Old Salem Jail in Salem, Massachusetts

The old Salem jail, also known as the Essex County Jail, is a historic jail in Salem, Massachusetts located next to the Howard Street Cemetery.

The jail was built between 1811 – 1813 on St. Peter Street after the old wooden jail on Federal Street, known as the Salem Witch Jail because it housed the accused witches in 1692, became too small to serve its purpose.

The jail is constructed out of Rockport granite blocks and originally measured 38 feet wide by 64 feet tall. It featured a hip roof and pavilions that projected slightly from each side wall and was designed to house 112 inmates.

In addition to the jail, a three-story brick jailer’s house, or sheriff’s house, was also constructed next to the jail in 1813.

It is not known who designed the jail but the principal mason on the construction project was David Robbins while Joseph Edwards supervised the construction. The construction cost totaled $80,000.

In 1884, the jail was remodeled and expanded, under the direction of architect Rufus Sargent, when the west wing was constructed. The expansion increased the jail’s capacity to 150 inmates.

Old Salem Jail, photo published in the Illustrated History of Salem and Environs, circa 1897
Old Salem Jail, photo published in the Illustrated History of Salem and Environs, circa 1897

The construction dates for both the original construction and the expansion are engraved at the top of pediments on the south side of the building.

During the 19th century, public executions were held in front of the jail. Some of these executions included the hanging of convicted murderers Frank Knapp and Joseph Knapp, who were convicted in the brutal murder of a local sea captain, Captain Joseph White, in 1830. Another man, Richard Crowninshield, was also accused of taking part in that murder but hanged himself in his cell in the jail before he could be tried.

Over the centuries, the jail continued to be overcrowded and was never updated with modern facilities like electricity or individual plumbing in the jail cells. As a result, the inmates were forced to use buckets as chamberpots in their cells.

In July of 1980, a small riot broke out during which six prisoners dumped their buckets onto the floor of the jail.

In 1984, several inmates successfully sued the county for inadequate living conditions due to the lack of plumbing and other modern amenities.

Old Salem Jail, Salem, Mass
The front of the old Salem Jail, Salem, Mass

As a result, in 1991, a judge ordered the jail closed and a new $53 million jail was constructed for the county in Middleton.

When the prisoners were being removed from the old jail, a riot broke out during which prisoners threw food, lit trash cans on fire and threw urine-filled buckets throughout the jail.

When the jail closed in 1991, it was the oldest active penitentiary in the U.S. at the time.

The building remained vacant for many years, during which trespassers frequently broke in, vandalized the building and stole items from the jail. In 1999, a fire broke out in the jailer’s house but it was quickly contained.

The old Salem jail and a cast iron fence that surrounds the property in Salem, Mass
The old Salem jail and a cast iron fence that surrounds the property in Salem, Mass

On February 2, 2000, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts conveyed the building to the City of Salem.

On October 26, 2004 the City of Salem conveyed the building to the Salem Redevelopment Authority and a preservation restriction was established for the building.

On April 8, 2009, the Salem Redevelopment Authority conveyed the property to Old Salem Jail Ventures, LLC,. In May of that year, construction began on turning the old jail into an apartment building with 36 apartments as well as a restaurant on the bottom floor.

The jailer’s house was subdivided into three apartments and the reconstructed carriage house had one apartment and a small museum dedicated to the jail’s history.

The old Salem jail in Salem, Mass
A wing of the old Salem jail, Salem, Mass

In 2016, the property was sold to Iron Bar LLC who opened a new eatery in the restaurant, a barcade called Bit Bar, and planned to construct a fourth building with 14 more apartments. In 2021, Bit Bar relocated to Derby Street when it outgrew its space at the old jail.

Baltursis, Sam. Wicked Salem: Exploring Lingering Lore and Legends. Globe Pequot, 2019.
Enfinger, Dana. “New Boston Changing Old Salem Jail Plan.” Multifamily Executive, 1 March. 2008, multifamilyexecutive.com/design-development/renovations/new-boston-changing-old-salem-jail-plan_o
Bertuca, Tony. “The Legend of Salem Jail.” Corrections, 18 July. 2005, corrections.com/articles/5268-the-legend-of-salem-jail
Wagner, E.J. “A Murder in Salem.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2010, smithsonianmag.com/history/a-murder-in-salem-64885035/
“Essex County Jail.” MACRIS, Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System, Massachusetts Historical Commission, mhc-macris.net/Details.aspx?MhcId=SAL.2416

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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