This Was Then: The old jail

Years would sometimes pass without a single occupant.

The old county jail in Edgartown, seen here circa 1870, was sandwiched between the Whaling Church and the courthouse. It warehoused Island prisoners from 1808 through 1874. — Courtesy Chris Baer

“Oh, that jail!” wrote a Chicago Tribune reporter visiting Edgartown in 1873. “It’s not well patronized. A few years ago, a man was put in there for disturbing the peace of one of his neighbors, while he was under the influence of liquor; and it is recorded that, a few hours afterward, he raised the window and requested an acquaintance passing to go and get him a cigar, or he should go himself. He reported the building to be sadly in need of repairs when he came out, and stated that if he was put there again, he wouldn’t stay; the place was not neatly kept, — ‘twas too dusty.’”

Although the Tribune reporter accurately characterized the jail’s infrequent use, it was much more substantial than the colonial lockups that preceded it, even if there were more than a few escapes. In 1843, for instance, John Johnson (alias Charles Craft) was arrested at Tarpaulin Cove for stealing a pleasure boat from Newburyport. After three weeks confinement in the Edgartown jail, he broke out in the night and stole William Chadwick’s sailboat, which he found lying at one of the wharves. A reward of $30 was offered for his arrest, and $10 for the recovery of Chadwick’s boat, but it’s not known whether either was ever returned.

The jail was built in 1808, about where the Registry of Deeds is today. (It would ultimately be sandwiched by the Whaling Church, built across the lane in 1843, and the modern courthouse, built in 1858.) Built of stone and brick behind a keeper’s house, the tiny, 20- by 12-foot, two-story jail was divided into four rooms, heated by a brick fireplace and a stove, and ventilated with 12- by 8-inch windows looking out of each cell. Whole years would sometimes pass without a single occupant. It “might pass for a good-sized smokehouse,” noted a visiting journalist from the Hudson Daily Register in 1874. “One wonders, in taking in its diminutive proportions, what possible need there can be for a prison here, unless the new city furnishes an occasional inmate. What can induce people to be wicked here, so near ‘Camp meeting’?”

In 1872, Edgartown native Peter Esau, referred to in New England newspapers as “Esau, the burglar,” attempted to break out of the jail one cold January night, according to the Newport Daily News, “but succeeded only in making a hole large enough to almost freeze him by the cold wind entering.” A few weeks later he tried again, and this time succeeding, he left the Island on board a New London fishing smack. “He had in some unexplained manner been supplied with a crowbar, and dug through the back of the fireplace into an adjoining cell, which was not locked,” noted the Troy Daily Whig. “He left a piece of paper on which was written ‘Now catch me if you can.’” They would, even if it took a couple of years; in 1874 he was arrested in Vineyard Haven after breaking into a store.

In 1873, husband and wife Amasa and Clara Alexander and William Eastman (possibly aliases), visiting from Vermont, were arrested at their camp near Tashmoo after a series of brazen store and house robberies in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, netting close to $400 in cashmeres, alpacas, tools, dry goods, and food. After a few weeks in jail awaiting trial, the trio “escaped by sawing off some of the bars to the doors of their cells, and breaking the locks,” according to the Boston Globe. “It is thought they may have had outside aid.” A few days later the three were found camping on the south side of the Island, recaptured by Sheriff Norris, and delivered to the jail in New Bedford. Also arrested was Dyer Norton of Vineyard Haven, whom the prisoners identified as the man who furnished them with “a knife, and gave them information which facilitated their escape,” according to the Globe. Amasa Alexander was ultimately sentenced to nine years in state prison, and Eastman to five years.

“Edgartown jail has an increasing patronage since it has been found so easy to escape from it,” noted the Globe shortly after the three burglars were recaptured, “Seven prisoners occupied quarters there one night last week.” Lumber arrived in Edgartown later that summer to begin construction of a new jail in a lot down the street, and stone for it was prepared in Chilmark. In August 1874, the Hudson Daily Register reported, “I think a new [Edgartown jail] is projected or building.” And by 1875, a new jail — our modern lockup — was open for business, and the old jail building was auctioned off and moved.


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.