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Old Georgia State Penitentiary at Milledgeville

The view is from near the residence of R. M. Orme, Esq. The State Penitentiary is on the left.
The State House is seen on the hill on the right; the Milledgeville and McComb's Hotels on the left.
The Presbyterian,  Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal churches appear in the central part.
(Source: Our whole country; or, The past and present of the United States, historical and descriptive. In two volumes, containing the general and local histories and descriptions of each of the states, territories, cities, and towns of the Union; also biographical sketches of distinguished persons ... Illustrated by six hundred engravings ... almost wholly from drawinigs taken on the spot by the authors, the entire work being on their part the result of over 16,000 miles of travel and four years of labor. By John Warner Barber ... and Henry Howe.
Author: Barber, John Warner, 1798-1885. )

        The penitentiary system of Georgia was established under Governor Mitchell and the state prison in Milledgeville was completed in 1816. It opened in Milledgeville in February 1817. Located on the 16 acres of penitentiary square in Milledgeville, it occupied only a small portion of the square because two academies and the county courthouse shared the site as well. Three stories high (see above) it included a wing for male prisoners. The  workshops were two stories with porticoes and balconies, and 150 feet with watcher towers on each corner. The principal keeper or warden's house was 3 stories. The first prisoner was received in March 1817.
     Doctor Samuel Boykin, Doctor Tomlinson Fort, Thomas H. Kenan, John Howard, Zachariah Lamar, George Rootes Clayton, Edmund Booker Jenkins, Abner Hammond and Miles Greene were appointed,  Board of Inspectors for the Penitentiary in 1816.  December 1817 James Rousseau and Francis Jeter replaced E. B. Jenkins Esq. deceased, and John W. Devereux, who resigned.
    In December 1817 officers appointed  were Cornelius M'Cartey, principal keeper; Fielding Rucker, assistant keeper; Briton Huckaby, turnkey. Seaton Grantland, Simon Whitaker, Tomlinson Fort, Hines Holt, Thomas H. Kenan, Samuel Boykin, Myles Greene, Thomas Ford, and Zachariah Lamar, were the prison inspectors. In December 1818 the legislature appointed Cornelius M'Carthy, principle-keeper of the Penitentiary.Myles Greene, Simon Whitaker, Thomas Ford, Edmund Shackleford, T. H. Kenan, Seaton Grantland, James Fleming and T. B. Stubbs as Inspectors.  In 1826 Peter J. Williams, principal keeper;  William Green,  John Bozeman and Thomas H. Kenan were inspectors.
     First food rations for the prisoners consisted of  "6 oz. of bacon or pork, or 10 oz of fresh or pickled beef; 1¼ lb. of corn meal, ½ pint of molasses, and a like proportion of salt and vinegar."
      John Bozeman, Officer of the Guards advertised in The Reflector, December 1817 for  "eight or ten young men (without families) as an additional number to the present Penitentiary Guard, who shall receive fifteen dollars per month, cash, for their service, to be paid quarterly, and will be furnished with good clothing, rations and lodging. Recommendations will be required of persons wishing to join the Guard, as none but sober and respectable men can be admitted." (5)  Some of the guards known as private soldiers deserted in 1818 and rewards were offered for their arrest. Some of these were William Stewart , Joseph Henry (, and William Lindsey
     In  August of 1818 Isaac T. Cushing started the blacksmith's business in the penitentiary.  An advertisment in The Reflector in 1818 told of the  flour mill screws, saw mill cranks, inks and gudgeons for tub mills, saw and grist mill irons, general blacksmith work for plantation and house tavern, house and waggon bells and carriage springs" that could be had. The customers were to apply at the gate for admittance.
     "In 1819 a visitor described the penitentiary as a "noble, though irregular building, forming two sides of a square, composed of three large buildings, thrown together without much regard to order or proportion. It is built of brick, three stores high, and surrounded by a wall about 20 feet high, and enclosing a yard of considerable size. There are two gates by which you enter this enclosure, each of which is guarded day and night by a centinel with a loaded musket. In the yard there is an extensive  range of work shops built of brick, and so divided as to afford abundance of room for the various works carried on by the convicts' each trade having a separate apartment. On entering the principal building, you are immediately struck with the elegance with which parts of it have been finished." " Some of the rooms appropriated to the superintendents, are of a size almost exceeding any I have seen in the most splendid private houses. The parts of the building appropriated to the convicts are divided into 18 rooms each calculated to contain, in summer six, and in winter eight persons, so that the greater number of convicts that can at any time be received into the establishment, is 144, and in summer only 108. The building, therefore , cannot be said to be, calculated to contain more than one hundred convicts. The Penitentiary has been in operation but three years. There are now sixty persons confined there, many for a period of from five to ten years. The number is daily increasing, and from the nature of things must continue to increase." (City Gazette and Daily Advertiser August 4 1819)

