Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Old Jail

I've always loved watching shows like Little House On The Prairie.  I imagine the difficulties, but also the sheer simpleness of living in the 1800's, when folks were kinder, friendlier, more helpful to their neighbors and strangers.  A time when cyber crimes didn't exist, when men respected women and children, when folks lived by the Golden Rule.

What cannot be forgotten, is that evil has existed since the devil turned against God and convinced Adam and Eve to do the same.  Perhaps the crimes weren't identical, but they had their similarities:  you couldn't steal a car because they hadn't been invented, but you could certainly steal a horse.  Murders may not have been drug related but that didn't mean folks didn't kill other folks.  Bad men were around, and they had to be dealt with just as they are today.  Or, maybe not like they are today.

While in St. Augustine we visited the Old Jail Museum.  The original old jail was nearer to town.  This one was built to resemble a hotel, making it more pleasant to look at for the tourists who were coming to spend their winter holiday in St. Augustine.  I could not imagine anyone being a repeat offender (though I'm sure there were those who didn't learn their lessons the first time).  If living on a frontier or on a farm during the 1800's was hard, it was a piece of cake compared to being in prison.  There was nothing attractive about it.

We were greeted by a sign that was more warning than welcome.  "You're in my jail now" it proudly proclaims.  The Old St. Johns County Jail was built in 1891 by Mr. Henry Flagler, and was designed by the same men who built Alcatraz.  "Escape was impossible, regret was too late, and survival was not guaranteed."  Time spent here would be unforgettable, and not in a good way.

The jail served two purposes.  The right side of the building was the sheriff's home, which he shared with his wife and two children.  The left side was where the prisoners were kept.  Notice the pretty Victorian gingerbread on the front, rocking chairs on the porch, making the building somewhat attractive.  In fact, it was so attractive that visitors disembarking the train would often mistake it for a boarding house.  What a shock it must have been to walk up to the building and notice bars on the windows, and find out it was the local jail!

Sheriff "Big Joe" Perry was an extraordinary man.  Standing a whopping 6'6" and weighing 300 pounds, he was quite an imposing figure.  As a lawman, he took his work very seriously.  He once followed an escaped con all the way to Alabama to capture him.  No one was going to get away from Sheriff Perry.  No one.

Outside the jailhouse we saw some of the items used to put the prisoners in their place when they decided to "misbehave".  They were outside so that the inmates would be humiliated into obedience.  This contraption held a prisoner for a few hours at a time.

If that didn't work, prisoners were put in the bird cage.  They'd get locked up in this tall, narrow cage, then hung in a tree.  This is where the expression "jail bird" originated.  They would stay there for 24-48 hours, depending on how long Sheriff Perry felt was needed to "rehabilitate" the inmate.  Consider that, while food and water would be given, there were no bathroom breaks.  Whatever body functions needed to be taken care of, they'd be done inside the bird cage, in plain view.  No wonder Henry Flagler built the jailhouse a mile from the town center.  Not a sight (or smell) to attract tourists.

The St. Johns County Jail was a hanging jail, with a death row section and gallows directly behind the cells. What I found creepiest about this, was that the condemned man was expected to help build his own gallows.  They had to be rebuilt each time it was used, since each man was a different height and weight, and the gallows had to accommodate him.   Yep, those gallows were custom fit.  The idea was not simply to make the death row inmate suffer, but also to show the rest of the prisoners (who could see the gallows being built from their windows) that this sheriff meant business.  The jail was in operation from 1891 to 1953, and there were 8 hangings done here in all.

While hangings could not be legally photographed, one was.  A medical experiment was conducted to see how long it would take a man to die once hanged.  This was the last hanging done at the jail, once it was established that this form of death was inhumane.

The jail portion of the building was three stories.  The first floor housed women prisoners and the kitchen.  There were 2 cells for women, with 2 beds each.  Woman were not often incarcerated, sent instead home to their husbands or fathers, or placed in sanitariums.  Those that landed in prison were tough as nails, though.  Good thing, too.  There was no plumbing in the prison, only a bucket in each cell to use as a toilet, and the contents thrown out the window if you were in the front cell.  The middle cell had no window to the outside, only a window facing the front cell.  In such an enclosed place the smell must have been awful.

Part of the duties of the prison women was to help the sheriff's wife make the meals for the prisoners.  It wasn't too complicated:  breakfast consisted of grits, lunch was beans and dinner was, again, beans.  Male prisoners were sent to work as free farm labor and were given tac, a hard flat biscuit; so hard in fact that it could break a tooth.  How did they eat it, then?

Prisoners were given lots and lots of fresh ground, fresh brewed coffee, which they dipped the tac in to make it edible.  They were encouraged to drink plenty of coffee to keep them awake for all the hard labor they'd have to do while serving time.

Death row inmates got a fantastic view of the back yard - where the gallows were being built.

Across from the death row cells was solitary confinement - this was really creepy!  An inmate would be locked in a cell with no furniture of any kind, no windows, and just a tiny opening in the door.  It was bug and rat infested and totally dark.  Prisoners would stay here for 2-3 hours as punishment for bad behavior.

To ensure that the prisoners didn't escape when taken to their work assignments, ball and chains were used.  These were actually light to carry, because they were hollow.  Once the ball and chain was on the prisoner, however, the ball would be filled with dirt or sand, making it weigh over 60 lbs.

On the third floor of the jail we were greeted by a full size animatron of Sheriff Perry himself.  At seeing this life like moving statue I could imagine how scared the prisoners must have felt - especially when we're told he always had a rifle on him!  The animatron explained the rules of the jail, and why it was fruitless to try to escape.  I'm glad we were here as tourists and not overnight guests!

Conditions in jails of the time were deplorable.  There was no plumbing, the bathroom consisted of a bucket for every 4 men, baths were given once a month and all the men took their baths in the same bathwater  (Even worse, after the men were done, it was the women's turn to bathe in that filthy water).  There was no glass in the windows, only bars.  If they weren't suffocating from the heat and humidity, they were freezing from the cold and rain.  Meals were grits and beans unless someone was able to catch a possum, in which case they got to eat some meat.  While blacks and whites were segregated, the sick were not.  Diseases spread rampantly.  If the jail was full, there would be 2-3 inmates per bed, so it's no surprise that folks got deathly ill.  This was punishment in the worst form.

Just steps away from the prison cells, there was a complete contrast as we entered the house portion of the jailhouse.  This is the sheriff's master bedroom, a well-furnished and comfortable room with all the amenities of the day.  It was simply yet elegantly decorated.

Across from the master bedroom was the children's room.  While sparsely furnished, it was like stepping into a different world from the one we'd stepped out of moments before, a world of filth, sickness, and hopelessness.

I wondered, as we walked through the jail and saw the conditions in which the prisoners lived, if maybe this was one of the reasons there was less crime back then.  While the purpose of this jail was to punish and not rehabilitate, I couldn't picture anyone coming out of there unchanged.  I, for one, would be a model citizen after that kind of experience.

The Old Jail Museum was part of our Trolley Tour package, so we didn't have to pay anything extra to tour it.  While not huge, it was chock full of information, highly educational and still interesting.  It might be a bit scary for the very young children, but school age kids should be able to handle it, even if the cells with the animatronic prisoners was pretty creepy.  It was like stepping back in time, into a very different environment from what we're used to today.  A definite must see experience.

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