When you reach a certain age, you begin to look back at events and see them in a new light or with new perspective. This is true whether you are reaching retirement age or, say, celebrating your bicentennial. The archival and library professions have changed a great deal since the General Assembly created the Virginia State Library in 1823. Heck, it has changed quite a lot since our 100th birthday. That is around the time that two objects came into our collection, a large metal lock and its key, purported to be from the Southampton County jail in Jerusalem (now Courtland) that held Nat Turner before his trial and execution in 1831.
That was pretty much the accepted story for the next century based on an undated note attached to the lock. The lock and key were photographed together, probably sometime in the 1930s, and several authors used the photograph to illustrate many articles and books written on the Turner uprising.
At some point after being photographed together, but likely before the Library of Virginia moved to its current building, the lock’s key went missing. In recent decades, the Library displayed the lock occasionally and gave the usual qualifications to its provenance. Its recent inclusion in the Library’s 200th anniversary exhibition prompted some questions from staff about how and when the Library acquired it.
In the last several years, the Library’s digital newspaper archive, Virginia Chronicle, has become an invaluable resource not only to patrons, but to staff as well. Being able to keyword search across hundreds of newspaper titles allows our archivists and librarians to efficiently track down details of the materials we work on.
Thanks to Virginia Chronicle, we found a headline on page four of the October 15, 1923, issue of The News Leader that reads: “Interesting Lock and Key Presented State Library.” The article goes on to say that the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Colonel Benjamin O. James received a lock and key “that barred the door of the old jail at Jerusalem, now the town of Courtland, during the incarceration of Nat Turner.” The items were a gift from Richard Henry Cobb, proprietor of the Stonewall Inn at Franklin, Virginia, who asked the Secretary to deposit it in a “proper institution for safe keeping.” Secretary James passed the items along to The Virginia State Library (now Library of Virginia).
How did an hotelier from Franklin end up with the lock that imprisoned Nat Turner? It is a good tale to be sure, but there’s just one problem: primary source evidence shows that the jail that held Nat Turner was destroyed between November 1835 and May 1836.
Let us begin at the beginning. Clements Rochelle began construction of a jail (probably the third) for Southampton County in 1824, about seven years prior to Turner’s arrest. A commission appointed by the county court contracted with Rochelle to build a 36’ x 18’ 2-story replacement for the 1802 county jail building, which was in a “state of decay.”
As early as May 1825, however, the county jail inspectors were reporting that Rochelle’s building was “not in good repair” and was “not well supplied with bars and bolts, and [had] only one lock in the whole of the building which answers to the purpose for which it was intended.” Things did not improve by October 1826, when the jail inspectors related that a prisoner named Henry Hark escaped because there was no padlock to secure the trap door to the prisoners’ space. The complaints about the lack of proper bolts, bars, and locks are repeated in subsequent jail inspectors’ reports through July 1831.
The 1824 jail received several improvements in 1825, including metal grates on the windows
Southampton Co., Jail report, April 1825, Barcode # 1119714, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.
Conditions in the jail appear to have improved in the aftermath of the Turner uprising, with jail inspectors referencing appropriate “bars, bolts, and locks” in reports in 1833, 1834, and 1835. The jail inspection reports in the court papers related to public buildings for Southampton County (LVA Barcode # 1119714) abruptly stop after November 1835. The next document from May 1836 lays out specifications for a new jail building to be built “precisely on the old [jail’s] foundation.” So what happened to the 1824 jail building?
The Southampton County Order Book, 1835-1839 (Reel 30), helps to illuminate what happened (pages 138-139). After letting the contract for a new jail in April 1836 (Order Book, 1835-1839, p. 91), the court notes on July 18, 1836, that it “authorized the undertaker [contractor] to make use of the old iron grates & nails belonging to the old jail if not rendered unfit by the recent burning.”
So, the jail that held Nat Turner in 1831 burned down in the mid-1830s, making it highly unlikely that the 18” x 13” double-keyed lock given to the Library in 1923 is what it was purported to be. Later events seem to drive home that fact. The Southampton County jail built in 1836 rotted at the sills by 1849 and the jail inspectors deemed it “unfit for use” by 1850. The county sold the 1836 jail’s salvageable portions in November 1850 and contracted a new jail building.
