A two story brick building greets guests strolling through the cobblestone streets on the east end of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. From the outside, the 300 year old Public Gaol looks quaint and quiet. Yet some of the most feared pirates, traitors, thieves, and mentally insane used to sit incarcerated inside its chambers. According to those who visit today, the ghosts of the criminals continue to haunt the former colonial jail.
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When Williamsburg became the capital of the Virginia colony in 1699, a man named Henry Cary oversaw the construction of a jail to imprison corrupt officials and other criminals. The new public jail originally had three rooms, two for prisoners and the other for the guard, or gaoler.
Later, city officials realized the jail required expansion to hold the increasing number of convicted thieves, runaway slaves, and spies. In 1703, the building expanded to include an exercise yard, a “Debtor’s Prison” in 1711, and a separate living quarters for the gaoler in 1722.
The conditions of the prison made it very uncomfortable for the inmates. Prisoners ate overly salted beef or soggy peas. The cold, damp weather and insufficient insulation caused many to freeze to death. Typhus, otherwise known as “Gaol Fever” infected inmates and the guards alike. Yet some of the jails more notorious prisoners may have earned such harsh conditions.
The Bloodthirsty Blackbeard and His Crew
Of all the inmates, perhaps the most infamous came from the pirate Blackbeard’s crew. Until his death in 1720, Edward Thatch, better known as Blackbeard, became one of the most feared pirates, terrorizing and raiding ships along the colonial coastline. Blackbeard captained his ship Queen Anne’s Revenge along with a crew of ruthless pirates. Yet, that all changed when Virginia governor, Alexander Spotswood, had had enough, and sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard to arrest the outlaw and his cronies.
Lieutenant Maynard faced off against Blackbeard in a bloody hand-to-hand confrontation that would leave Blackbeard dead at 38. Then the lieutenant took the pirate’s head and mounted it on a stick to warn pirates of their imminent fate.
Maynard managed to capture the surviving fifteen members of Blackbeard’s crew. Blackbeard’s henchmen awaited trial in the cells of Williamsburg’s Public Gaol. On March 12th, 1719, “one was acquitted, one pardoned and the rest sentenced to hang.”
Another scandalous prisoner who ended up incarcerated in the Williamsburg Public Gaol included Virginia’s own former governor, Henry Hamilton. Governor Hamilton received the nickname “The Scalptaker” after rumors spread that he bought the scalps of dead settlers from the local Native Americans.
Eventually in 1779, Colonel George Rogers Clark arrested Governor Hamilton. Despite his prominent political position, Hamilton suffered the same unfavorable conditions as the other inmates. He shared a tiny cell with six other prisoners, forbidden from using pen and paper.
The Haunted Jail
After 300 years, Colonial Williamsburg’s Public Gaol has seen quite a few souls pass through its doors. The spirits of the old inmates continue to serve their sentence even in death. According to an account from Williamsburg’s Colonial Ghost Tour:
“I went in there and I felt really, really, like there was something wrong, like something’s in there. I walked in further and further until I got to the very end where I could barely see light coming out from the door I walked in. I noticed the chains moving and the ball, because it’s the ball and chain that hangs on a wall, and I noticed it was moving and I was like that’s kinda cool.”
Do the former inmates of the Public Gaol remain trapped inside the cells? Those who want to see for themselves can tour the old jail which remains open to the public.
Written by: Allison Michelle Dienstman
Written by: Allison Michelle Dienstman