but was taken to the hospital to get her stomach pumped.  

Photo by Ian McKenzie

Varner survived and was then taken to the jail, which wasn’t unusual back then to keep people from harming themselves. However, she snuck a match in her cell and lit herself on fire. 

Varner’s death happened before Smith’s mother began working at the jail, and despite the rumors and myth, Smith never experienced anything unusual while he lived there. There was some loud banging in the female cell block while Smith told this story. When he was asked if he knew what that was, he had no idea. 

Another violent death occurred in 1910. 

Carl Etherington was about 17 at the time. He was in a bar and got into an argument with the bar owner and a deputy sheriff. When the bar owner pulled a gun on Etherington, he defended himself and shot and killed the bar owner. Then a mob swarmed to kill Etherington, Smith says. 

Etherington ran to the jail for protection and was put into a cell. The mob broke down the bars and then hung him in the square outside of the jail. Smith says he doesn’t completely buy that story because the bars swing out, not in. The mob had a telephone pole that they were using to try to break in the jail. 

The jail closed in 1987 and was then used to store county records from various offices. It was briefly used to house Licking County’s Veteran’s Service Commission. In 2012, however, public interest in the jail sprung up. 

Many volunteers helped clean out the jail and it was opened for tours in 2012. Tours of the jail have not been given since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, documentary crews and paranormal investigators have traveled to investigate if there really are spirits still inside. The jail was featured on the Travel Channel show “Ghost Adventures” in 2014. 

One of these documentary crews went into the jail and one of the women on the team fainted when she went into the sheriff’s bedroom. But when she was left the room, she was fine, Smith says. 

The jail also puts on fundraising events. One of the most popular attractions is the Jail of Terror, which is a haunted house within the jail. The jail also hosts the Jailbreak 5k, which is a run and walk event that starts with Smith “breaking out” of the jail to start the race. 

The Licking County Governmental Preservation Society works to preserve and restore historical buildings in the county, including the jail. Currently, fundraising is going toward restoring the jail’s former administrative and living areas with historically accurate furniture and decorations. 

The jury, however, is still out on whether spirits still roam the cell blocks.