The 1884 Lumpkin County Jail and Museum
The mission of the Lumpkin County Historical Society’s 1884 Jail Museum is to demonstrate how prisoners were confined here from 1884 to 1964 and to display a collection of local artifacts that illustrate the rich cultural heritage that is unique to Lumpkin County, Georgia.
When a new detention center was built in 1964, the downstairs of the 1884 jail was remodeled for County offices. The second floor jail cells remain as they were when the jail was in operation. Visitors can see the heavy iron doors of the cell block and scribbling on the cell walls made by inmates. A charred area of the floor resulted from a fire set by prisoners who were hoping to escape while the sheriff was busy putting out the fire. Their plan failed.
Prisoners not considered security risks were allowed the relative freedom of the walk-around area outside the cell block.
The first floor museum displays household items that would have been used in the 1800s and early 1900s. Vintage photographs show gold mining scenes, historical buildings, and significant events. Artifacts from daily life include a woman's side saddle, a copper still, a spinning wheel exhibit that includes a "weasel" used to measure skeins of yarn, and a Lumpkin County's federal set of standard weights and measure.
In earlier days, a sheriff's total earnings consisted of a set amount per prisoner. Since there wasn't much crime back then, some sheriffs didn't earn enough to support their families and left law enforcement for more profitable pursuits.
The sheriff's wife prepared the meals for the prisoners, and it is reported that some prisoners were habitual offenders because they know they could eat better in jail than out!
The 1884 Jail was built to house those who were elected to uphold the law as well as those who broke it. Jail cells are on the second floor, and the sheriff or a deputy and his family lived on the ground floor.
The 1884 jail was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1985.
The museum is open in conjunction with Dahlonega's festivals: such as Bear on the Square in April; Fourth of July Family Day; Gold Rush Days in October and by special request.
The Jail is located on 75 Enota Street, Dahlonega, Ga - next to the Cannery Art Center two blocks east of Dahlonega’s Historic Public Square. For special tours and student groups please send an email to arrange a tour.
“GUESTS OF THE COUNTY”
A Brief History of the Historic 1884 Jail
By Chris Worick Presented February 2018
As early as the 1870s, the need for a new county jail was recognized. The previous jail doubled as the town calaboose, and was the only building used to confine prisoners in Dahlonega and Lumpkin County.
In 1883, the county started planning a new jail based on an 1874 patent for “Improvements in Jails” by Cook and Heath. Dahlonega city official Frank Hall helped design the jail to mirror the Italianate style of Hall’s Block.
Completed in 1884 at a cost of $7,357.60, the new jail not only housed prisoners, but also served as living quarters for the sheriff and his family. With a brick exterior, the two-story building has large rectangular windows on both floors that allow ample sunlight to illuminate the interior. Bars on the second floor windows indicate the building’s intended use. Decorative cornices and a cupola on the roof are Italianate features.
For the next 80 years, the jail would host an untold number of guests on behalf of the county, some on a repeat basis. It underwent modifications and additions over the years, but the basic layout has not changed. The cell block was constructed with state-of-the-art overlapping levels of security.
The first level of security is at the entrance at the bottom of the stairwell. Bars and a locked door restrict access to the downstairs. The second level of security is that the cell block on the second floor. Bars on the exterior windows allow them to be opened for fresh air and sunlight while making it difficult for a prisoner to escape. The third level of security is the “run-around.” This outer walkway allowed prisoners to exercise while confined to the upstairs area. It also provided a way for the jailer to keep an eye on prisoners inside their cells through thick iron gratings.
A series of manually controlled handles open and close the interior cell block doors from outside of the heavy two-inch thick cast iron door that provides access to the cells from the run-around. For meals, a small pass through opening is incorporated into the door which allowed the door itself to remain locked while food was passed through.
The fourth level of security is the construction of the cell block walls. They were constructed by overlapping and crisscrossing layers of horizontal pine boards reinforced with vertical nails spaced every 1-2 inches. Chinking and plaster give the walls a smooth finish. The cells themselves were the last layer of security. Four cells are located inside the cell block with a riveted strap iron door to each one that could be individually locked.
A potbelly stove provided heat for the cell block. The exterior windows may have been opened for ventilation during hot weather. Before the 20th century, prisoners went to the bathroom in chamber pots and washed in a bucket of water. They slept on steel framed bunk beds and army surplus cots. Meals were prepared by the sheriff’s wife if he was married. Women were held in a separate cell in the run around. Marks on the floor where the bars and door used to be can still be seen. Graffiti on the walls is original, and reflects what some of the inmates had on their minds.
Who was confined in the jail?
There is no accurate number of how many prisoners have passed through the big iron door, but typically they were local men and women for offenses ranging from drunk and disorderly to moonshining, theft, assault, and even murder. A few of the more unusual or notorious prisoners were: “Polly, the Wild Man” in 1903; train robber Bill Miner (aka The Gray Fox); notorious Tess Owens, the safe crackers who tried to rob the bank in 1913; Charlie the “Red Devil” Tolbert; and Brock Elrod a grave robber in 1925.
Were any prisoners ever executed here?
No. There have been no public executions in Lumpkin County since 1844. Persons convicted of high crimes were sent to the state penitentiary in Milledgeville. The cupola on the roof of the building is a decorative feature used for ventilation rather than a gallows as some have claimed.
Did any prisoners die in the jail?
We are not aware of any doing so.
Have any prisoners ever escaped?
Several unconfirmed stories have circulated over the years about a few prisoners who managed to escape. One tells of a skinny guy who somehow managed to escape by squeezing through some bars. Another case describes a fellow who escaped only to run home and tell his wife that he wouldn’t be home for supper. He then returned to the jail.
24 Sept. 2014 Added image of new spinning wheel exhibit and deleted image of type case
1 Feb 2018 Added mission statement.
6 Jul 2018 Added "Brief History" by Chris Worick
21 Sep 21 Jail photo courtesy of Jack Anthony.