MR. JONATHAN WILSON
We head now to Brentsville, Va., the historic seat of Prince William County. For more than 70 years, from 1822 to 1894, the old jail there housed the county's murderers, arsonists, and horse thieves. But the building's history, and the stories of the people it imprisoned, were covered up over the years, as the jail was repurposed as a school, a private home, and eventually a county office.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Now, workers are restoring the jail to its original 1822 appearance, and as Jacob Fenston tells us, the county plans to turn it into a museum, telling the story of crime and punishment in antebellum Virginia.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
Inside the old brick building, it's cool, dark, and dusty. The interior walls have all been torn out, exposing termite-eaten timbers.
MR. BRENDON HANAFIN
Yeah, let's go on this side real quickly. I want to show you…
Brendon Hanafin is showing me around. He's director of the Prince William County preservation office.
This is actually a pretty cool view right here.
We walk from the jailer's quarters into one of the old cells.
You can see through to the second story floor because we have -- the floors have been taken out. And the ceiling joists, for the second floor, are burnt, charred timbers.
This is evidence of an attempted escape, more than 170 years ago, according to local volunteer historian Morgan Breeden, who's helping the county research the jail's history.
MR. MORGAN BREEDEN
It was a slave, named Landon, who was being held because he had tried to run away.
It was 1839, and he nearly burned his way to freedom.
While he was in the cell, he asked one of the jailors for a hot coal to light his pipe with, which wasn't uncommon.
But a few minutes later, the second floor was filling with smoke.
The house is on fire.
Landon had pushed the burning coal into a crack in the cell wall.
He was actually sentenced to hang.
Brendon Hanafin says this jail's history is still relevant, and that's why the county is restoring the building.
Crime and punishment in antebellum Virginia, or the South, or even the United States at that time, revolved around a lot of issues that we still deal with today.
The issue of race, for example, still looms over the criminal justice system, as does the issue of mental illness.
The fact that insane folks were kept here, they were jailed. That's a modern topic, that's something to talk about now.
It may not be the most glorious history, Hanafin says, but it is worth preserving.
It has some dark moments. American history, all history has some dark moments, but you should talk about them. That's the best way to really not do them again.
The restoration work is slow-going. It started four years ago. First, workers gutted the interior, tearing out layers of drywall and plaster installed during the decades after the jail shut down in 1894. Fritz Korzendorfer is the construction coordinator.
MR. FRITZ KORZENDORFER
The big part is to be able to take everything down, without having all of it collapsing down onto it.
During the demolition, workers uncovered all sorts of little treasures, things that may have belonged to prisoners, a pair of leather shoes…
Buttons, marbles, bullets, we found an old stove.
A porcelain range from the early 1900s, buried in what was probably an old cellar. Also buried deep under the floor, lots and lots of bones.
There was all kinds of chicken bones in here.
Possibly leftovers from construction workers almost 200 years ago.
You know, they might have come in, sat on the wall, ate lunch, and then they just buried it.
So carpenters in the early 19th century liked chicken for lunch. What do we know about the men and women who spent time behind bars here?
This starts out, you know, "I again am inquiring about you and my own situation in jail." I have a real hard -- this script is particularly bad.
This is an old letter historian Morgan Breeden found for sale on eBay. Every square inch is covered with a desperate scrawl.
Is that, "My mention to you," I can't read it either.
Yeah, but 1848, December 15, 1848. And written from the Brentsville Jail. You can clearly see that it says Brentsville here.
"My dear mother."
"My dear mother."
And you don't know why he was in jail or…
We do not know why he was in jail. We don't have any other records of him being in jail.
But they do have a list. Actually, a thick three-ring binder, filled with the names, and crimes, of the men and women who did time here.
They were there for highway robbery, house-burning, intent to kill, attempted murder, break and enter.
The list covers some 70 years of crime in Prince William County, and it goes on and on.
Poisoning, debt, contempt, indecent conduct…
But the list isn't complete. During the Civil War, the Brentsville jail and adjoining courthouse were occupied, alternately, by Confederate and Union troops. Many of the court records were lost. Now, Breeden and other local historians are piecing together this history. Some of it will go into the displays in the renovated jail, which may be open to the public as soon as next year. I'm Jacob Fenston.
Care to check out the rehab work at the Brentsville jail for yourself? We have photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
After the break, the battle over the fate of small schools in Virginia.
They're even talking about dividing our kids up, which is, to me, unthinkable. Because that's all that they know, is their friends.
That's just ahead on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.
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