From the October 26, 1990 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

Vineyard celebrants of Halloween are sometimes too quick to recite ghost stories from the mainland and not those of here. In the cold season ahead Vineyarders needn’t look too far to find something going bump in the night.

Take, for instance, the ghost who resides at the county jail.

Some correctional officers insist this ghost exists. Others are skeptical. From the different Island towns, a few police officers say they’ve seen it. Others laugh at the suggestion that one could exist.

If there is any area of agreement, it is that when it comes to ghost stories among law enforcement officials working the night shift, this is the best one of them all.

“I didn’t really believe it when I started here,” says Sgt. Randolph M. Ditson, 42, a deputy sheriff who works at the jail from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Night after night, Mr. Ditson has spent the last eight years seeing to it that the inmates are properly secured at “lights out.” And he processes the new arrivals that are brought soon after the Vineyard bars close. Sergeant Ditson is a big man, not easily pushed or shaken by any visitor to what some humorously call the county inn.

But when Sergeant Ditson first found out there was a ghost at the jail, he says, he was quite shaken. Today he has managed to get used to him. The ghost the men call “Old Joe” is like any other inmate except that this one seems stuck on death row.

“You walk upstairs and then all of a sudden you feel it is real cool,” Sergeant Ditson says. On the ground floor, he says, he has sat at his desk and heard the water turned on in the kitchen. He has walked into the kitchen to find no one there to turn the water on. At other times, the ghost has played with the lights.

The ghost has been known to operate the typewriter and turn the radio on. “One night we heard typing and there was nobody in there typing,” Mr. Ditson says.

“He is a harmless spirit that just likes to be around.”

William L. Searle worked at the county jail from 1983 to the end of 1987. Today he works as a state environmental police officer. “Old Joe,” he says, was as much a resident of the jail as some of the regular visitors.

“There was no rhyme or reason for it. It just happened once in a while,” Mr. Searle says.

“The midnight shift was a good time to do paper work, so you would spend hours at a desk,” Mr. Searle recalls. Then upstairs, he would begin hearing someone moving down the hall. It didn’t make sense. All the inmates were supposedly locked in their cells and asleep. “I heard distinct footsteps. I cannot tell you how many times it happened. It got to a point I’d hear him walking around quite a lot. At first I thought that an inmate got out of his cell. I would go through the whole institution with the lights on and then I’d find no one,” Mr. Searle says.

The footsteps in the hallway upstairs changed to footsteps on the wooden stairs. “Then I would hear footsteps walking the full length of the ground floor hall to the office. And then I would turn around fully expecting to see someone and there would be no one,” Mr. Searle says.

Seven television monitors in the office are the extra eyes that give the officers an opportunity to keep a close watch on the activity around the jail. Few actions escape attention. Oak Bluffs police officer Robert Duart says he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he has seen it on the monitor.

Even as a child, Mr. Duart recalled hearing stories about the ghost at the jail. “I never paid any attention to it,” he says, until later. One night Mr. Duart was observing the monitors with other correctional officers. They watched the television screen that showed a picture of the inmates’ day-room. A fuzzy image moved across the room. “You know you don’t believe, but in your subconscious there is something,” he says. From then on, Mr. Duart says: “You look over your shoulder.”

The records of the county jail tell of an old man named Joe who hung himself in his cell during the winter of 1950.

But questions of whether it is Old Joe or someone else still abound when police officers gather for coffee in the jail booking office late at night.

Sheriff Christopher S. Look said he recalls as a young man being told about a ghost Fred H. Worden, the master and keeper of the jail. Even though the ghost might not be Old Joe, it may curiously draw its origins from years before.

The original 13-cell jail was built in 1848, making the facility one of the oldest of Vineyard buildings. The granite stone that makes up each of the original cells is said to have come from Indian Hill in West Tisbury. Generations of fresh coats of gray and white paint have softened the texture of the heavy stone.

Cell windows and doors are still barred by inch-thick iron. And the ghost seems to wander knowledgeably only around the old part of the building.

“Get back in your cell,” has become the common call by correctional officers whenever Old Joe has taken to the hallways and gotten out of hand.

Compiled by Hilary Wall