Old Gaol Nantucket
July 27, 2023
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The Old Gaol is a historic lock-up building at 15R Vestal Street, Nantucket. Having served as Nantucket’s first jail, it highlights a lesser desirable part of Nantucket’s history.

The jailhouse was constructed in 1696 at Vestral Street, which at the time, was open land. In 1805, Nantucket residents resolved to have a new, sturdier jail structure built next to the Old Gaol, as most prisons on the island had become old and worn out. A decade earlier, men who had robbed the Nantucket bank escaped from a high street jail. To prevent such incidences, there was a need to build new and better prisons.

John and Perez Jenkins got the contract to build the new jailhouse. They mainly used oak logs reinforced with iron to construct a two-story jail house featuring two cells on each floor with barred windows and heavy wooden doors. The new building was nicknamed the New Gaol. It was sturdy and efficiently served its purpose for years. Most criminals held within its walls were in prison for petty crimes such as thievery and unpaid debt. The Nantucket County Court records contain the information of all prisoners held at the jailhouse since 1806.

In 1855, the House of Correction, located at Quaise Asylum in Polpis, was moved right next to the New Gaol. It was used for holding the mentally ill, juvenile prisoners, habitual drunkards, and debtors. Additionally, it served as a workhouse for debtors willing to ply their trades to settle their bills.

The 1860s marked the end of whaling, the island’s main economic activity. This led many people to leave the island for an income elsewhere. By the 1870s, Nantucket’s population was about a third of what it used to be. Consequently, the crime rate dwindled to the extent that jail cells remained empty from 1870 to 1876.

In 1883, the Legislative Prison Committee recommended demolishing the jailhouse and the House of Correction as they were mostly unused. However, a majority of Nantucket residents preferred that they remain. At the time, tourism in Nantucket had snowballed into one of the island’s economic pillars. Thus, there was a need to preserve everything historic. Enough residents signed a petition to keep the jailhouse and House of Correction without altering their original build.

The town continued using them until 1895, when a second proposal recommended their demolition. The proposal stated that the buildings were old and worn out, making them unsuitable for their intended purpose and a risk to prisoners.  Like its predecessor, the proposal was voted against by islanders. The town of Nantucket also ignored it and occasionally used the jailhouse to hold prisoners for a night or two. Moreover, they used parts of the buildings to store confiscated liquor and homemade stills. This continued until 1933, when a prisoner attacked the jail’s keeper and escaped.

The buildings were left abandoned for more than ten years. In 1946, the Nantucket Historic Association gained custody and began conducting extensive repairs and restoration. The Old Gaol was opened to the public in 1949, enabling visitors to learn about the island’s Law and Justice history. Unfortunately, a fire accident razed the House of Correction in 1954.

To this day, the Old Gaol is open for visitors and is in good condition. Guided tours at the former jailhouse provide detailed information about it and Nantucket’s past life.

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