Williamsburg's Public Gaol

Gaynelle McNichols talks about her fascination with the misfits who spent time in Williamsburg&s gaol in Revolutionary times.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Gaynelle McNichols, and in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, she’s supervisor of the Capitol and Gaol [pronounced “jail”], which means what?

Gaynelle McNichols: That I train those who work at the Capitol and Gaol, that I supervise their interpretations, that I do research, a little bit of everything.

Lloyd: Okay, now, how did you get to be supervisor of the Gaol?

Gaynelle: When I became, about 20 years ago, lead interpreter, they asked which building I would prefer, they gave me a choice, and when they said “gaol” I said “yes.”

Lloyd: (Laughs)That is not what I would have thought of as a first choice.

Gaynelle: It was for me, because I have been fascinated since the day I stepped into the gaol onto that site, I have been fascinated with the people who were there, wanting to know about all those people who spent time in our gaol, and a little bit about their stories, and over the years I have learned a lot about them through research others have done and research that I’ve done.

Lloyd: Okay, who were the people in the gaol in Revolutionary times that most interest you, that you like to read about or study?

Gaynelle: I found that once I started doing research on the gaol, that those people who were second-time offenders, or third-time offenders – if they lived that long – were the people who most interested me, and over the years I’ve been able to find a wealth of information about people who came to this colony not of their own free will, but who came here as convict servants – people who had gotten in trouble in England, political prisoners in Ireland and Scotland, and people who were sent here just to rid these places of troublemakers. As time went on, I started with a base of information and began to gain more and more information. I was able to flesh out these people, to really get an idea of who they were, why they were here, what their stories were, and what happened to them once they got here. It took a number of years of research, but I finally got to the point where I feel as if I have a good base of information.

Lloyd: It sounds as if the people who were sent here for being bad, or offenders of some sort or another, didn’t change their ways when they got here.

Gaynelle: I’d like to think…when I started this I used to think perhaps I’ll find someone who became a good, decent, useful citizen. It wasn’t so, with the information that I had. They sometimes mended their ways, but more often than not these runaways or convicts who were sent here were sent for a period of seven years. During that time, they couldn’t go back home to England, they stayed here as indentured servants. They were really at the bottom of the social scale. Despite the fact that many of them claimed to have talents, they [claimed they] knew trades, they were sometimes claiming to be silversmiths, gunsmiths, they were put in the fields at hard labor. I suppose that desire to get back home – even under the threat of death– compelled them to run away. And, at times when they ran away, they got caught committing other crimes, and they were kept in the gaol until they had their trial at the general court at the Capitol.

Lloyd: That’s the other thing I’ve always been curious about. I was told, and did some research and found out it was true, they weren’t in gaol serving punishment; they were in gaol awaiting trial.

Gaynelle: That’s true, there were no penitentiaries as we know of today until after the Revolutionary period, and those started up in Philadelphia I believe. But our public gaols, our county gaols – there’s one in each county in the colony – were holding places for people who had been accused of crimes, who were going to trial, and once the trial had taken place, if they had been found guilty and were sentenced to be executed, to be hanged, that’s where they were kept. There’s no idea at that time of putting people in gaol to serve time.

Lloyd: I was quite surprised when I learned that, because I thought – as people would nowadays – the gaol was where you went to serve your sentence, but there wasn’t a sentence.

Gaynelle: There was not a sentence – well there was a sentence, it was a sentence of death, it wasn’t time in prison. The most they’d stay in prison would be possibly three months in our public gaol before they went to court, because that court met just four times a year. Once the trial is over, of course if they are found not guilty, they go back home, probably not too happy they had to spend three months in that gaol.

Lloyd: The gaol doesn’t look like a happy home place for three months.

Gaynelle: I don’t think so. When anyone goes to our gaol, you’ll see that there were no fireplaces, there is no way to keep those cells warm, they are sleeping on straw if they have it, they might have blankets in cold, cold weather. They are getting probably one meal per day. And that was described by one political prisoner – Henry Hamilton, who was in there in the late Revolutionary period – meals of corn meal and spoiled salt pork or beef.

Lloyd: (Laughs) Does not sound like a resort.

Gaynelle: No it doesn’t. And of course, they were allowed outside in an exercise yard during the day. Some of them, if they were trustees to use a more modern term – were allowed to work out around the gaol if the gaol keeper needed them for their labor, they were allowed to be rented out to people in town. But, if they were rented out to people in town they were equipped with a collar, an iron collar around the neck, which described them as prisoners. Of course there were some – one or two that I’ve found – who, when they were sent out to work in town, despite the fact that they had the collar, just disappeared, ran off.

Lloyd: Did they run off successfully, or not successfully?

Gaynelle: One or two of them did, others were not quite so successful. In the normal course of events, if someone was in that gaol, and he or she escaped – because there were women in the gaol, too – if he or she escaped, they were brought back and immediately taken to the gallows to be turned off the cart, to be hanged.

Lloyd: First off, I did not know there had been women in the gaol.

