The Old Gaol

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When I go on a history tour, it often turns into a ghost-hunting expedition. For example, recently I visited the old New England town of York, Maine, which has been settled since about 1623. I wanted to see their jail — the oldest English public building in North America. I was interested because parts of that creepy, barn-like structure represent the oldest jail in the country.

Constructed from wood in 1653, folks quickly discovered they needed something stronger. They reconfigured timbers, added huge stones, and by 1719 had themselves a prison worthy of the Province of Maine. Today, the prisoners’ cells and gaolkeepers’ quarters appear as they did in the late 1700s, giving a vivid impression of what it was like to be incarcerated there: occasionally crowded. Always dark. Frigid or stifling, depending on the season. And hopelessly secure. Some ingenious gaolkeeper even installed metal saw blades as window frames. If an escapee managed to sever the iron bars, they’d flay their hide trying to wriggle through the narrow opening.

Inmates were separated by the severity of their alleged crime. Upstairs housed the bad ones: murderers, arsonists and the like. Downstairs was for lesser evils: profanity, intoxication, gossip, debt, even skipping church. Strictly speaking, people were not punished here. They were merely locked-up to await trial. Because judges were on a circuit, the wait could be up to a year. Ancient graffiti still shows how one inmate marked the passing of the days.

Punishment came after a guilty verdict: hanging for the bad guys, public humiliation for the rest. One memorable woman prisoner was an Indian slave named Patience Boston. She was accused of drowning her master’s baby. Patience was pregnant when she was locked-up and remained in jail for almost two years. But after her son was born, she was hanged. Today the jail — a York Historical Society museum — has an eerie exhibit. You can sit outside the window where long ago Rev. Moody heard Patience’s confession. If you push a button you’ll hear from inside a reenacted recording of that confession. It is a ghostly experience in a spooky environment.

But stranger still is that the electronic ghost is apparently understudied by a real one. Though the specter’s identity is unknown, Patience is the prime suspect. Presumably she would have been held upstairs among the dangerous inmates, and that is where many spirit confrontations seem to occur. Some modern museum workers refuse to remain in the building alone – especially as it begins to get dark.

But when I was there all was thoroughly, eerily silent.

This is Joe Citro.

Novelist Joe Citro is a native Vermonter. He lives in Burlington.

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