In 1829 Major Philip Cook was appointed Prinicpal Keeper in place of Gen. Anderson Abercrombie, wgo resigned due to family and farming interests.

May 4, 1831
The (Gettysburg) Compiler
Letters received at Savannah, state that the Penitentiary of the State of Georgia and the county Jail, at Milledgeville, were destroyed by fire on the night of the 2d inst. The fire is supposed to have been communicated by design. One of the prisoners, named Jasper Wilkinson, who was awaiting his trial on a charge of having robbed the United States mail in January last, effected his escape. The loss is estimated at about $150,000.

In 1832  seventy-five additional cells and  a hospital was constructed connecting with the present building.

In 1835 Wilkins Hunt was appointed Principal Keeper to fill the vacancy left by Col. Charles C. Mills. In January 1838 Thomas W. Alexander, was appointed Principal Keeper; Benjamin A. White, Charles J. Paine and Emer Bails, Inspectors. Jacob T. Choate, Benjamin F. Dense, Jesse Joiner, A. H. McNeil.
 In 1840 Gen. Charles H. Neelson was appointed Principal Keeper. B. F. Dense, Jacob T. Choate, A. H. McNeil, and Mathew C. Butts, Assistant Keepers.
December 7, 1843 a fire, set by prisoners hoping to escape, destroyed the workshops and contents.  Col. Anderson W. Redding, from Harris County was appointed to replace Gen. C. H. Nelson.

1850 Federal Census Penitentiary of Georgia
In 1852 Maj. Lewis Zachry, of Newton Co. was apointed Principal Keeper Col. William Turk of Franklin county, Assistant Keeper. Col. Gholston, of Madison County, --Keeper; Col. Peter Fair, Inspector, C. J. Paine, Physician.

     A description from Historical Collections of Georgia, Rev. George White, New York 1855 relates "The Penitentiary is located at Milledgeville. The outer walls of the Penitentiary are made of  brick, averaging twenty feet in height, by two and a half feet thick, containing within the   walls two and a half acres. The cells, or prison proper, are contained in a three-story granite  building, two hundred feet long by thirty feet broad. They are on each side, and divided into  four wards, designated by the letters A, B, C, and D. These cells are numbered on the  doors, beginning in each ward at No. 1, and rising until all are numbered in each respective  ward. The occupants are also numbered, corresponding with the letter of the ward to which  they belong. The present workshops were constructed in 1844. They are built of brick, one  story high, of nine feet pitch, with jointed sheathing, and covered with shingles. The form at  its common centre is that of an octagon, with three of its angles cut to a straight line, leaving  five angles of thirty feet each, which angles being all open, they present so many openings  into as many shops, each one hundred and fifty feet long, bu thirty broad. There is in the  inclosure a two-story building of brick, forty feet square, in which are apartments for the sick, female convicts, etc."

January 10, 1857 William Turk, was appointed Principal Keeper, B. S. Carswell, Assistant Keeper, W. A. Williams, Book Keeper, Dr. T. Fort, Physician.

