Monday, July 4, 2022

Historic Burgwin-Wright House learns new history of the old city jail

Recent water repairs to the Burgwin-Wright House have revealed new historical information about the old 1700s city jail. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Recent water repairs to the Burgwin-Wright House have revealed new historical information about the old 1700s city jail. (Port City Daily photo /JOHANNA FEREBEE)

WILMINGTON — The Burgwin-Wright House sits atop the old city jail and, this month, the cells are seeing the light of day for the first time in centuries.

A repair project initiated by the Burgwin-Wright House to protect the historic water shelter has confirmed many previous uncertainties had by local historians.

The two cells were built with ballast stones and the bricks that were used after the Burgwin-Wright House was built had begun to deteriorate after extensive water damage.

Museum Director Christine Lamberton says the revelations from the excavations have confirmed the stories she has told visitors throughout the years.

Prisoners for sale

The 1770s jail cells were used in colonial days, where inmates were believed to be sized up for their labor to be purchased by the public.

Excavations of the surface of the old cells have confirmed that the jails were outdoor cells, which means the prisoners were certainly ogled at.

“In the center of town, people are being hanged systematically. We had whipping posts here, we had cages, we had stocks, pillories.” 


Lamberton says that the museum does not know an exact number of prisoners that would be at the jail at any given time.

However, she could confirm that jailers had no problem packing in several prisoners into a single cell until it was full, with only a bucket as a bathroom.

“The fact that they have in the center of town two buildings dedicated to being a jail gives you a good idea that they needed it,” Lamberton said.

“This jail was built before there was a courthouse, before there was a single church, Wilmington was incorporated in 1739, so within four years they’re building a jail,” she said.

People would end up in the jails due to public drunkenness, thievery, or a number of grievances.

Less than 100 feet away is the historic public courtyard where people were hanged and slaves were traded in colonial days.

“In the center of town, people are being hanged systematically. We had whipping posts here, we had cages, we had stocks, pillories,” she said.

Lamberton says while she guides weddings through the gardens, the truth can surprise visitors unfamiliar with the courtyard’s history.

“They’re like, ‘Oh this is beautiful,'” she said. Lamberton has to tell them, “yeah, that’s where people were hanged.”

Visitors are welcome to tour the Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens while the jails are being excavated. The museum is open Tues. through Sun. 10 a.m. through 4 p.m.


Johanna Ferebee can be reached at johanna@localvoicemedia.com or @j__ferebee on Twitter

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