Doing Time

 Posted by at 12:58 am  Nick's Blog
Jul 292019

When railroad and hotel magnate Henry Flagler built his first hotel in St. Augustine, Florida, he didn’t like the idea of the jail being as close as it was to the hotel. So he convinced the city fathers to build a new jail a mile from town in 1891, which he financed. After all, we can’t have common criminals breathing the same rarefied air as the social elite, now can we?

The only problem was that when it was finished, the building housing the new hoosegow was so handsome that when people arrived at the railroad depot and stepped off the train, they thought it was a hotel and came knocking on the door seeking lodging!

While it may look welcoming on the outside, trust me, this wasn’t a place you would want to spend much time. Life was hard for prisoners in a time when jails were intended to punish, not rehabilitate. Inmates were roused at dawn and worked 10 to 12 hours a day on chain gangs in the hottest days of summer and the coldest days of winter. They returned to their cramped cells late at the day filthy, dehydrated, and exhausted.

But returning from work details did not mean comfort by any means. During the summer the temperature inside the jail could reach 110 degrees and the cells were dirty and crowded, with as many 72 inmates crammed into just 20 cells. There was no fresh water, and the inmates used chamber pots that were usually overflowing when they needed to go to the bathroom. Few of the bunks had mattresses and there were no blankets. Food was prepared by inmates with little concern for sanitary conditions, and disease was common. Prisoners tended the gardens where their food was raised.

The jail had three floors of cells. Women prisoners were kept on the bottom floor, black males were housed on the second floor, and white males occupied the third floor. The fourth floor held a guard watchtower. An elaborate system of locks and levers that required several guards to operate simultaneously made escape difficult.

The jail was self-supporting, and prisoners grew much of their own food. In fact, the jail helped offset the local budget. Leasing prisoners out to local companies for construction and road work, and to lumber mills and cotton fields provided an important source of revenue to the county. Convict leasing ended on the state level in 1919, though many Florida counties continued the practice until 1923.

Discipline was strict at the jail, and punishment for any infractions of the rules was swift and harsh. Punishments included lashing, solitary confinement in sweat boxes, and being restrained in stocks or with a ball and chain. As brutal as things were inside the jail, prisoners feared being sent to a work camp even more. There, prisoners were at the mercy of sadistic guards and violent inmates. For many, assignment to a work camp was a death sentence.

There were several executions carried out at the old jail, and the condemned man was expected to help other convicts build the gallows from which he would hang. Before the execution was carried out, the sheriff calculated the drop distance required to break the prisoner’s neck, based upon his height, weight, and build. A miscalculation could result in the prisoner slowly strangling to death, or even being decapitated. Execution by hanging was known as the long drop. The execution of one man, Charley Powell, was botched when the rope broke as he fell. Instead of hanging, Powell died from the fall. Executions were considered important events, and crowds numbering as many as 500 people gathered to watch them being carried out. Some of the more macabre spectators climbed trees or telephone poles for a better view.

As grim as the old jail was, it was also home to the sheriff and his family, who lived in an apartment in the building, along with his office, with a separate entrance. While conditions here were better, there was still no indoor plumbing and little ventilation.

The jail was used for over 60 years, until 1953, when it was replaced with a more modern facility. The property was then sold to Slim McDaniel, who developed it as a tourist attraction. Today visitors to St. Augustine can take a tour of the Old Jail, as it is called, and learn about life behind bars in the not so good old days. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the massive Queen Ann style building is one of the few surviving 19th century incarceration facilities in the state. You will come away with a new respect for today’s criminal justice system and be glad you never found yourself on the wrong side of these bars.

The Old Jail is located at 167 San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine, and parking is free for automobiles. The parking lot will not accommodate large RVs, so leave your rig at one of the area campgrounds when you visit. For more information, call (904) 829-3800.

Congratulations William Duke, winner of our drawing for an autographed copy of Big Lake Wedding, the fifteenth book in my Big Lake mystery series. We had 84 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.

Thought For The Day – I tried drag racing the other day. It’s murder trying to run in those heels.

Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  One Response to “Doing Time”

  1. Very interesting missive. I remember being restrained in West Yellowstone, Montana during a minor riot. The constable thought I was part of it, so he hauled me in. There was only two cells in the jail and they were overflowing, so he ‘thumb-tied’ me to a pine tree outside [I never did get the pine sap out of my shirt and pants]. Not a pleasant experience seeing as how I was innocent to begin with. Funny looking back, but not at the time.

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