Thursday, January 27, 2011

Colonial Williamsburg - Gates & Entryways IV

A heavy door in the the public gaol....

Construction authorized by general assembly in August 1701
Virginia's general assembly ordered a "substanciall brick prison" built in Williamsburg soon after it decided to make the city the colony's new capital. Known as the Public Gaol, the building's construction was authorized by an act of August 1701. Contractor Henry Cary got the job – as he had the Capitol and would the Governor's Palace. He had two cells ready in a building just north of the Capitol on Nicholson Street by May 1704.

The word gaol is pronounced "jail." It comes from an Old North French word, "gaole," which in turn comes from "caveola," a diminutive form of the Latin term "cavea," which means "cage." Debtors, runaway slaves – and occasionally the mentally ill – were sometimes confined in the Gaol. During the Revolution, tories, spies, military prisoners, deserters, and traitors were included in the prisoner inventory.

Gaol housed infamous prisoners
The Public Gaol's most celebrated occupants were 15 henchmen of the pirate Blackbeard, caught in 1718, and the infamous Henry "Hair Buyer" Hamilton, lieutenant governor of British Detroit, captured in 1779. Suspected of buying pioneer scalps from Indians, Hamilton was held in a straw-strewn 10-foot by 10-foot cell with six other inmates. "In one corner of this snug mansion," he wrote, "was fixed a kind of Throne which had been of use to such miscreants as us for 60 years past and in certain points of wind renderd the air truly Mephytic. Opposite the door and nearly adjoining the throne was a little Skuttle 5 or 6 inches wide, thro which our Victual was thrust to us."

From Hamilton's description, it is not surprising that the Public Gaol was a place of discomfort and pestilence. Gaol fever – probably typhus – broke out from time to time, and the unheated cells often were overcrowded. Hamilton was kept in handcuffs his first night, and was fitted in leg irons the next day. Manacles and chains were familiar parts of gaol life.

The original Gaol was 20 by 30 feet with two cells, an exercise yard, and lodgings for keeper John Redwood. Strong timbers were laid beneath the cells to prevent "under mining."


  1. This is a great history class, Tanya :-)

  2. Thanks for all the info Tanya. I can just imagine all the suffering that went on in that place. That door looks very sturdy and the key to the lock must have been huge from the looks of the keyhole.

  3. Very interesting history. The door is definitely imposing!

  4. you couldnt' mistake that for anything but!

  5. That door is beautiful.

    Where did you learn all this stuff from Tanya?!

  6. Little wonder it survived the centuries. Love the texture!

    Hi, Tanya. :)

  7. «Louis» would not care to be locked up there!


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