Crime and Punishment Museum
The rootin' tootin' hoosegows of the 19th century Wild West have their fans. But in the 20th century, the prize for Most Colorful Prisons goes to the Deep South. Chain gangs, riots, executions -- the jails of Dixie had them all.
So Georgia's old Turner County Jail, now the Crime and Punishment Museum, has much to offer. It stands in the heart of downtown Ashburn, and was a lockup from the days of Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. According to Penny Baker, our tour guide from the Chamber of Commerce (which is just across the street), not much about it changed during its 87 years of operation.
Outside, the jail resembles an ordinary, albeit large, brick house. The sheriff and his family actually lived on the ground floor; the prisoners were confined in cells upstairs. This cozy arrangement ultimately led to the jail's demise in 1993.
"The sheriff had been up several times and told the unruly prisoners, 'You have got to quiet down,'" Penny recalled. The convicts responded by clogging their toilets and flooding the sheriff's home. The sheriff then locked the building, boarded up the jail's windows, and left the prisoners to stew in their own mess ("I think they were there about a week," said Penny). Eventually the state police arrived, took everyone away, and shut the place down.
Years of airing-out and vigorous scrubbing followed, and the jail-turned-museum is now dry and stink-free. Its first floor features exhibits such as a classic striped chain gang uniform and a warden's cat o' nine tails whip, with only three remaining tails ("It was used," Penny explained). Two metal basins with heavily corroded interiors -- the prison's latrines -- are labeled with dedications to a former sheriff.
There's a KKK outfit that was found in someone's attic, and an accurate replica of "Old Sparky," Georgia's electric chair. Penny said that visitors love to sit in the chair for snapshots. "That's why some of the parts on it have kinda gotten wore out."
The tour leads past the museum's Last Meal Cafe ("Desserts to die for"), through a solid steel door, and up a narrow staircase to the second floor. This is where the criminals were kept, in a large strap-steel cage, sectioned into cells, encircled by an indoor walkway with barred windows overlooking downtown.
Penny said that "visits" in the old jail consisted of relatives and convicts yelling to each other up and down the stairs.
Capacity was officially 40, but the cells could bulge with twice that number on a busy week, according to Penny. "Everything from murderers to rapists to drunks, you name it." Some of the graffiti left by women prisoners has been restored, Penny said, but the most obscene examples were not.
The tour's highlight is the jail's execution chamber, where noose-wearing convicts were dropped to their deaths through a trap door into the sheriff's office below.
The bloodstained collar of one of them, Miles Cribb, is framed and mounted on the wall behind a hangman's noose. "He shot his mother-in-law," Penny said. "It wasn't intentional. He really went to shoot his wife that had just left him."
The noose is new; Penny said that the original had been cut into one-inch sections that were sold for a dollar apiece to people who came to see the hanging.
Penny said that a local performer, "Cyndini," had raised funds by escaping from a straight jacket while hanging from the death hook.
And there's a reason why there's no dummy dangling in the noose.
"You never know with tourists, especially kids," Penny said. "You wouldn't want them walking in and seeing a dummy hanging there. We wanted to keep it lighthearted."