January 1858 - appointed: Gen. Eli McConnell, of Cherokee county, Principal Keeper, Capt. John Jones, of Muscogee county, Assistant Keeper
For the year 1860 Eli McConnell, Prinicpal Keeper. Charles G. Talbrid, Assistant Keeper. William A. Willimas Book Keeper, Jacob Caraker, Captain of Penitentiary Guards; Dr. George D. Case, Physician; Rev. R. C. Smith, Chaplain.
1860 Federal Census Penitentiary of Georgia

During the Civil War an armory operated at the penitentiary for making and repairing muskets. It turned out 125 arms a month.
On 20 November 1864 it was burned by Sherman's troops.
In October 1866 Major Wiley G. Anderson was the principal keeper with 220 prisoners
Overton H. Walton 1869 - Principal Keeper

November 20, 1878
Dublin Post
Mr. John W. Nelms, Principal keeper of the State Penitentiary has favored us with a copy of his Biennial Report of that Institution. It contains a goodly amount of readable information. There are now in the Penitentiary 1,239 convicts, of whom nine-tenths are negroes. It was the tremendous influx of that color immediately after emancipation that caused the old wall system to be abandoned and the farming out plan to be adopted.
  The largest number (326) were sent to prison for burglary. Fifteen are there for Forgery. Escapes are less frequent than at first, and other objectionable features are being gradually eliminated from the experimental system.

Atlanta Constitution
March 3, 1880
Milledgeville Union and Recorder: We visited the remains of this old penitentiary last Friday, for the first time in many months. We were surprised to see the progress of disintegration. The entire outer wall, four or five hundred yards in length, by twenty feet in height, has disappeared. Many of the buildings have also vanished from sight, and the work of tearing down and removing the old cell building is progressing. The three upper stories, built of brick, have been levelled, and the three lower stories, built of the best granite in Georgia, 100 feet long by 30 wide, will soon take the same direction. This is a memorable structure. For full forty years, four of five hundred white men slept in its narrow cells, night after night and year after year. If the rough walls could speak, what a thrilling history would they unfold! Through every fire, it has stood. Well, do we remember the fire that happened while General Nelson of north Georgia was principal keeper. It was at night. A few prisoners had laid the train before going into their cells. In a few hours afterwards, every structure but the cell buildings were on fire. Such howlings and moanings as filled that building that night, we had never heard before. General Nelson would not unbar the cells and let the convicts out, though implored to do so as the military company of the city and a strong guard were present to prevent escapes. Said the general: "You set it afire, damn you, and I intend to burn the last one of you to a crackling." And he kept his word, until Governor Crawford came down from the mansion and ordered him to open the cells and release the prisoners.

