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Prince William Jail Tells Story Of Early American Crime and Punishment

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Over the years after the jail's closure in 1894, the building was used as a school, a private residence, and a county office.
WAMU/Jacob Fenston
Over the years after the jail's closure in 1894, the building was used as a school, a private residence, and a county office.

For more than 70 years, from 1822 to 1894, the old Prince William County Jail in Brentsville housed the county’s murderers, arsonists, and horse thieves. But the building’s history, and the stories of the people imprisoned there, was covered up over the years, as the jail was repurposed as a school, a private home, and eventually a county office.

Now, workers are restoring the jail to its original 1822 appearance, and the county plans to transform it into a museum telling the story of crime and punishment in antebellum Virginia.

Inside the old brick building, it’s cool, dark, and dusty. The interior walls have all been torn out, exposing termite-eaten timbers. Brendon Hanafin, director of the Prince William County preservation office, walks from the jailer’s quarters into one of the old cells, and points up through the second story floor joists.

“You can see though to the second floor, because we have the floors taken out. And the ceiling joists are burned, charred timbers," he says.

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.

A letter from a prisoner to his mother in 1848, seeking help getting out of jail. (WAMU/Jacob Fenston)

“It was a slave, named Landon, who was being held because he had tried to run away," he explains.

In 1839, while locked up here, Landon 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," he says.

But a few minutes later, the second floor was filling with smoke. Landon had pushed the burning coal into a crack in the cell wall. He was sentenced to hang, but the governor of Virginia commuted his sentence, sending him instead into slavery outside the borders of the United States.

“Which is not much better,” says Breeden. As punishment, slaves were often sold in the Caribbean, where disease and harsh working conditions made life expectancy just a few years.

Brendan 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," he says.

The issue of race, for example, still looms over the criminal justice system, as does the issue of mental illness. “Insane folks were kept here, they were jailed. That’s a modern topic, that’s something to talk about today," he says.

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 not do them again," he says.

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.

“The big part is to be able to take everything down, without having all of it collapsing down onto it,” says Fritz Korzendorfer, the project’s construction coordinator.

During the demolition, he and other workers uncovered all sorts of little treasures that may have belonged to prisoners, like a pair of leather shoes. “Buttons, marbles, bullets, we found an old stove," he says.

The porcelain range from the early 1900s was buried in what was probably an old cellar. Also buried deep under the floor: lots and lots of bones.

“All kinds of chicken bones,” says Korzendorfer, with a laugh. He says because of how deeply the bones were buried under the foundation, they were probably leftovers from construction workers, almost 200 years ago.

“They might have come in, sat on the wall, ate lunch, then they just buried it," he says.

Morgan Breeden has been researching some of the people who were locked up here. He unfolds an old, yellowing letter, every inch covered in a desperate scrawl. It is addressed to “My dear mother,” dated December 15, 1848, and sent from the Brentsville jail.

Breeden puts on his glasses and struggles to read the script: “I again am enquiring about you and my own situation in jail,” he reads, before giving up. “This script is particularly bad.”

Breeden does not know why this man was in jail. There is no record of his imprisonment, except for this letter. He does have a list filled with the names, and crimes, of many of the men and women who did time here.

“They were here for highway robbery, house-burning, intent to kill, attempted murder, break and enter, horse stealing,” he says, reading one of the many pages of crimes.

The list covers some 70 years of mayhem in Prince William County, and it goes on and on. “Poisoning, debt, contempt, indecent conduct, hog stealing, arson, stealing wheat.”

But the list is not 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.

Music: "Country and Town" by Town and Country from Town and Country


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