Warrenton Old Jail Museum

By Posted on Nov 01 2015 | By

Living large not in the cards for yesteryears bad boys

The year was 1808 and the bandit was being hosted at the new jail in Warrenton. But unlike the town’s previous five jails this structure had four separate cells instead of just one.

What it didn’t have was furniture, heat or a jailer. The sheriff simply the tossed the miscreant into a small dirt floor cell and apparently fed him whenever the opportunity arose.

If crime paid back in those days, it came with a potentially high price in misery.

Warrenton Old JailThen in 1823, a form of local prison reform resulted in a second building being added to the eventual prison complex. Prisoners now had all the comforts of home; wooden floors, a wood burning stove and an attentive jailer who lived in the original jail building and provided home cooked meals. Home cooked. Not gourmet.

The jail went on to enjoy a 143 year run of hosting Fauquier County’s hall of shame members before closing in 1966. The “new” jail, off Lee Street, has been in operation for almost 50 years.

We know all these details and much more because of a long line of paid and volunteer members of the community who have slowly brought the old jail back to life.

The most recent and current “guardian angel” of the hoosegow is Teresa Reynolds, director of the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail.

“We came in when the buildings were empty. We reverted the kitchen back to 1823 conditions. When visitors come today, they actually see the original walls, floors, cooking hearth and pots.

“The cells themselves were reverted to the early years to let visitors get a good idea of what the original cells felt like,” Reynolds said.

The restoration started in the early 1970s and has patiently and faithfully brought the entire prison complex back to life.

Exhibits and more
In addition to reliving the life of incarceration in the 1800 and 1900s, the old jail has other fascinating exhibits. Upstairs in what is called the War Room there is a tent exhibit showcasing medical treatment during the Civil War. It contains surgical implements and other items used to treat soldiers.

“We explain how people died during the war; most people died from illness not gunshot wounds. They had septic, bad water and bad food conditions,” Reynolds said.

In the back building there are exhibits on the history of the local wine industry, 19th century hand tools, pre-automobile transportation and African American schools.

There were 37 African American schools in Fauquier in the 1900s. There is also an exhibit on the Underground Railroad that was used to secret runaway slaves to safety in the North.

To further bring history to life historians are periodically invited to give talks at the museum. Such past events covered the War of 1812, World War II and John Mosby.

There is a small admission fee to the Old Jail; $2 for adults and $1 for students, ages 11 to 18. The modest fees help cover the cost of operating the museum. “Less than 25 percent of our operating funds come from the county and town. The rest we have to earn ourselves to keep our doors open,” Reynolds said.

Warrenton Old Jail IIThe Old Jail is located at 10 Ashby Street and is opened six days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Tuesdays. Visit its website at for information on its tours, exhibits, gift shop and more.

                                         Spooky tours

One of the most popular programs the Old Jail hosts sponsors is its annual ghost tour. The tour starts in the museum with period costumed docents sharing stories about suspicious paranormal activity in the jail. It then moves on with a walking tour down Main Street where a variety of spooky stories are brought to life by the knowledgeable guides.

“There have been some bad people and odd things that have happened in town and we share that with the visitors,” Teresa Reynolds said.

The tour ends back at the old jail where everyone enjoys hot cider and tasty treats. The tours will be held this year every half hour from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on October 16-17 and October 23-24.

Reynolds encourages the interested public to sign up early for a tour. “All them are sold out every year,” Reynolds said.


Published in the Fall 2015 edition of inFauquier magazine.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES