Located in Salem, MA
Photo © 2007 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Salem Jail History
The first Massachusetts jailhouse to be established in Essex County was located in Salem as early as 1638. Historians regard this wooden building located at the corner of St. Peter and Federal Streets as being the first detention facility of its kind built in the country, and some believe the victims of the infamous Salem Witch Trials were incarcerated here. The adjacent Howard Street Cemetery is where accused witch Giles Corey was crushed to death by the sheriff in 1692; the victim had allegedly cursed every sheriff in Salem since. By 1810, the overcrowded facility needed to be replaced with something more substantial, and a more secure detention facility was planned, to be made of stone. A tract of land beside the original jail was purchased the next year, and once $80,000 was secured in 1812, construction began on a granite edifice at the corner of St Peter and Bridge Streets. The new jail was completed one year later, and was designed to house up to 112 inmates.
In 1884-1885, an addition to the jail increased its capacity to 150 offenders; this would be the last major upgrade made to the facility until it closed in 1991 - one hundred and seven years later. Life here must have been tough, for both the inmates and corrections officers. No air conditioning created an oven in the summer, and a faulty heating system made it an icebox in the winter months. There was no plumbing in each cell; inmates had to use a bucket until their weekly trip to the jail's two functioning toilets. Sometimes the contents of these buckets were emptied on guards in anger, with retaliation ensuing. There were no security cameras, and violence among inmates was commonplace.
Like most prisons, escapes were attempted at the Salem Jail, and some even managed to get away. One group of prisoners worked for months removing bricks from the wall of their cell, and glued them back in with toothpaste to hide their handiwork. Notable visitors included magician Harry Houdini, who used the facility to stage an escape show in 1906, and Albert DeSalvo, also known as the Boston Strangler, who was confined there after his arrest.
Eventually, inmates managed to sue Essex County for unsafe living conditions at Salem Jail in 1984. Over $1.3 million was awarded and dispersed to about 850 inmates, and the jail was ordered to close. By then, it was considered the oldest penitentiary operating in the country. Despite the atrocious living conditions inside the jail, thirteen inmates refused to be transferred to the new facility in Middleton; a riot squad had to be called in to drag these men out as they threw their buckets of urine at the officers. Later that night, the guards threw a raucous party that left holes in the walls, windows smashed, and radios and televisions shattered on the floors. Two officers were suspended shortly after.
The prison and jail keeper's house were locked up and left to decay for years. In 2001, the city of Salem purchased the property for one dollar, and hoped to find a developer who would redevelop the site, but also keep the historic building intact. No one would step up to the plate until developer New Boston Ventures proposed historic rental apartments. Work begun in 2009, and completed a year later, for $10.7 million. Now operating as 50 St. Peter, 19 apartments fill the interior space, and one of the wings has been converted into the Great Escape Restaurant, which features original jail bars as a design motif.