Friday, June 12, 2015

Williamsburg Public Gaol

Not long ago my son-in-law, Fiddler Dave, was in Colonial Williamsburg with the Molasses Creek band. He visited the Public Gaol, and sent me a droll email with this subject line: "Your ancestors lodged here!"

Photo by David Tweedie

According to information on the web identifying southeastern Virginia highway markers, "[t]he Williamsburg Gaol was erected in 1701. It was a brick prison with the dimensions of thirty by twenty feet with two stories, and was used for both prisoners and the jailer with his family. In addition to the interior rooms, there was also a courtyard, which was enclosed by walls so as to prevent escape during the prisoners’ recreation time. It was known 'as a strong, sweet Prison' and would be used into the period of the Civil War and beyond then .... Another set of reputable prisoners, were the associates of the infamous pirate Blackbeard. They were all executed in 1718. This was Virginia's chief prison which housed debtors and criminals and served as the jail for the General Court in the nearby Captiol. Here Blackbeard's pirates, captured in 1718, were confined until the day of their hanging. Leg irons, an exercise yard, food slots, and criminal cells with primitive sanitation have been restored to their early appearance.

According the official history of Colonial Williamsburg, "Virginia's general assembly ordered a 'substanciall brick prison' built in Williamsburg soon after it decided to make the city the colony's new capital. Known as the Public Gaol, the building's construction was authorized by an act of August 1701.... The Public Gaol's most celebrated occupants were 15 henchmen of the pirate Blackbeard, caught in 1718.... [T]he air [was described as] truly Mephytic.... [T]he Public Gaol was a place of discomfort and pestilence. Gaol fever – probably typhus – broke out from time to time, and the unheated cells often were overcrowded.... Manacles and chains were familiar parts of gaol life.... Strong timbers were laid beneath the cells to prevent 'under mining.'"

William Howard, quartermaster to Blackbeard the Pirate, and probable early owner of Ocracoke Island, was confined to the Public Gaol in 1718, and remained there into the fall, so he was not among Blackbeard's crew when his captain was captured and killed on November 22 by sailors of the Royal Navy under the command of Lt. Robert Maynard.

Howard was tried and sentenced to be hanged, but King George's pardon (The Act of Grace) was delivered to Williamsburg the day before his scheduled execution, so the quartermaster was released. My ancestor may have lodged at the gaol, but he died three quarters of a century later on Ocracoke Island.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is Part II of Crystal Canterbury's account of her first visit to Portsmouth Island. You can read it here:


  1. Thanks for a very interesting week of history, nostalgia, and even some good news.
    I'm referring to your long anticipated sequel.
    Have a wonderful weekend.

  2. Anonymous7:56 AM

    Oh thank you for walk down memory lane. Now the new threat on the high seas of life are cyber-attacks. Villains need not step out of their hide out, they only need an internet connection and knowledge of known data breeches and vulnerabilities 2 to 4 years old to hack into today's personal information files of employers. Older files are not even encrypted, we are worried about the unemployed what about the hard working folk that have their identities stolen right from under their noses. Politicians do not address the known unknowns nor the unknown knowns of the criminals. The Defense department needs to be looking into the security breaches of life on the internet. What me worry is not conventional wisdom. What was it Tim Leary once said???

  3. Anonymous10:00 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.