Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library
Research Report Series - 1634
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library
Williamsburg's famous "strong sweet prison" which has stood for two hundred and thirty three years and has housed pirates, runaway slaves, Tories and condemned criminals, is yielding up its secrets to the architects and archaeologists of the Williamsburg Restoration, who are now examining the historic old relic. Excavation of the area around the old jail building has just been completed, and revealed the foundations of the General Court Prison for Debtors, the old Keeper's House, and the prison courtyard. Shackles, leg irons, prison hardware, early pipe fragments, and even skeletons have been found in the excavation, and the archaeologists are now at work interpreting their finds.
The portion of the Public Gaol still standing was erected in 1701, and within its walls were two strong c was loss of life or mutilation. Prisoners condemned by the court were executed on Capitol Landing Road. Among the notorious criminals of the early day who awaited their execution in the old gaol were the pirates in the crew of "Blackbeard" or Captain Teach, the terror of the Carolina coast, who were captured in 1718 and brought to Williamsburg for trial.
By 1711 laws against poor debtors became more stringent and the gaol could no longer accommodate the numbers sent to it from all parts of the colony. The Virginians showed more sympathy to debtors than 2 to common criminals, so in the following year a special Debtors' Prison was erected, separated from the other by a courtyard.
Pease and salt beef was the common diet of the poor prisoner who could not afford to send to the nearby taverns for his meals. The scuttles through which this food was shoved by the keeper were found bricked up when modern woodwork was stripped away. On the original floor were found the rings to which the prisoners' leg irons were fastened. Throughout most of eighteenth century the grated windows and doors had no glass in them and there were no fires, except in the Debtors' cells. Many prisoners died of cold during the severe winters. The Virginia prison, however, is considered by historians to have been administered more humanely than those in England of the same period.
The prisoner who was subjected to the most severe treatment was Henry Hamilton, the Tory Governor of Detroit, called the "Scalptaker" for his activities in inciting the Indians to massacre the American patriots and their families. Captured by George Rogers Clarke at Vincennes in 1779 Governor Hamilton was marched overland to the sturdy prison in Williamsburg, put into heavy irons, barred from the use of pen or paper and made to eat the common prison fare for the many months of his confinement before he was finally paroled to New York.
Peter Pelham, one of the best known keepers of the Public Gaol, played the organ in Bruton Parish Church and taught music to the young ladies of the town. He was a tender-hearted jailer and frequently begged the House of Delegates for blankets, medicine, or firewood for his charges, and at one time was investigated because too many of his prisoners, particularly Tories, had escaped.3
After the capital was removed to Richmond in 1779, the old Public Gaol was turned over to the City of Williamsburg, and later was shared by the City with James City County. Removal of bricks from the old walls by Federal soldiers during the War Between the States ruined all of the portions of the prison standing at that time, except the small unit of the building which was erected in 1701 and still stands.
Some years after the War, the city built a modern prison and the old gaol was abandoned for many years. It was the property of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities for a while, but the title reverted to the city and was later given to the Williamsburg Restoration.
Harold R. Shurtleff, Director
Department of Restoration & Record.
Report by: HB
Copy to: Mr. Norton.
The following references to buildings and outbuildings of the Keepers House of the Public Jail are from data on file in the Research Department.
Tuesday May 25, 1742.Also a Petition of John Mundell, Keeper of the Public Goal; setting forth, That John Carter, deceased, late Keeper of the Public Goal, Built several Houses on the Prison Lots, at his own Expense; and that his Widow insists to be paid for the said Houses by the Petitioner: And also, that the Garden belonging to the Prison, is intirely decayed: And praying, That this House will make such an Allowance as to enable him to make Satisfaction for the said Houses, and inclose the said Garden; were severally presented to the House and read. Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1742-1749, p. 35: May 25, 1742.
Tuesday, June 8, 1742.
And to the Resolutions of the Committee, on Consideration of the Petition of John Mundell, Keeper of the Public Goal, to be allowed for several Houses standing on the Prison Lots, claimed by the Widow of John Carter, late Goaler; and for the Charge of inclosing the Garden belonging to the said Prison; that the said Petition be Rejected.
The House disagreed.
…Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1742-1749, p. 55: June 8. 1742.
Resolved, That the sum of 18 1. be allowed to the Widow of John Carter, deceased, for the Expense he was at, in building the said Houses: And that the Garden of the Prison be pailed in, and paid for, out of the Public Money.
Tuesday November the 20th 1711.The Petition of John Broadnax Keeper of the Public Goal was read setting forth the Inconveniencys in having a Window on each side of the sd Goal and praying that they may be Stopt up. And that one other window may be made on the West end of the said Goal which is Surrounded with a high Wall. Legislative Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, vol. 1, p. 518-519: November 20, 1711.
May 1722 Session.
II. Be it enacted, by the Lieutenant Governor, Council and Burgesses, of this present General Assembly, and it is hereby enacted, by the authority of the same, That as soon as conveniently may be, after the passing this act, one lot or half acre of ground lying in the City of Williamsburg, as near as may be to the place where the said prisons now stand, be set apart and appropriated for the erecting and building a house for the keeper of the said prisons, and a wall of brick to enclose a yard on the south side of the same; And that such alterations be made in the said prisons, or either of them, as shall be thought fit, by the persons for that purpose hereafter named, or by the survivor of them, to render the said prisons more commodious and secure; And that a sum, not exceeding three hundred and fifty nine pounds, be and finishing such works.
CHAP. IX. An Act for making the Public Prisons in Williamsburg more convenient; and for building a House for the Keeper thereof.