The old jail in Jasper has a rich and colorful history, according to historian Johnny Bullard, a life-long resident of Hamilton County. Built in 1893, the old jail at 501 NE 1st Ave. was home to many lawbreakers over the years, and as old buildings go, it comes with many legends, a lot of them spooky in nature.
According to county records, the two-story, fireproof brick, steel and concrete structure was Hamilton County’s only jail and was last utilized as a jail around the year 1984.
When the jail was in operation there were separate cell areas for white men, African Americans and women. It also had a separate cell for solitary confinement.
Records show there were babies brought into the world and men taken from the world in this building, and actual photographs of what is believed to be the last legal hanging East of the Mississippi are on display.
Historians claim that two African Americans and one Caucasian man were hanged from the tower and those hangings brought out throngs of local citizens to watch the primitive executions. There were also several alleged deaths inside the jail, including one woman who committed suicide and a man who was killed within the prison.
Bullard said he recalled hearing of three separate hangings at the jail. According to historians, either the last two or last three legal executions by hanging east of the Mississippi were held at this jail.
One notable hanging occurred in 1916. Sheriff’s Officer W. Raiford Royals, who died in the line of duty, was shot and killed by Walter Durham of Hahira, Ga. on the steps of a colored rooming house near the G.S. & F. Depot in Hamilton County on April 10, 1916. He left behind a wife and six children. Durham was tried and found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging, which was carried out Sept. 8, 1916, by order of the governor of the state of Florida at that time, Park Trammell.
On July 7, 1983, the old jail was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and now serves as the Hamilton County Historical Museum.
The jail, many say, is haunted by the ghosts of its former residents, and it has been visited by several paranormal investigators over the years who found evidence of spirits living there, such as odd noises, eerie voices and distinct footsteps.
“There are all kinds of legends about the old Hamilton County Jail,” said Bullard.
He then explained how justice used to be carried out in those days, as he remembered it from stories he’d been told.
“You had a jury of your peers who found people guilty and they didn’t wait to transport people to a state prison to carry out capital punishment,” Bullard said. “It was done right there in the community… at the will of the community.”
Jury selection, Bullard said, was a lot different in those days than it is today. Back then, a list of potential jurors used to be published for the attorneys, both the prosecution and defense. The attorneys could then poll those potential jurors to get an idea which way they would sway when it came time to convict someone. That pattern continued through the 1960s, he added.
“If you were a defense attorney, you stood a much better chance if you had someone on that potential jurors list that you knew or were familiar with,” said Bullard. “That was just the way the justice system worked in the state of Florida at that particular time.”
Hamilton County, Bullard said, had some brilliant jurists during that time, one of whom was Clayton Averiett, who served as county attorney and head of the Democratic Party for a number of years. Bullard said Averitt never went to law school.
“He read the law down in Tampa and then took the bar exam and for years had the highest recorded score ever known on the Florida bar exam,” Bullard said.
Averiett, he said, was involved in many notable and outstanding law cases, both locally and nationally.
Bullard said he has no doubt that the old jail is probably haunted because of the hangings that took place there, as well as the reported violence that happened in the jail cells. He did, however, say that Hamilton County had good public servants. He said the prisoners at the old jail were probably treated as equally as they would have been treated in any jail in the Deep South at that time.
When asked if he knew of anyone who had witnessed haunted spirits inside the jail, Bullard laughed and said, “Without naming names, I know people who have said it is a spooky place to be around during the evening time. I can imagine it would be. I wouldn’t want to stay around there at night,” he added.
If there is such a thing as the paranormal and specters, Bullard said the old jail would be a good place for them to hang out. He said he was there once at night with a friend and probably won’t make a repeat visit.
“Let’s just say I went to the front door and left quickly,” Bullard said. “I heard something. I saw something that moved… like a shadow, and I didn’t stick around. It was frightening enough to me that I did not stay around.”
For many years, when a man was elected sheriff in Hamilton County, he, his wife and children lived in separate living quarters at the jail, Bullard said. Sheriff Eddie McGinn was one who lived there sometime in the 1940s, he said.
“His wife, Grace, who was a Bradshaw… their daughter Miriam married my daddy’s first cousin, C.C. Bullard, and I know they lived at the jail,” said Bullard. “Back then, when you were sheriff, because of communications and all, you couldn’t leave the county because you were on call all the time. So, when they went on vacation, they would come down to White Springs, go to the Colonial Hotel and go to the springs to go swimming.”
So, whether you believe in ghosts or not, the old haunted jail might be worth a visit this Halloween season. Your evening will surely be a spooky one.