Gaol - Jail, Williamsburg
Every town needs a jail, or gaol is it was once called. Williamsburg was certainly no exception. Its old gaol had a live-in keeper, and a number of very austere cells. Free tours are given regularly, all day.
The Gaol dates from 1704 and was used to house all kinds of prisoners, from 15 henchmen of the pirate Blackbeard, caught in 1718, through runaway slaves, debtors, spies, military prisoners, deserters, and traitors. The one we “met” was a loyalist from the Revolutionary period who had been captured and was awaiting trial.
Virginia's General Assembly ordered a "substanciall Brick Prison" built in Williamsburg soon after it decided to make the city the colony's new capital. Known as the Public Gaol, the building's construction was authorized by an act of August 1701. Contractor Henry Cary got the job--as he had the Capitol and would the Governor's Palace. He had two cells ready for guests in a building just north of the Capitol on Nicholson Street by May 1704
This building is pretty neat for the kids and those looking for a photo opp. The kids, or parents for that matter, can take turns in the sotckade.
After Williamsburg became the capital, the General Assembly ordered that a jail be built. At the time, a jail was called the Public Gaol (pronounced "jail") and means cage.
Most people who stayed at the Public Gaol were people awaiting trial. We learned that the most notorious criminals kept here were the 15 henchmen of the pirate Blackbeard.
I became a little sick to my stomach when I heard about the conditions at the Public Gaol...unheated cells, overcrowded, chained and manacled prisoners, dirty and often filled with pestilence called Gaol fever (typhus).
There was straw strewn on the floor to serve as a bed, and wooden buckets were used as a toilet. At times it even served as a "madhouse" (until the Public Hospital opened in 1773) and as a military prison.
The first Gaol only had two cells and an exercise yard, but soon two debtors' cells were added, and it appears today as it did in 1722 with 8 cells, an exercise yard and a room or two for the "gaoler' (jailer).
The Public Gaol is located just north of the Capitol on Nicholson Street.
Photo from Official Guide
We visited this brick buiding of Williamsburg's 18th century jail and got to know a lot on crime and punishment in Colonial America. At first I noticed that the jail (called public gaol), built in 1704, was among the first public buildings put up in the capital of colonial Virginia.
The Williamsburgers built first public edificies for education (Wren Building for the College of William and Mary's 1695), for entertainment (brewhouse and taverns) and surerely for power (Governor's Palace, Capitol, a court and a jail), later for religion (Bruton Church 1715).
The main brick edifice was 2-storey but the second floor was used by the jailer and his wife.
Daily 9.00 am - 5.00 pm.
In colonial times, the jailer and his wife would live in the same building as the inmates, though their living conditions were much better. Most occupants were men and women awaiting trial in the General Court and the Court of Oyer and Terminer or convicts waiting to be branded, whipped, or hanged, depending on their sentences. Though sentences were harsh by modern standards, first offenders might expect more mercy, and some were merely fined. The Gaol was not intended for long-term imprisonment.
The jail was extended in 1722 with 8 cells, an exercise yard and lodgings for the jailer. The last jailer was a man called Peter Pelham who lived here with his wife Ann, they had 14 children but some died very young. He also played the organ in Bruton Parish Church.
Just north of the Capitol Building is the public jail, which opened in 1704. People were usually locked up here waiting for their court hearing. Sentances metred out could vary, the stocks, whipping, branding and even hanging.
15 of the pirate Blackbeards men were locked up in this jail in 1718. The cells were over crowded at times and diseases like typhus were rife.
Imprisonment was not the usual punishment for crime in colonial times, but persons awaiting trial (at the Capitol in Williamsburg) and runaway slaves sometimes spent months in the Public Gaol. In winter, the cells were bitterly cold; in summer, they were stifling. Beds were piles of straw; leg irons, shackles, and chains were used frequently; and the daily diet consisted of "salt beef damaged, and Indian meal." In its early days, the gaol doubled as a madhouse, and during the Revolution redcoats, spies, traitors, and deserters swelled its population.
The gaol opened in 1704. Debtors' cells were added in 1711 (though the imprisoning of debtors was virtually eliminated after a 1772 law made creditors responsible for their upkeep), and keeper's quarters were built in 1722. The thick-walled redbrick building served as the Williamsburg city jail through 1910. The building today is restored to its 1720s appearance.