The old Salem Jail and Jail Keep's House in Salem, Mass., was once the oldest operating correctional facility and residence in America. Closed for more than a decade, the dilapidated granite complex and its rich history have become the stuff of local legend in a town famous for folklore.
Built in 1813 and closed in 1991, stories from the jail include the madcap antics of the jailers of "Witch County," comical inmate escape attempts, a mysterious curse on the sheriffs of Salem, and accounts from corrections officers who say they struggled to maintain a secure and humane environment despite terrible working conditions.
"It has a mystique all its own," said Brad Upton, who began his career as a corrections officer at the Salem Jail in 1986 and currently serves as Deputy Superintendent of the Essex County Sheriff's Department. "Either you were there and you were a part of the crew or you weren't... I don't tell people stories anymore because they don't believe them."
Before the Salem Jail closed and the inmates moved to the new correctional facility in nearby Middleton, Essex County had a tradition of spending very little on the jail and the sheriff's department. Deputies and correctional officers had to pay for badges and uniforms out of their own pockets, according to Upton.
"The conditions were terrible, the food was terrible, the pay was terrible," he said, recalling the sink or swim mentality of the old days. "It was either you take the job and did it, or you got out."
A Less Than Ideal Work Environment
Without any major renovation since 1845, the facility did not have individual plumbing in each cell. Inmates were given five gallon buckets to use as chamber pots while awaiting their once-a-week trip to the facility's two functioning toilets. There was also a faulty heating system to contend with as well as an assortment of rodents and cockroaches.
"We [corrections officers] had to live the same way the inmates lived. The roaches crunched under our feet in the same way. We had to smell the same body odor and stink they did," said Upton.
There were no security cameras and inmate violence was commonplace, according to Upton, who said he was assaulted on several occasions and sometimes witnessed buckets of feces dumped on his coworkers.
And yet, Upton remembers the satisfaction he and his fellow of officers felt as they managed a facility under such challenging conditions. "We felt a great deal of pride," he said. "It was us against the world."
Escapes and Escapades
The facility has also seen its share of escapes, some more outrageous than others. Upton tells the story of one group of prisoners who worked for months to remove the bricks from the wall of their cell, concealing their progress with a poster.
"Then, they glued each brick back in place with toothpaste," said Upton. "I would visit the inmates once in a while so they could tell me their concerns and I would listen to them vent. I sat right on the bed and the hole was behind me the entire time."
The inmates were later apprehended.
One of the most famous escape attempts from Salem Jail was chronicled in the book, "The Wayward Sheriffs of Witch County," written by Robert Ellis Cahill, former High Sheriff and Jail Keep from 1975 -1978.
Early in Cahill's administration, a prisoner named Paul Fitzpatrick picked the lock on his restraints and jumped out of a paddy wagon while on his way to court. Not long after Fitzpatrick broke free and led the police on a chase through downtown Salem, Cahill got a call from one of his deputies who said he was in a phone booth with Fitzpatrick and was holding him by the ponytail.
Cahill immediately asked for a description of the man his deputy had apprehended, fearing a lawsuit if it was not Fitzpatrick. When the deputy described Fitzpatrick with a beard, Cahill screamed at the deputy to release the man because Fitzpatrick was clean-shaven. The deputy did as he was told.
Later, Cahill learned that Fitzpatrick actually did have a beard. A search ensued and the prisoner was re-apprehended in the woods later that night.
The Curse of Giles Corey
Cahill, who died this past June at the age of 70, campaigned to reform the jail when he was first elected sheriff in the 70s. Despite having no experience in law enforcement or corrections, Cahill won the election and arrived at his inauguration in a horse drawn carriage, symbolizing the need to bring the jail and sheriff's office into the 20th century.
"He was one of the great Irish storytellers," said local historian Jim McAllister, who was told sarcastically by Cahill that security at the facility was so porous, "the inmates would go out for breakfast and come back later that day."
In 1978, after continuously fighting the county for money to reform the jail, Cahill was forced out of office by a heart attack and stroke brought on by a rare blood disease. In his book, Cahill observed that his medical condition could have been the result of a curse left over from the Witch Hunt in 1692.
Cahill writes that the curse came from an elderly man named Giles Corey who was accused of witchcraft and "pressed" to death in a field across the street from the jail. Pressing was a form of torture that called for heavy stones to be placed upon a prisoner's chest until they confessed to the crime for which they had been charged.
Corey, 71, held out for three days in silence until painstakingly whispering his final words to George Corwin, the sheriff who ordered the torture: "I curse you, Sheriff, and I curse Salem." The sheriff died of a heart attack two years after Corey's death.
Upon his retirement, Cahill noted a strange coincidence: starting with Corwin in 1694 all the way up until Cahill's own administration, there seemed to be a large number of Salem sheriffs that had either died or been forced from office due to heart or blood ailments.
The recent history of the office may not indicate a curse as such, but apparently enough unusual events have troubled the sheriffs of Salem, and the jail itself, to keep the legend alive.
Although Roger Wells, the sheriff before Cahill, developed sugar diabetes at the end of his career, Charles Reardon, the sheriff after Cahill, was forced to resign from office in 1996, not for health reasons, but in a corruption scandal that ended his already troubled administration and sent him to federal prison for one year.
The End of an Era
In 1984, inmates successfully sued Essex County and Reardon, claiming that the Salem Jail provided unsafe living conditions. As a result, approximately 850 inmates shared a settlement of $1,395,000. And yet, when the jail closed in 1991, 13 inmates refused to leave their cells for the new $53 million facility in Middleton and had to be dragged out by a riot squad while they threw buckets of urine, according to Cahill's book.
Later that night, a group of corrections officers threw a wild party which left the jail with nine broken windows, holes in several walls, and the remains of radios, televisions, and pizza boxes strewn about the floors. In the highly publicized incident, Sheriff Reardon suspended two officers and said the men were only releasing the tensions that had developed between the inmates and themselves.
Now, a decaying remnant of the city's and county's past, the Salem Jail is abandoned and vandalized and has been declared an endangered property by the local historical society.
The city is looking to sell the property to a developer who will preserve the historical integrity of the structure, although it has had a difficult time finding a buyer, according to Lynn Duncan, executive for the Salem Redevelopment Authority.
The current sheriff, Frank Cousins, is without health problems and scandal, but the story of the curse and the tales from Salem Jail continue in the 21st century.
"I don't buy it, I don't believe in ghosts or any of that. But, I do think a lot of myths surround the place and when you don't stop them, they become legends," said Upton, who still serves as a corrections officer in Middleton.