15R Vestal Street
Built ca. 1805
William H. Chadwick was escorted up the exterior stairs to the second floor of the Old Gaol, where he had a first look at his new residence — the west cell.
Dimly lit by natural light filtered through two iron-barred windows in the north and south walls, it featured a fireplace, built-in bunks, and a privy. Despite the austerity of his lodging, Chadwick was relieved that his sentence could be served on Nantucket and not in Boston, where his trial for embezzlement had been held . . . in 1885.
Men accused of robbing the Nantucket Bank in 1795 had escaped from a jail on High Street, an incident that prompted the town to build the more secure facility. Local housewrights John and Perez Jenkins were contracted to construct a new jail on Vestal Street, near the courthouse then situated at the juncture of Main and Milk Streets. Two stories high, with two cells on each floor, fashioned from heavy oak logs bolted and reinforced with iron, with barred windows and doors two planks thick, the new jail was essentially an iron cage within a log cabin. It was a small fortress, a testament to local concern about keeping criminals securely locked away.
In 1805, the jail was not in a closely built neighborhood as it is today. The keeper’s house was nearby on Vestal Street, or Prison Lane as it was known; to the west, open land extended to Quaker Road, or Grave Street. Information about inmates of the jail appears in Nantucket County Court records beginning in 1806. Petty crimes, including thievery, were the most prevalent offenses on Nantucket, in about equal numbers to imprisonment for debt.
The Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society (Boston) inspected the Nantucket facility in October 1833, noting four prisoners: two thieves (one a Frenchman, the other a fourteen-year-old boy); one debtor; and a “youth of eighteen” whose crime is not recorded.
In 1855, the “House of Correction,” formerly a part of the Quaise Asylum/Town Farm in Polpis, was moved next to the jail on Vestal Street, and Sheriff Uriah Gardner was paid fifty dollars a year as overseer at the Gaol and the House of Correction. The seven additional rooms were available for debtors, who could ply their trades to pay their bills in what was essentially a workhouse. By the 1870s, the population of the island had dwindled to a third of what it had been in the 1840s, and there was little crime. In fact, the jail was empty from 1870 to 1876. When the Legislative Prison Committee visited Nantucket in 1883, it recommended abolishing both the jail and the House of Correction, but enough islanders signed a petition to preserve the increasingly archaic lockup, and the town continued to use it without making any significant alterations to the original structure.
Twelve years later, the Commission made the same recommendation as the 1883 Legislative Prison Committee, to discontinue the use of the jail as a penal institution: “It is unfit and unsuited in every way for the confinement of human beings. . . . The authorities should see to it that both the jail and the house of correction are promptly disposed of in such manner that they can never again be used for confining purposes, for they are entirely unsuited in every way to that purpose.” And once again, the town ignored the recommendations. Occasionally, a malefactor spent a night or two in one of the cells. During Prohibition (1920–33) the lower east cell was purportedly used to store confiscated liquor and homemade stills and accoutrements. The last prisoner hit the keeper on the head and escaped in 1933, and the building sat empty for more than a decade, until the Town of Nantucket deeded the jail and the adjacent House of Correction to the Nantucket Historical Association in 1946. The NHA noted in its annual report for 1946 that the buildings were falling into disrepair, “. . . and it would have been a matter of only a few years before they would become ruins.” Restoration and repair were begun on the Old Gaol, and it opened for public viewing in the summer of 1949. The House of Correction was not part of the exhibit, and was razed in 1954.
In a fenced yard at the end of a narrow path, the Old Gaol is a stark reminder of the less celebratory side of Nantucket life in the nineteenth century. The sturdy building served the community for more than a hundred years, and remains a stronghold after a hundred more. It was restored in the spring of 2014 with community, state, and national grant funding.
Excerpt from the Nantucket Historical Association Properties Guide, Old Gaol by Betsy Tyler, 2015.
Banner image of Old Gaol, ca. 1860. (P7150)