If you got the reference in my title as a Pratchett fan, you may be expecting dragons and the Night Watch. Not quite. This story started with the search for a cornerstone. During the process of putting together items for the upcoming Russell Library exhibition on Russell Auditorium, I went back to the stacks to search for the mythical Russell Auditorium Cornerstone. Little did I know that I should not be looking for a physical cornerstone but rather a box filled with items from the cornerstone time capsule discovered by Dr. Bob Wilson and unearthed by the Physical Plant staff in October 1996. To hear the rest of the story of the cornerstone, come visit the Special Collections exhibit on the second floor of the Russell Library.
In the search for this so-called stone, I stumbled upon a box with a brick — yes, a literal brick — labelled as coming from the Prison Courtyard during renovations during 2005-2006. Since the box label stated Dr. Bob to be the donor, I inevitably sought him out to ask him. Turns out that this little brick is part of a much larger story encompassing the slice of Milledgeville history that is the penitentiary.
As has been talked about on this blog before (our first post in fact!), the penitentiary began accepting prisoners in 1817 and existed well into the 1880s. After being engulfed in flames in 1864, supposedly by the prisoners who were let out in the hopes that they would fight to defend their city from the incoming Union General — William Sherman. To no one’s surprise, the prisoners didn’t, and the penitentiary was rebuilt to accomodate even more prisoners until the 1880s, dampened by the convict lease system instituted in 1868 and the establishment of a state prison farm with state prison warden two miles west of Milledgeville in 1897. So the story goes that the land appropriated to the prison became the land of G.N. & I.C. leading the students to sit among the spirits of the state prisoners, even leading to ghost stories of prisoners spirits shaking the green shutters of the Bell Hall Annex (Hair).
But, for some students at G.N. & I.C. and GCSW, their studies took place among more than spirits. The brick, as told by Dr. Bob, was part of a building that was part of the penitentiary built after the Civil War debacle in 1867, but prior to the eventual turn to decay and disuse in the 1880s. Our brick belonged to the foundation of an unassuming white house that sat beside Chappell Hall. The small brick structure was painted white and had a slanted roof, located next to Chappell Hall facing out to Clark Street until roughly 1937. It was called the Kemp House and belonged to the class of structure which we don’t see denoted on maps of the Penitentiary or in photo evidence – prison guard houses.
It is particularly difficult to find these buildings in history books. If we look at the map above, you’ll notice that the guard houses do not have a place among the recorded buildings on this restructured map. Dr. Bonner does not speak of guard houses in his history of Milledgeville, and there are few to no pictures of the Kemp House in existence in its original use as a guard house. In fact, photos of extant guard houses from throughout Milledgeville history seem almost impossible to come by.
Prison guards are the forgotten men of the State Penitentiary. With all the stories of prisoners burning the prison and haunting the Georgia College campus, we seem to forget the guard force there to keep prisoners in line. As of 1820, the penitentiary had twenty-four guards – four non-commissioned officers and twenty privates (Bonner 307). The privates were given an annual compensation of $180, and wore the same uniform, followed the same rules, and felt the same discipline as the State Militia (307). Advertisements for prison guard recruits occurred as early as December 1817 in The Reflector (a Milledgeville newspaper publishing from 1817-1819) where the Officer of the Guards asked for “eight or ten young men (without families) as an additional number to the present Penitentiary Guard, who shall receive fifteen dollars per month, cash, for their service, to be paid quarterly, and will be furnished with good clothing, rations and lodging. Recommendations will be required of persons wishing to join the guard, as none but sober and respectable men can be admitted” (“Wanted”). These guards were managed originally by a Board of Inspectors, a board of nine appointed by the General Assembly, comprising the Principal Keeper, the Turnkey, and one deputy for every ten convicts.
Despite mentioning these guards, their rations, and their salaries, articles again fail to discuss their homes. While Dr. J.C. Bonner includes information on the expansion of prison workshops, the masonry building, and the cell blocks, he does not mention any guard homes. However, I thought I would look into old, unrecorded Milledgeville lore and ask Dr. Bob for any other details he could provide about the brick.
According to Dr. Bob, there could be upwards of three guard houses floating around Milledgeville after they were moved from the Georgia College campus. The Kemp House is easily tracked in photographs of Chappell up until 1937, and used as overflow for the Peabody School throughout the 20s and 30s. Perhaps the school age children who attended Peabody would be amused by the fact that their schoolroom was quite literally a
former part of prison. Dr. Bob estimates from interviews with those local to the area that the house was not demolished, but in fact moved from its location on campus to another, undisclosed location “across the river.” The other two houses are either phantoms or merely thought to possibly be guard houses. Two houses around town that bear the possible markings of being guard houses have unfortunately never been inspected to see if that possibility holds muster.
Either way, it seems that our only connection to these phantom houses for this mass of men can be found in our little brick. As we unravel this mystery, it is humbling to note how tenuous our telling of history can be.
Bonner, James C., “The Georgia Penitentiary at Milledgeville 1817-1874,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 55, no. 3 (1971): 303-328.
Hair, William Ivy, James C. Bonner, Edward B. Dawson, and Robert J. Wilson III. A Centennial History of Georgia College, University of Georgia Printing Department, 1979, Print.
Kemp House Brick. Robert J. Wilson III collection, Special Collections, Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College.
“Wanted Immediately,” Milledgeville Reflector, pp. 3, 23 Dec. 1817. Georgia Newspaper Project.