Old Hamilton County Jail
501 Northeast 1st Avenue
When it closed in 1984, Jasper, Florida’s Hamilton County Jail was the oldest operating jail in the state. In the 91 years it was operational, this building witnessed tremendous tragedy and sadness, such emotion that imprinted itself on the walls of the structure. Even before its closure, ghost stories about the jail circulated throughout Hamilton County, in fact, the National Register for Historic Places nomination form mentions that the building has a haunted reputation within the local folklore
Built by the Pauly Jail Company, a St. Louis-based company that constructed jails throughout the country, the jail in Jasper includes a tower suitable for carrying out justice. The historians who wrote the National Register nomination weren’t sure if executions had actually been conducted within the building, though local rumors insist to that fact. Local historian Johnny Bullard stated in a 2014 article that three people met their fates here. He further notes that one or two of these executions were among the last hangings east of the Mississippi.
A 2016 article quotes the president of the Hamilton County Historical Society as saying that no executions took place within the walls of the buildings, but that gallows were constructed for that purpose outside the building. Notice of a 1916 execution at the jail appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat. Interestingly, the paper did not use the name of the criminal, only addressing him as “the murderer of Deputy Raiford Royals,” “the condemned,” and “black man.” While noting that the execution took place on a specially constructed scaffold outside the jail, the article remarks that there was some joy during this most somber of occasions: “As the fatal moment drew near he [Walter Durham, the condemned] laughed and joked with his executioners—smiling even in the very face of death. He claimed he was ‘right with God,’ and was ‘going yonder’—pointing upward. He then asked the negroes present to sing a hymn, himself joining in, and the large crowd was curiously quiet while the mournful dirge floated on the passing breeze.”
After being allowed to pen a brief letter to his parents in Hahira, Georgia, the noose was adjusted around his neck and Mr. Durham called for one of his ministers to pray with him. That minister had departed, but a white minister, the Reverend W. B. Tresca of the local Methodist church stepped forward to offer a prayer. The sheriff stepped forward and “launched the soul of the murderer into eternity.” The National Register form offers that Durham’s execution may have been swift and public because of the local outcry over Deputy Royals’ death.
In addition to executions, it is also noted that several other deaths occurred here including a suicide. However, the wife of a deputy sheriff who lived here gave birth to both of her sons in the building, adding some moments of levity to the building’s dark history.
Investigators have been combing the jail for years looking for evidence of paranormal activity. Newspapers have documented some of the encounters that have occurred here. In 2010, a female investigator entered a bedroom that had once housed members of the warden’s family and sensed a spirit. She told the Gainesville Sun that she felt “a strong pressure on my shoulders and chest. And then my stomach starts to turn and I get this tingling feeling in my legs.”
Historian Johnny Bullard demurred when asked if he had personally had any experiences within the jail. He visited the old jail once with a friend late at night. He told the Suwannee Democrat, “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.” He continued, saying that others have heard some frightening sounds including voices and footsteps in the empty building.
- Arteaga, Allison. “Paranormal investigators help North Florida.” Gainesville Sun. 16 October 2010.
- Bulger, Peggy & Larry Paarlberg. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for the Old Hamilton County Jail. 16 May 1983.
- Northeastern Florida Paranormal Investigators. Investigation Report for Old Hamilton County Jail. September 2010.
- “Public execution of a negro at Jasper.” Tallahassee Democrat. 17 September 1916.
- Taylor, Joyce Marie. “A spooky time at the haunted old jail in Jasper.” Suwannee Democrat. 23 October 2014.