Atlanta Constitution
March 4, 1883
From the Milledgeville Union and Recorder.
   "There are not many men living who entered the big gate of the old Georgia penitentiary in 1837, forty six years ago. It may be pleasant to the few who survive, to have a recount of a few reminiscences of this once famous public prison; certainly the young of two later generations will thank the writer for the relation of events and the scenes they describe. In these little narratives the writer does not dread the imputation of egotism or vanity. He strives to please, and instruct, and if he fails, he has the consciousness of an honest effort to do both.
  But we must necessarily be brief. The prison in which the convicts were incarcerated in 1837, when we first entered its gates, was situated rather to the northwestern part of the city - now, about the centre. William Schley was the governor of the state at that time. The property of the institution , in land was twenty acres, but only about three acres were enclosed by a prison wall twenty feet high, built of brick. (Subsequently, when Sherman burnt it in December, 1864, the walls had been extended, and four acres of ground were embraced in the enclosure.) The walls were about 2 feet in breadth, enabling a guard to walk from the  captain's office to the look-out on the corner, which was a wooden sentry, but the guard usually marched to the four corners of the square by an outside path, and ascended to the look-out by a flight of steps. For many years these guardhouses had no facilities for enabling each guard of two hours, during the day, to have a fire, but just before the war, small chimneys were attached to each look-out and the guard were made comfortable in very heavy weather.
    These four guardhouses were not in communication by sight, the tall buildings within the enclosure obstructing the view from one guard post to another. Many prisoners in attempts to escape were shot and killed or wounded by the guard on the opposite post from the point of escape. The writer well remembers when a boy, sitting in the northeastern guard-house playing checkers with a guard, saw him suddenly arise, seize his musket and fire at a man clad in stripes jumping the outside fence enclosure just opposite to the present residence of Dr. W. H. Hall. The man disappeared, and the guard, from the distance, 200 yards, supposed he had missed his aim, and began to reload, when other parties with the  dogs appeared in full pursuit. The convict was found dead in the ditch, having been shot in the back and through his heart. This was a remarkable shot from an old smoore-bore musket, at a distance of 200 yards. We cite this as but one instance of the death of scores of convicts who tried to elude the guard when engaged on some outside work, but met death in the attempt to escape.
     The working men were divided into several divisions, entirely separate. There was the woodshop, for making and repairing wagons and other vehicles; the blacksmith shop, the shoe shop, tanyard, brickyard, tailor shop, painter's shop, washing department, cooking department, hospital and gardeners, over nearly all of which was a special overseer, appointed by the principal keeper. At sundown, after a frugal supper of bread and water, each convict, with a small cedar pail, was drawn into line, according to the number on his clothes, which corresponded to the number of his cell in the granite prison house, four stories high and 150 feet long. Each man, daily, was carefully examined by the captain of the guard to see if he had instruments on his person not permissible. Each story in the sleeping building was guarded during the night by one guard, who was relieved every two hours.
   The building inside, except the granite structure where the convicts slept, were burned by the convicts twice before the war, after our first acquaintance with them. The first time was during the administration of Governor George W. Crawford, when General Charles Nelson, who had been in command of the Cherokee troops during the Florida war in 1836, was principal keeper. he was a courteous but a cruel man. We have heard it said that his tyranny, while in command in Florida was so oppressive that his life was other threatened. He was appointed by Governor McDonald under the mistaken idea that it took and stern and merciless man to control thieves and murderers. Two or three convicts in the paint shop, where there was always a great deal of combustible matter, arranged a plan to fire the buildings. During the dinner hour, when there was no overseer present, they laid their plans. It was by a system of slow matches connecting with barrels of turpentine, varnish, etc., which were ignited just as they were moving out to enter the cells for the night. It worked splendidly for their desires. At sundown they entered the cells, and before 8 p.m., one of the main buildings, joining three or four others, was all ablaze. But one or two convicts knew anything of the plot, and hence, when they saw the flames licking out toward their cells they were frenzied with fear, and their agonizing cries for relief could be heard to the heart of the city. The citizens were soon present in great numbers, to assist in subduing the conflagration. General Nelson, principal keeper, would permit no entrance. He was seen to walk up and down opposite the lower, or ground tier of cells, and repeatedly use this language in reply t the appeals of the confined prisoners" "Burn, damn you, burn. You set the fire and I will make cracklings of every man of you/" Nor would he permit a cell door to be unlocked until Governor Crawford arrived on the ground and peremptorily ordered him to open the cells. The Metropolitan Greys, a city volunteer corps, were brought up, and formed a circle outside the walls, into which some three or four hundred desperate white men were marched and ordered on penalty of death, to lie flat on the ground. This they did, and there was not an escape. Had there been collusion to any considerable extent, a break would have resulted in a general escapade, with perhaps only one or two fatal results. The penitentiary was burned on the night of the day George W. Crawford was inaugurated governor the first time, Wednesday, November 8th, 1843. On the first of January, 1844, Governor Crawford appointed Anderson W. Redding principal keeper, who made probably the most efficient keeper the institution ever had.
