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Spend the Night in "Jail" At a San Antonio Historic Hotel and Landmark

Feel a cold chill in your room?

Don't remember leaving your shoes where you found them this morning?

It could be nothing. But you could be sharing your suite with unexpected guests: The ghosts of a 19th century San Antonio jail.

This still-unfolding story began here at the Riverwalk almost 150 years ago.


Building the Bexar County Jail

In the late 19th century, San Antonio was growing rapidly - between 1860 and 1900, the population exploded from 8,235 to 53,321. The city needed a new place to keep criminals off the streets, so a new jail was built in 1879. The two-story limestone building designed by Alfred Giles could house 70 inmates at full capacity. In its heyday, the facility was admired as a pinnacle of design and engineering. Shortly after its opening, a commission tasked with evaluating the jail reported:

"This jail has stood the test of three years' use, during which time the worst characters from San Antonio to the Rio Grande have been sent here for safe keeping…The modern method of jail building, as shown in the Bexar County jail, is perfection for light, air, space, and ventilation, combined with security."

Unfortunately, the turn of the 20th century brought another problem: San Antonio kept growing.


Death Row on the River

In just ten years, San Antonio's population nearly doubled, reaching 96,614 by 1910. Once again, Bexar County officials decided the city needed more jail space - but the growing Riverwalk area had little room for another new building. Instead, the county directed prominent Texas architect Henry Phelps to add a third story to the jail in 1912. The city had this same problem a third time and would eventually add two more stories in 1926, but credit for the jail's most notorious feature - an indoor execution system -  belongs to Phelps.

Gallows for executions were commonly built outdoors. But considering the dearth of outdoor space downtown, Phelps designed an internal gallows using a trap door in the floor of the third story. Inmates sentenced to death were marched up to the top floor, where the noose would be slipped around their neck, the executioner would throw a lever, and the condemned prisoner would fall two stories through the floor.

Other prisoners, law enforcement officers, and morbidly curious citizens - public executions weren't outlawed in San Antonio until 1926 - watched as the life was slowly choked from the prisoner's dangling body. Some of the worst criminals of the time were executed here at Bexar Jail.


The Bexar County Jail Today

The jail was closed in 1962. In 2002, Baywood Hotels purchased the property and converted it into a hotel, which became the Holiday Inn Express in 2009. But plenty of history from the building's dark past remains.

You can still see scratches from inmate carvings in certain areas of the drop ceiling. The bars on the first-floor window date back nearly a century - they've been preserved by a county ordinance that limits exterior renovations allowed on historic buildings. The area where executed prisoners used to drop through the trap door is now Room 108 (they fell through Room 218 above).

It hasn't been a jail for over 50 years, but some guests say the inmates haven't gone anywhere. Some report feeling sudden temperature fluctuations in their rooms, strange sensations on their arms and backs while alone, or items moving around while they were sleeping or out. The hotel is now a popular stop on the San Antonio ghost tour circuit - it's not uncommon to see tour groups out front in the evenings.

What's the real story of this former correctional facility with nearly 150 years of history? There's only one way to find out: Spend a night in "jail" and see for yourself.

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