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Camden’s Robert Mills jail

Posted: March 20, 2014 8:10 a.m.
Updated: March 21, 2014 5:00 a.m.

When you are researching Robert Mills, South Carolina’s first superintendent of public buildings, you inevitably end up trekking off to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, the repository for South Carolina’s historical state documents. We have an “inside track” there. One of our staff members, Sarah Murray, is married to Robert Murray, a long-time state archives employee. As a prelude to some of our research trips there, we ask Robert to scope out our prospects when the on-line database at the state archives does not yield what we are looking for. Sure enough, Robert found that the Kershaw County documents in the state treasurer’s public buildings records yielded a drawing and building specs for a “Kershaw Jail.” Though Mills scholar Gene Waddell disavowed that the plans were Mills’, they clearly exhibit Mills’ handwriting and the specs reference detailing of the Richland County jail that Mills reworked in 1823. So we take issue with Waddell’s evaluation!

The design for the Kershaw jail was drawn in 1832, during the final years of completion of the Kershaw County Courthouse. Its parapeted gable ends resemble the Mills design of the Lancaster and Spartanburg jails. Like those jails, it contains a belt course at the second floor, small sized upper windows and a distinctive floor plan. His theories on the penal institution were quite advanced for the day and his buildings reflected his beliefs. Mills preferred offices and non-violent criminals, such as debtors, on the first floor and cells on the second floor for hardened, violent criminals. Those committed for debts were given larger cells than felon prisoners. He insisted on circulation of clean air in his institutions and designed his jails with humane treatment of prisoners in mind.

His specs for the Kershaw jail reflect his concern with security and health. The building was of brick with interior plastered walls. Iron was placed in specified parts of the brick to increase security where necessary -- similar to the idea of our present-day rebar. Doors were carefully constructed of layers of iron and wood. Locks were to be of the very best kind. Mills insisted on granite for door jams, window sills and steps because they were fire proof and protected the lives of the wardens and prisoners in case of fire. The details go on and on revealing Mills’ careful thought as to the use and durability of this building.

The 1832 jail was a far cry above its predecessor. The first jail, or gaol, was erected here in 1771 across from the present Mills courthouse. This jail was torched by “a certain renegade named Westberry” in 1779 and finished off by 1781 by the British. Its replacement burned again in 1812. The next jail was relocated to the northwest corner of King and Church streets, for when the 1832 jail was to be built, the specs instructed that lot 208 “lying north of and adjoining the lot whereon the present jail stands” be purchased and deeded to the state for the new jail. The jail located on that corner was apparently an insecure facility, perhaps an extant building hastily outfitted for incarceration. But it must not have been a secure facility, for in 1816 an eyewitness described prisoners laid out and immobilized flat on their backs on the floor, probably in irons, to prevent escape.

The 1832 jail apparently served its purpose well until the heart of the town shifted north toward its present location in the mid-1800s. The citizens of Camden began to voice their opinion on relocating the jail to the new part of town by 1853. Sherman’s troops took care of the problem by burning the Kershaw jail in 1865. Don’t we wish someone had taken a photograph of the stately building before its demise?

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