Sometime in December 1861, prisoners burned down the Southampton County jail and the court opted to delay rebuilding due to the county seat’s proximity to the “Blackwater Line” during the Civil War. The county did not build its next jail until August of 1867.
Southampton County Jail inspection report, ca. 1862, indicating that prisoners burned the jail at night sometime in December 1861
This series of events documented in the court papers of Southampton County casts considerable doubt on the provenance of the lock. But what does the lock itself tell us? Well, thanks to our colleagues at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, we were able to peek inside and get expert opinions.
In early May, I took the lock over to the VDHR offices where Kate Ridgway and Chelsea Blake x-rayed it using their in-house equipment. In Ms. Ridgway’s opinion, there were no obvious signs that the metal had been through a fire. The x-ray images made the lock’s mechanism visible, which provided additional information to the next expert who graciously agreed to assist us, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s master blacksmith, Ken Schwarz.
After reviewing the x-rays and several images of the lock, Mr. Schwarz said that the “interior mechanism looks like a mechanism developed about 1830 and in use into the late 19th century. There are similar, although not identical locks in the 1865 Russell and Erwin catalog.” Would the rural jail building in Jerusalem have had a newly developed lock? While it looks exactly like the type of lock we associate with prisons in the 20th century, would this type of lock be typical in a small county jail in the 1830s? Some additional expert input gives us some context.
I sent contemporary images of the lock and a scanned page from Henry Irving Tragle’s The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831, a Compilation of Source Material (University of Massachusetts Press, 1971) showing the lock and the building it has long been associated with to retired Colonial Williamsburg Foundation architectural historian Dr. Carl Lounsbury for his opinion. I relayed that the jail specifications in the county court papers did not align with the image of the jail alleged to have held Turner.
Dr. Lounsbury felt that it was “absolutely correct [to doubt] the attribution of the two-story frame building as the jail that was in use in 1831.” By his analysis, “the door is in the wrong place, the windows are oddly located, and there is a chimney on one gable end. None of these fit the kinds of jails that I have recorded or seen in [the Library’s records] from that period of time. Could it have been a store from the mid-19th century? As far as the lock, usually, jails had padlocks on them, not iron rim locks.”
According to county court documents, there was a store building(s) on or near the public square in Jerusalem and most references to locks in the jail inspection reports specifically refer to padlocks or “stock locks.”
The 1831 uprising led by Nat Turner in Southampton County had a profound effect and lingering impact on American history. It legitimized white folks’ long-simmering suspicion that the Black people who they enslaved wanted to kill them. Their retaliation for the uprising was swift and brutal. Severe crackdowns in legal, social, and religious freedoms for free Black and enslaved individuals followed the Southampton rebellion and ultimately helped tumble the country toward the bloody conflict of 1861-1865.
As often happens after a tragedy, some people fetishized and passed down items associated with the Turner revolt through the years. Grisly mementos, like pieces of rope allegedly used to hang the conspirators, the sword purportedly used by Turner, and perhaps most gruesome of all, Turner’s skull, made their way through generations of white families and predominantly white institutions. Often, such items are a mixture of the real, the misidentified, and the outright fake.
Given how the lock (and lost key) came into the Library’s collection, it likely falls into that middle category. Perhaps it came from one of the Southampton County jails and was presumed to be from the time of Turner’s arrest. Maybe Mr. Cobb got it from someone who heard a story from a family member, who had gotten the story from some family elder generations before. You know how that goes – “George Washington slept here.”
No matter the lock’s provenance, what has been invaluable is again witnessing the collective power of the work that we do. For me, the combination of access and research in preserved 19th-century court records (Go CCRP!), digital access to and keyword searchability of historic newspapers (Yay, VNP!), and the collegiality and seemingly inexhaustible expertise of colleagues from state government and private cultural resource institutions all leveraged to solve a history mystery is the real treasure.