An important part of documenting the old jail prior to renovations was to capture the building, from the outside, and it’s old brick and stucco facade.
The outside must be completely repaired and covered to pass any inspections. The history will be lost.
What you can’t see is the details of the handmade bricks. Some very sad details. Slave labor made much of the bricks used. Children worked the kilns and their small fingers imprints, from touching the hot brick, can still be found.
Old hand wrought bars and fittings may remain in a few places, but modern safety laws will mostly have there removed, and discarded.
I walk around here and still surprised that there actually where people who managed an escape.
When people were placed here, even for a short time, I don’t know how they survived never mind escape.
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Note; The old Charleston Jail is being renovated to be used for commercial purposes. A small group was invited to visit and photograph the historical site before it is gone. This is part of that project.
The jail was built in 1802. By design it was meant to be intimidating, to serve as a warning. And for good reason since given the history this may have been one of the most brutal places in the US. It was closed in 1939 for being ‘inhumane’. Up to 10,000 people may have perished here over the years.
Towers were removed in the late 1800’s after Charleston had a large earthquake. Other buildings, including the workhouse (a place that made the jail itself pale in comparison) have been torn down over time.
The court of the jail has it’s own history. Execution by hanging was common. Since the jail is surrounded by old houses there were spectators for the executions.
During the Civil War the court yard was used to house prisoners from the 54th Massachusetts regiment. This was a famous African American unit that was kept here because the Union Army wanted them returned as prisoners of war. The Confederate States considered them runaway slaves. The unfortunate soldiers were here until the end of the war.
The old Charleston Jail is being renovated to be used for commercial purposes. A small group was invited to visit and photograph the historical site before it is gone. This is part of that project.
The old historical Charleston Jail is about to be ‘changed’. Renovated I guess is the technical term. It has been under new ownership for a while, and time has caught up with it.
Ellen and I were honored to be invited to join a group of historians and photographers to see and document the jail as it is before things are removed and construction begins. The collective knowledge gathered for this shoot was absolutely humbling.
As is my own style I choose selective parts of the jail to photograph, and of course throw in some drama as I documented it.
My work will take several articles, I will include links to others contributions (Facebook will be popular with others I’m sure).
The jail has a dark disturbing history with African Americans. Mr. Joseph McGill was with us sharing his knowledge and I strongly recommend you visit his organization (click the link) The Slave Dwelling Project.
For several years (click here) Bulldog Tours has been providing tours and special access to the Old Charleston Jail. It was John D. LaVerne and Randall Johnson that reached out from Bulldog to invite this group of known Charleston historians.
Brandon Coffey, the founder of (click here) The South Carolina Picture Project contacted us and it was greatly appreciated. The ‘Project’ is an on going venture to have local photographers document the historical ‘nooks and crannies’ of South Carolina.
All the new, and past, articles here on this subject can be found by clicking the word Jail ‘tag’ in this web site sidebar.
A visit, and lucky private tour, was educational and enlightening. You could be sent here for murder, or petty crime. Either way survival was questionable.
The jail was built in 1802 on land set aside for public use. Over time some changes were made, a tower was removed due to the 1886 earthquake. Most of the inside structure remains as it was…and that was most interesting.
In time a hospital, poor house, workhouse for runaway slaves, and this Jail was built on the square. The jail housed petty thieves, famous murderers, and the last pirates sailing the coast here to the Caribbean. Civil war prisoners were also kept here.
Since Charleston did not have an asylum the second floor was used at times. Any African descent seamen coming into the port had to stay here until the ship left. Women and children were kept in the same cells as male inmates. In general this entire place was pretty horrible.
The courtyard, like all old prisons, held the gallows. Not the ones we have seen in the movies, but it had one. No details are needed here.
Still owned by the City of Charleston it is leased to a touring company that has exclusive touring rights. They invested $ 1 million for some restoration. Ghost tours, and TV shows have used this property.
Bulldog Tours will provide a guide to walk you around, and in, the jail.