Is there anything more deliciously spooky than a Victorian ghost story? I think not. Our own Boyd Gate House is fabled to be haunted, as was the subterranean county jail, housed in Marin’s first courthouse in San Rafael.
For nearly 100 years, the Old Courthouse reigned over downtown. When building began in 1872, San Rafael was a young, unincorporated town. Its Greek Revival façade rose up from a dusty Fourth Street, declaring San Rafael’s importance and its authority—a place for justice and punishment. The building held a courtroom, gallows for executing the condemned, and in its basement, the gas-lit corridors and cells of the local jail.
The ghost of an ill-fated man named William Argus reportedly haunted the jail, terrorizing inmates aplenty, over the last decade of the 19th century. Argus was arrested in San Rafael for stealing an overcoat at the Ignacio train station in November 1889 and swiftly locked away to await his sentence. He initially remained light-hearted, expecting a short sentence for such a petty crime, and passed the hours sketching portraits of his jailers and drawing murals with crayons on the walls of his cell.
Argus’s fortune changed when a visiting former captain-of-the-guard from San Quentin Prison recognized him as an ex-convict who had previously served time under an alias. As charges grew more serious, Argus attempted an escape, sawing part-way through an iron bar with a stolen table knife. He was summarily removed from his cell and placed in one of the “tanks,” two cold metal chambers reserved for the most troublesome of inmates. That night, Argo hung himself from a ceiling ventilator with strips of fabric torn from his thin mattress.
Almost immediately, those unfortunates relegated to the tanks reported being visited by his apparition. Terrified prisoners reported disturbing sounds in the night—chains rattling, shuffling feet, slamming doors—and several claimed to have seen Argus’s shadowy, coat-wearing ghost hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the cell. One jailed woman claimed to have seen Argus crouching on the floor near the tanks, one man shared a bunk with the phantom, and still another saw it dancing a jig.
Accounts of ghostly sightings in the jail were recounted regularly in local newspapers over the next ten years. The Old Courthouse gained a reputation local law enforcement embraced as a crime deterrent. Twice the paranormal activity was debunked as a hoax—once attributed to a scheming sheriff and later to an innocent courthouse cat. By 1907, a new bicycle-riding ghost had arrived.
Do you have a spooky Marin County-based ghost story? Send your spooky tale to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to have it featured on our social media during the month of October!!
Sources: Marin Journal, San Francisco Call, bizarrejournal.com, “The Ghost of San Rafael Jail” by Brian Crawford
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