   The two most notorious men who were ever confined in the old penitentiary was a man named Price, and the famous burglar and robber, Dr. Roberts, the latter being a convict at repeated times, for different offences, and was a prisoner serving a long term, when on General Sherman's approach, in 1861, the convicts were liberated by Governor Brown, as a prudential measure. Price was notorious for his strength and almost supernatural power. Old men tell us who knew him well, that he once broke out of jail when  he was pinioned to the floor heavily with irons and the irons passed through the floor and secured by bolts on the opposite side.
  Dr. Roberts had a state reputation. His robbiers were not confined to one county or one section of the state, and they were numerous, and in almost every instance the deed was bold and the booty heavy. He was a very intelligent man, but seemed as unhappy as a fish out of water when not engaged in some daring theft or burglary. He was popular with his keepers and was given light and pleasant duties about the hospital. When Sherman and his crowed were advancing on Milledgeville, Governor Brown pardoned the convicts, and the able-bodied ones formed a military company, commanded by Dr. Roberts, but the organization had a brief existence, and the writer has never heard of Dr. Roberts since Sherman entered this city.
  The penitentiary was the popular resort for strangers visiting, the city in the ante-bellum times, as much so as is the lunatic asylum at present.
  An incident, as we write, that was remarkable, occurs to us. A few years before the late war a young man from Columbus was visiting this city. He went in company with a very respectable young man of this town, to see the penitentiary and interview the convicts. The three new stories had just been added to the rock cell building, and the two young men were passing though the building. The Milledgeville young man playfully said to the Columbus young man, (calling him by name) "here is a cell I have picked out for you, and wrote your name upon it." In less that twelve months the Columbus young man was sent to the penitentiary, for some crime, and did occupy the very cell with his name written upon the door. Punishment for violation of rules were graded according to the offence. In mild cases the convict was usually locked up in his cell and put on a diet of bread and water, which generally reduced the obstinacy  of the offender. For insubordination, resisting an officer, or fighting another convict, the offender was given the strap from day to day, continuniny a length of time proportionate to the degree of the offences. But General Nelson was not content with the strap. he introduced a paddle about a foot wide, peforated with numerous half-inch augur holes. When this struck the naked flesh there was seldom found one man so hardened and obstinate as not to fail to moan or cry out for mercy.
    The convicts were given Saturday afternoon to wash, amuse themselves, or do little jobs on their own account. Many would manufacture articles of value, working an hour at noon and Saturday. These articles were placed for sale in the inspector's storeroom, and when sold the proceeds were given to the convict, and with this money he bought luxuries, or sent it home to his family.
    The citizens of Milledgeville in the main were much opposed to the penitentiary, because the convicts were put at work of various kinds that competed with local mechanics, and in latter years were permitted to work out in private houses and do other jobs for prices with which the regular local mechanics could not compete. Hence the people here had no tears to shed when Sherman put the torch to it and laid it in ashes. A portion of the old wreck remains, but the old penitentiary is dead beyond resurrection. It is a little singular that the short street that led to the entrance gate, began at the penitentiary and ended at the graveyard, and is named Liberty."

    Attempts were made to rebuild the penitentary after the Civil War. Most of the prisoners were black. The convict-lease systems was started in May 1868 by Provisional Governor Gen. Thomas H. Ruger. 100 prisoners were leased to work on the Georgia annd Alabama Railroad. In July of 1869 fifty convicts were leased to Grant, Alexander & Co. for a term of years to work on the Macon and Augusta Railroad and two hundred more were brought from Rome for that purpose.  The prison was completely torn down by 1880.  The square is now occupied by Georgia College and State University.

Sources: .Historical Collections of Georgia, Rev. George White, New York 1855; . The (Milledgeville) Reflector 12/23/1817; The (Milledgeville) Reflector 11/03/1818;  The (Milledgeville) Reflector 12/23/1817;   The (Milledgeville) Reflector 12/23/1817;   The (Milledgeville) Reflector 2/17/1818, 5/19/1818, 11/10/1818; City Gazette and Daily Advertiser 8/4 1819; The (Gettysburg) Compiler 5/5/1831; Atlanta Constitution  7/8/1869;  Dublin Post, 11/20/1878; Atlanta Constitution March 3, 1880; Atlanta Constitution March 4, 1883;

Eileen Babb McAdams copyright 2005