Gaynelle: Oh yes, indeed, they were confined in there awaiting trial for crimes, approximately the same crimes that men were in there for – there were female horse thieves, women who murdered, women who stole. Most of the people in that gaol, most of the people who were tried in the general court, and in the county courts were people who were being tried for theft of some kind.

Lloyd: Actually that makes perfectly good sense, but I had never thought of it – women horse thieves. It’s just not something you think of.

Gaynelle: Oh yes.I think we find that’s true of people who come to visit our gaol. Many times when they are looking around they’ll say, “Well there were no ladies in your gaol.” And, if I’m talking to them [I’ll say] “No, there weren’t any ladies in our gaol, but we did have women in our gaol.”

Lloyd: There’s a difference.

Gaynelle: There’s a difference.

Lloyd: And they stole horses.

Gaynelle: And they stole horses.

Lloyd: What else do they ask?

Gaynelle: They often think they are coming to a penitentiary, just as we talked about earlier. They are really surprised that we didn’t put people in gaol to serve time. And most of the people who visit us at the gaol or at the Capitol in the general court think that everyone who was tried for a crime and found guilty was hanged. And that’s really not true. A fairly small number of people were hanged. We had other ways of dealing with them. We didn’t put them in gaol to serve time, but they could be reprieved from death by being given benefit of clergy. It goes back to the medieval period. If you could read, originally if you were a member of the clergy, you were given a second chance if you had been condemned to death. You were branded on the hand with a hot branding iron, maybe with a “t” for thief or an “m” for manslaughter, and you were let go. You’re reprieved from death, and I’m sure that’s a blessing for them, but they also had to be shown that they were going to get a punishment for the crime they had been found guilty of. So, most of the people who came through our court system who got to the general court were branded on the hand with a hot branding iron.

Lloyd: And, there was a whipping post…the number of people who were whipped – for what I would consider fairly minor crimes – was pretty good.

Gaynelle: I think that’s another thing that guests come to our gaol and court with, the idea that the crimes were all very serious crimes, but they were in our eyes minor crimes. When you consider where we’re coming from – England – in England for most of the 18th century, there were a couple of hundred crimes on the books which got you the death penalty. Stealing – what we’d consider a really very petty theft today – could get you in a court and get you sentenced to death by hanging.But as I said, they don’t always get hanged, they’ll be reprieved and get that mark on the hand; they get the mark once, though. If you have come to our court, and you have been found guilty of a crime, we brand you on the hand, we send you away, and you’ve learned your lesson, that’s good. But if you come back to the court, we have court records, we know that you are here as a second-time offender. And of course the mark is on your hand, it’s going to stay with you for life, you are a marked man. So, when you come back, if you are found guilty a second time, it will be more than likely death by hanging.

Lloyd: I was reading recently that California apparently wants to change its three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, but we had a two-strikes-and-you’re-outlaw. (Laughs)

Gaynelle: (Laughs) Correct, that’s exactly what it is.

Lloyd: We did it a whole lot earlier…

Gaynelle: We did, yes.

Lloyd: I did not know that. That’s one more thing I’ve learned today. The other thing I’m curious about because I read it somewhere a long time ago, Blackbeard the pirate was taken in Albemarle Sound as I remember the story. Some of his people wound up in the Williamsburg gaol.

Gaynelle: Indeed they did.

Lloyd: What happened to them?

Gaynelle: They were hanged. There were approximately – and the number varies with whatever research you’ve done – approximately 15 or 16 of them. We know that Blackbeard never got here, because he was decapitated during that battle. But his crew members who survived the battle were brought to Williamsburg and tried in the court at the Capitol. There were 15 or 16 of them; all except two were hanged for their crime.One of them who was not hanged was Israel Hands, who was Blackbeard’s first mate. He turned king’s evidence, state’s evidence, and told on the other pirates. He disappeared after that. There is an old myth that the last time he was seen he was begging on the streets of London, so he got back home to England. The other man who was not hanged was a man named Samuel O’Dell who according to all the stories I’ve read received multiple wounds. I’ve read some reports of 75 wounds in the battle, and I’ve always thought if you were wounded that many times, they probably took pity on him and said, “We’re not going to kill you, you’ve suffered enough.” But he had a good story; he convinced them that he wasn’t a pirate; that he went on board the ship to drink and have a good time with these men, and he had no idea they were pirates.

Lloyd: And somebody believed that?

Gaynelle: And, they believed it. Of course, we had a woman a little bit later in the 18th century, a couple of years after Blackbeard, Martha Farley, who was captured with some pirates, and they were brought up here to be tried. Martha said she and her husband had gotten in with these people, and she didn’t know they were pirates. They just had a good time on board the ship, and every once in a while they would go take another ship. And out of all this, she received a lot of good food and nice clothing. But here she was in Williamsburg testifying against these pirates claiming she had no idea that they were pirates. She had two children, I believe, with her, and when everything was over, all was said and done, some of the pirates in this case were hanged; some were acquitted. Martha was acquitted, and I believe if I remember correctly, that the members of the council – the governor’s council, the upper house of the legislature, who also served as judges on the courts – they took up enough money to give to Martha so she could get back home and take her children back to North Carolina.

Lloyd: It’s nice to know that lying is not a new custom.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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