The old Charleston Jail is in it’s final days. This is the last in a series of articles taken during a session to document what was about to be lost.
This will be a recap of the building, and it’s dark past.
The jail was built in 1803 and finally closed, for ‘inhumanity’, in 1939. During that time sections were added, removed due to an earthquake, and new designs created by Charleston architect Robert Mills (Washington Monument).
The jail was part of a public section of land set aside in 1680. The notorious runaway slave workhouse also here was demolished. The workhouse was known as the Sugar House.
Perhaps the most vivid and harrowing stories of the Sugar House were told in an unsigned document entitled “Recollections of a Runaway Slave” that appeared in an anti-slavery newspaper called The Emancipator on September 30, 1838. It reads as follows;
“I have heard a great deal said about hell, and wicked places, but I don’t think there is any worse hell than that Sugar House. It’s as bad a place as can be. In getting to it you have to go through a gate, in a very high brick wall. On the top of the wall, both sides of the gate, there are sharp pointed iron bars sticking up, and all along the rest of the wall are broken glass bottles. These are to keep us from climbing over. After you get into the yard, you go through a gate into the entry, then through a door of wood and an iron door, chained and locked together, so as both to open at the same time. The lower story is built of stone of great thickness,–and above, brick. The building is sealed inside with plank. Away down in the ground, under the house is a dungeon, very cold and so dark you can’t tell the difference between day and night. There are six or seven long rooms, and six little cells above and six below. The room to do the whipping in is by itself. When you get in there, every way you look you can see paddles, and whips, and cowskins, and bluejays, and cat-o’-nine tails. The bluejay has two lashes, very heavy and full of knots. It is the worst thing to whip with of anything they have. It makes a hole where it strikes, and when they have done it will be all bloody.
In the middle of the floor are two big sills, with rings in them, fastened to staples. There are ropes tied to the rings to bind your feet. Over the sills is a windlass, with a rope coming down to fasten your hands to. This rope leads off to the corner of the room, and there are pegs there to tie it to, after they have got you stretched. Slaves are carried there to be whipped by the people in the country four or five miles round, and by all the people in the city, and the guard men carry there all the runaways they take up.”
The first floor in the jail housed special prisoners, and rooms for the condemned.
People of means and wealth were not mixed with the general population. The duration’s were short and money bought privileges.
The exact opposite prisoners were kept on this floor also. Condemned inmates were kept in locked rooms, in that same room were locked the pastor and executioner until the prisoner was hanged.
General population prisoners were kept in large cells on the higher floors. The current building is three stories high, it was four stories and a tower. The top floor and tower were removed after the erathquake of 1886.
Large cells could hold perhaps a dozen prisoners. Men, women, and children were locked together. A single small fireplace might provide heat if needed. Oddly the warden and his family had quarters here also.
Now, in 2019, the Old Charleston Jail will be gutted, all history removed, and become a commercial office building. I can’t wait for the stories from people who work late at night in this building.
It was an honor to be included in the group documenting the last days of the Old Charleston Jail.
Note; To read all the articles in this series select the category “Charleston Jail’ from the side menu drop down box.