I had to duck my head as I passed through the low doorway that led into the dungeon of the Old Gaol in York, ME. The sole electric lamp trying to replicate what the lighting would have been like in the jail cell in the 1700s and the musty smell resulting from a lack of fresh air effectively transported me back in time. As I thought about the criminals who were once held here and tried to imagine what their experience must have been like, my two teenage daughters and their friend were outside sunning themselves on a stone wall before deciding to walk across the street to buy a refreshing drink.
By now, my family is used to me dragging them to historic sites that have connections to America’s criminal past as part of our vacations. But this time we were traveling with another family during our recent trip to Maine. Still, I managed to talk my traveling companions into stopping off to see the Old Gaol as we journeyed up the Maine coast, and as we continued on, we even stumbled onto yet another early American jail. I could not believe my luck.
The Pemaquid Village Jail
The earlier of the two jails we saw dates back to the 17th century and was a serendipitous find after I insisted that we visit the Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site in Bristol, ME. The jail was part of the Pemaquid Village–which was established between 1625 and 1628–and all that is left of it today are the stone cellar walls that indicate a once small structure divided into two rooms.
Archaeologists identified the building as a jail when they discovered the charred remains of a stockade that created a penned-in area adjacent to one corner of the building. The jail structure was burned down twice by Native Americans–once in 1676 and then again, with encouragement from the neighboring French to the north, in 1689–and the stockade must have burned down along with it.
The jail is not much to look at today, but the walls outlined by the rubble adequately convey the claustrophobia that its inhabitants must have endured long ago. I know of no other extant jail structure in the U.S. that dates back as far as this one (if you know of one, please share it in the comments), so this find turned out to be quite an historical treat for me, even as my teenage travelers urged me to hurry along so that they could go swimming.
The Old Gaol in York
The Old Gaol, one of the Museums of Old York, was built in 1719 with timbers salvaged from the original York jail constructed in 1656. The dungeon on the main floor is made up of three-foot thick stone walls and is adjacent to the kitchen, which was part of the living quarters of the gaoler and his family. After murdering her master’s grandchild in 1734, Patience Boston was held in this dank and gloomy space, and during her stay she gave birth to her third child. Today, visitors can stand on the same spot at the end of the long and narrow window that leads into the jail cell where Rev.s Samuel and Joseph Moody counseled Boston and helped her embrace Christianity before her execution on July 24, 1735. (See below for links to stories of more criminals who were once held in the Old Gaol.)
As the population of Maine grew, so did the need for jail space, so the Gaol was expanded and the holding cells were moved to the second floor. While the gaoler and his family received more space and improved living accommodations as a result, they also lost a lot of their privacy. Instead of through the kitchen, prisoners now had to pass through the gaoler’s bedroom to enter the holding cells on the second floor, and all that separated the two spaces was a thin wooden door covering a small interior window through which food could be passed. This arrangement meant that prisoners could hear everything that was going on in the gaoler’s bedroom, and the gaoler and his wife could hear any noise coming from the adjacent cell. The children had it little better. They slept in another bedroom that was connected to the debtor’s cell.
Despite the best efforts by the gaolers to keep the Old Gaol’s prisoners locked up, some of these criminals still managed to escape. A particularly inventive Nathaniel Cole, who in 1819 was being held on the second floor for debt, smeared blood on the saw blades that partly blocked an air vent that led into his cell and then hid up the chimney. When the gaoler later entered the room and saw the bloodied saw blades, he assumed that Cole had wounded himself while escaping down the shaft and immediately ran out to find him. Cole then slipped back down the chimney and walked out the front door.
My teenage traveling companions escaped out of the Old Gaol almost as fast as Cole did after they quickly walked through just enough rooms to justify their entrance fee. Alas, while I cannot say that the girls toured these two historic sites with the same enthusiasm as I did, they did give me enough time to revel in these physical reminders of America’s early criminal past.