The gaol (jail) is one of the oldest buildings, and probably the oldest British government building, still standing in the United States. It offers a vivid exhibition of the vast difference between the criminal justice systems of colonial America and modern times.
Old York Historical Society
P.O. Box 312
York, ME 03909-0312
ph.: (207) 363-4974
Web site: www.yorknet.org
The story of the Old York Gaol begins with the Pilgrims, who arrived in what is now New England in 1620 and settled along the Atlantic coast. In 1624 they established the town of Agamenticus, which grew quickly. It became the second formal chartered city in Maine in 1642 and was renamed Gorgeana for Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the governor-general of New England. In 1652 it was reorganized once again, this time as a town of the British Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The town was renamed for the last time, becoming “York” after the county in England.
York was chosen as the location for the King’s Prison for the District of Maine in 1653. Until that time, court cases were decided swiftly and punishments, which might include fines, servitude, or the stocks, were administered immediately. From then on, certain lawbreakers and debtors would be sentenced to spend time in prison. A small prison was built in the 1660’s, with one dungeon and no heat.
The present building was built in 1719, when the original jail had fallen into disrepair. With stone walls nearly three feet thick, it was built to be secure and to last. Additions over the next half century included a chimney and fireplace, a cellar, a wooden addition with a kitchen and large room, and a second story. Through much of the eighteenth century the stone structure was referred to as the Gaol, and the wooden addition as the Gaol House.
The jail had one underground dungeon and two jail cells; it held both felons and debtors. The dungeon had no toilet, and none of the rooms had adequate ventilation. There was a “yard,” or outside secured area, and prisoners who could afford to post a bond were allowed to go outside during part of the day. Most prisoners, however, could not afford to pay. At the end of the eighteenth century, a new law required that felons and debtors must be housed separately, but there was not enough room at York for this arrangement. In 1806 more expansions and improvements were made, bringing the building to its present form. The newly remodeled building held prisoners for more than fifty years.
By 1860 the stone part of the jail was no longer used to hold prisoners, and the wooden addition was also gradually phased out. A resourceful deputy jailer offered paying customers tours of the old dungeons as early as the 1860’s, and in the 1880’s a local merchant rented the building to use as a warehouse. In the 1890’s the Todd family rented the jail and lived in it, and the building also served as a schoolhouse for a time.
Finally, in 1898, the editor and author William Dean Howells, a summer resident of York, suggested that the building be restored. The Old York Historical Society raised money to repair the building, and the Old Gaol was opened as a museum on the Fourth of July, 1900. The Old Gaol has been administered by the Historical Society ever since, with funds for maintenance provided by an endowment established by Elizabeth Perkins, who set about in the early 1900’s to preserve as much of historic York as she could. She recognized the value of the Old York Gaol, thought to be the oldest surviving government building in the United States.
The Old York Gaol is part of a complex in York Village administered by the Old York Historical Society. Visitors to the Gaol are encouraged to meet the “jailer’s wife,” a costumed guide, and to visit the old dungeons and cells. The pillory in front of the jail is a popular prop for photographs.
Other sites near the Old York Gaol include the Old School House, built in 1745; the John Hancock Warehouse, dating from the eighteenth century; and the mid-nineteenth century George Marshall Store. York features several old homes, some privately owned but two open to visitors. The Emerson-Wilcox House, built in 1742, showcases Maine decorative arts. The Elizabeth Perkins House was built in 1732 and contains Perkins’s personal collection of Colonial Revival furnishings.
Jefferd’s Tavern, built in 1750, is the visitor center and exhibition hall for the Historical Society complex. The sites are open to visitors six days a week (closed Mondays) from June through Columbus Day, with more limited hours during the spring.
Baker, Madge. Woven Together in York County, Maine: A History 1865-1990. Shapleigh, Maine: Wilson’s Printers, 1999. Well-researched work by a local historian. Beard, Frank A. Maine’s Historic Places: Properties on the National Register of Historic Places. Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 1982. Descriptions of important historic buildings in Maine, with illustrations and maps. Ernst, George. New England Miniature: A History of York, Maine. Freeport, Maine: Bond Wheelwright, 1961. Reprint. Salem, Mass.: Higginson Book Company, 1993. A history of York from its settlement in the 1630’s through the 1950’s. Includes generous quotations from early documents. Hunt, Kenneth. “Maine’s Old-Time York.” Colonial Homes 22, no. 3 (June 1996): 54-58. Illustrated overview of York, focusing on historic homes but also including the Gaol and other public buildings. Muse, Vance. The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: Northern New England. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989. Travel guide focusing on historical sites, with many color photographs and maps. Rich, Louise Dickinson. The Coast of Maine: An Informal History. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1956. Well-researched history narrated in a highly readable, conversational tone. Sullivan, James. The History of the District of Maine. 1795. Reprint. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1994. Facsimile edition of an eighteenth century history of Colonial Maine.