Prince William Jail Tells Story Of Early American Crime And Punishment (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Prince William Jail Tells Story Of Early American Crime and Punishment

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:03
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

00:00:26
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

00:00:42
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

00:00:49
Yeah, let's go on this side real quickly. I want to show you…

FENSTON

00:00:52
Brendon Hanafin is showing me around. He's director of the Prince William County preservation office.

HANAFIN

00:00:56
This is actually a pretty cool view right here.

FENSTON

00:00:59
We walk from the jailer's quarters into one of the old cells.

HANAFIN

00:01:01
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.

FENSTON

00:01:10
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

00:01:21
It was a slave, named Landon, who was being held because he had tried to run away.

FENSTON

00:01:25
It was 1839, and he nearly burned his way to freedom.

BREEDEN

00:01:29
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.

FENSTON

00:01:36
But a few minutes later, the second floor was filling with smoke.

BREEDEN

00:01:40
The house is on fire.

FENSTON

00:01:41
Landon had pushed the burning coal into a crack in the cell wall.

BREEDEN

00:01:44
He was actually sentenced to hang.

FENSTON

00:01:47
Brendon Hanafin says this jail's history is still relevant, and that's why the county is restoring the building.

HANAFIN

00:01:53
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.

FENSTON

00:02:01
The issue of race, for example, still looms over the criminal justice system, as does the issue of mental illness.

HANAFIN

00:02:08
The fact that insane folks were kept here, they were jailed. That's a modern topic, that's something to talk about now.

FENSTON

00:02:14
It may not be the most glorious history, Hanafin says, but it is worth preserving.

HANAFIN

00:02:19
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.

FENSTON

00:02:28
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

00:02:44
The big part is to be able to take everything down, without having all of it collapsing down onto it.

FENSTON

00:02:49
During the demolition, workers uncovered all sorts of little treasures, things that may have belonged to prisoners, a pair of leather shoes…

KORZENDORFER

00:02:57
Buttons, marbles, bullets, we found an old stove.

FENSTON

00:03:03
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.

KORZENDORFER

00:03:12
There was all kinds of chicken bones in here.

FENSTON

00:03:14
Possibly leftovers from construction workers almost 200 years ago.

KORZENDORFER

00:03:18
You know, they might have come in, sat on the wall, ate lunch, and then they just buried it.

FENSTON

00:03:22
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?

BREEDEN

00:03:30
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.

FENSTON

00:03:49
This is an old letter historian Morgan Breeden found for sale on eBay. Every square inch is covered with a desperate scrawl.

FENSTON

00:03:57
Is that, "My mention to you," I can't read it either.

BREEDEN

00:04:01
Yeah, but 1848, December 15, 1848. And written from the Brentsville Jail. You can clearly see that it says Brentsville here.

FENSTON

00:04:07
"My dear mother."

HANAFIN

00:04:08
"My dear mother."

FENSTON

00:04:10
And you don't know why he was in jail or…

HANAFIN

00:04:13
We do not know why he was in jail. We don't have any other records of him being in jail.

FENSTON

00:04:18
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.

HANAFIN

00:04:25
They were there for highway robbery, house-burning, intent to kill, attempted murder, break and enter.

FENSTON

00:04:31
Horse stealing.

HANAFIN

00:04:32
Horse-stealing, yeah.

FENSTON

00:04:33
The list covers some 70 years of crime in Prince William County, and it goes on and on.

HANAFIN

00:04:38
Poisoning, debt, contempt, indecent conduct…

FENSTON

00:04:41
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.

WILSON

00:05:09
Care to check out the rehab work at the Brentsville jail for yourself? We have photos on our website, metroconnection.org.

WILSON

00:05:25
After the break, the battle over the fate of small schools in Virginia.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN

00:05:30
They're even talking about dividing our kids up, which is, to me, unthinkable. Because that's all that they know, is their friends.

WILSON

00:05:38
That's just ahead on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.

ANNOUNCER

00:05:42
WAMU news coverage of labor and employment issues is made possible by your contributions, and by Matthew Watson, in memory of Marjorie Watson. And support for WAMU 88.5's coverage of the environment comes from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, dedicated to the promotion of farmland preservation, the reduction of environmental toxins, and the conservation of natural resources.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.