The Old Jail building served as the Charleston County Jail from its construction in 1802 until 1939. In 1680, as the city of Charleston was being laid out, a four-acre square of land was set aside at this location for public use. In time a hospital, poor house, workhouse for runaway slaves, and this jail were built on the square. When the Jail was constructed in 1802 it consisted of four stories, topped with a two-story octagonal tower. Charleston architects Barbot & Seyle were responsible for 1855 alterations to the building, including a rear octagonal wing, expansions to the main building and the Romanesque Revival details. This octagonal wing replaced a fireproof wing with individual cells, designed by Robert Mills in 1822, five years earlier than his notable Fireproof Building. The 1886 earthquake badly damaged the tower and top story of the main building, and these were subsequently removed.
Photograph by Lissa D'Aquisto, courtesy of City of Charleston
The Old Jail housed a great variety of inmates. John and Lavinia Fisher, and other
members of their gang, convicted of robbery and murder in the Charleston
Neck region were imprisoned here in 1819 to 1820. Some of the last 19th-century
high-sea pirates were jailed here in 1822 while they awaited hanging.
The jail was active after the discovery of Denmark Vesey's
planned slave revolt. In addition to several hundreds of free blacks and
slaves jailed for their involvement, four white men convicted of supporting
the 1822 plot were imprisoned here. Vesey spent his last days in the tower
before being hanged. Increased restrictions were placed on slaves and
free blacks in Charleston as a result of the Vesey plot, and law required
that all black seaman be kept here while they were in port. During the
Civil War, Confederate and Federal prisoners of war were incarcerated
here. It is one of more than 1400 historically significant buildings within
the Charleston Old and Historic District.