On Tuesday I wrote about the museum at the 18th Century town of Halifax, North Carolina, urging everyone on the dreadfully dull I-95 corridor to stop and take advantage of the site (but not to let their children use the dugout canoe as a skateboard ramp for stuffed animals). Today, as the town celebrates the 236th anniversary of the Halifax Resolution, I wanted to share some information from the outbuildings at the site, namely, the jail and the Eagle Tavern.
The jail was still in the process of restoration when we toured it years ago, so the displays were limited and my kids found the most interesting feature to be the trap door in the floor. Since it wasn’t set on hinges, they couldn’t get it closed properly after they opened it, and I think they were desperately afraid the history site police would swoop in on them and lock them up in a 21st Century jail. Lest readers be kept in suspense unnecessarily, I will hasten to add that the children did accompany me the rest of the way home on I-95 and are not moldering away in a rural prison dedicated to the incarceration of those who tamper with historical exhibits.
But I did learn some interesting facts about incarceration in the 18th Century, at least. Inmates had to supply not only their own clothes, but also their own linens and bedclothes. That doesn’t sound too bad, but if they were placed in irons, they had to pay for the metal, they had to pay for the blacksmith’s labor to make the manacles, and they had to pay for his labor each time the irons were put on and removed. If a prisoner was hanged, he paid for the rope, coffin and the effort to dig a hole for it. Prisoners’ goods would be sold to meet these expenses, and if that didn’t raise enough money, only then would the state step in to pick up the tab. As a rule, long-term incarceration was not a common penalty in the 18th Century. Instead of spending years in jail, a horse thief might have his ears nails to a pillory and cut off, have both his cheeks branded, and then his back whipped with 39 lashes. It all sounded a little medieval to me, but the museum curators assured me that these penalties were on the books in the late 18th or early 19th Centuries.
Te food and drink for prisoners often came from the local tavern keeper. Taverns were much more multifunctional than they are today. A tavern was not simply a place to sample the local ale. Patrons could pick up mail, spend the night, care for their horses, buy jewelry or visit the doctor. Merchants and professionals such as doctors, dentists and lawyers frequently set up shop in the corner of a tavern. But despite all this activity, taverns typically looked just like a residential house. A 1767 law required tavern keepers to erect a sizeable sign so that passers by could distinguish between public establishments and private houses. It also enabled the government to more readily spot taverns selling liquor without a license.
In some counties, up to 20% of the tavern licenses were held by women, so it was not uncommon for your host to in fact be a hostess. About half of the license holders were widows who kept the license after their husbands passed away, and many of these women only held the licenses for a few years. But the extent of the practice shows that tavern keeping was not a disreputable trade for a woman.
The Eagle Tavern in Halifax is a confusing restoration. As near as I could tell, the building that is now restored and filled with interesting and informative (and air-conditioned) displays was a late 18th Century addition to a tavern that stood on another site down the street. Local tradition holds that George Washington dined in the tavern when he visited the town in 1791, but I’m not sure whether he dined in this addition or the earlier building or one of the eleven other tavern sites in town, all of which seemed to change names every few years. While Washington left no specific comments on the quality of the food to be found at the Halifax tavern(s), the site quotes some other patrons, who are hopefully talking about different taverns. “[A] worse meal we thought impossible to find,” writes Capt. Basil Hall “till dinner time came around and showed us the extent of our miscalculations.” Another traveler complained of provisions so bad that “even the horse would have been a fool to eat.”
So if they didn’t come for the food, or the deluxe accommodations (we’ve all heard the stories about tavern patrons forced to share a bed with four strangers and countless lice), why did they come? Well, some taverns advertised “a show of cocks.” But it was not the colonial red light district. These were gamecocks, because “sports of the pit” were quite popular. In addition to betting on fighting poultry, patrons bet on dice games such as hazard, billiards, draughts (checkers), backgammon, chess and skittles (I don’t know what these are, but presumably they are not fruit-flavored little candies). Playing cards of the time look much like they do today, except that there were no little numbers printed at the corners and the cards were printed o a thinner paper than the laminated stock used now. The Eagle Tavern had a card press on display, used to flatten cards after use. I thought that was pretty neat, and it looked portable and yet heavy enough to be considered a possible murder weapon in a game of Clue.
Can you tell what my daughter’s favorite game has been this summer? (I guess Captain Hall, in the billiard room, with the card press. And the victim? Well I guess it would have most likely been the chef.)
Most of the above information was first published on my website in 2006, but after we made a brief stop at Halifax last weekend, I decided to re-run the article because the site deserves more attention than it’s getting. Even if you stop by after the museum has closed for the day, you can still pick up a detailed map at the Visitors Center and stroll around the grounds reading about life in the old town. It’s a quick detour from the interstate, yet untold miles away in atmosphere. We strolled through fields of wildflowers where the only sounds were the hum of crickets and the chirp of birds.
And we played “Clue” on this last trip, too. Halifax isn’t the only place where things haven’t changed much in the last six years. Happy Halifax Day!
Here’s some information on the day’s events at Halifax: