The old Chambers County Jail in LaFayette, Alabama, is gone but not forgotten.
Chambers County, located in the east-central part of Alabama and sharing a border with the state of Georgia, was formed in late 1832. Just 13 years after the former Alabama Territory joined the union, land that was originally Creek (Muscogee) Indian territory was settled, primarily by pioneers from neighboring states.
The county’s economy has long been linked to cotton and textile manufacturing.
According to an article on the Alabama Pioneers website, by October 1833 the new county officials had settled on the location of a county seat (named LaFayette eventually), and plotted out a town on 160 acres set aside by the U.S. Congress for that purpose.
Courthouse and jail
After surveying and deciding on locations for a courthouse and jail, the remaining parcels were sold to raise funds to build those essential structures, so it was not necessary to tax the new residents for this purpose, according to an article in the Fall 1942 issue of the Alabama Historical Quarterly.
The new town was in a forested area, and a temporary courthouse said to have been 20-feet square, was built with pine poles. It had a dirt floor with the judge’s seat on a raised platform at one end of the building. This crude structure served the community for about two years until, in 1836, a larger courthouse was built in the town square that planners set aside for this purpose.
In 1899, however, an even finer new Chambers County Courthouse was built, at a cost of $30,000 (equivalent to about $930,000 in 2019). The clock that formerly graced the 1836 courthouse was incorporated into the design of the 1899 structure which is said to be “virtually unaltered” from the time it was built and “one of the most intact courthouse squares” remaining in the state of Alabama. This courthouse still stands and it and surrounding areas have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The original log jail was described as having been put together with long iron spikes, although it was later reconstructed from brick, both inside and out, and was in use until 1955.
According to an article in The LaFayette Sun, the old jail was located almost directly behind the current jail, “and featured a hanging gallows which was used as needed.”
Today’s Chambers County jail (now known as the James C. Morgan Chambers County Detention Facility) has none of the architectural styling of the old jail. It is located about two blocks west of the courthouse square and currently undergoing an expansion to accommodate more inmates.
- A prominent feature in the Courthouse Square is a statue of Joe Louis, world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, who was born in LaFayette in 1914.
- A popular ghost story in LaFayette is a claim that local residents have seen a strange mist rising up in Courthouse Square near the Joe Louis Statue. The mist is said to form a shape, then disappears.
- Famous Sheriff Pat Garrett, the lawman who killed the outlaw known as Billy the Kid, was born in the Chambers County town of Cusseta in 1850.
- Scenes from 1988’s Mississippi Burning were filmed in the Chambers County Courthouse Square.
- Death Penalty USA records only one execution in Chambers County between 1861 and 1925, the hanging of Ben Moore, a black man found guilty of murder, on June 8, 1923. Between 1812 and 1860, the same organization lists five hangings in Chambers County. The first, in 1845, was a white man named Joseph Boggs, convicted of murder. The remaining four, between 1850 and 1857, were all black slaves. Only one conviction (for murder) was listed; the reason for hanging the other three is not recorded. No first names were recorded for the slaves who were hung; their last names were Avery, McCantay, Reed and Scott.
- After 1927, the State of Alabama took over executions from the counties and began the use of electrocution. Between 1926 and 1965, two men from Chambers County were executed, both after convictions for murder – John Burchfield, a white man, in 1928, and Brooks Booker, a black man, in 1947.
- There were no executions in Alabama from 1966 to 1983, because of a moratorium imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court. When they resumed in 1983, lethal injection was used instead of electrocution. As of May 30, 2019, 66 individuals have been executed in Alabama since 1983. Available records do not show whether any of these individuals were from Chambers County.
- Three victims of lynchings in Chambers County are included on a list of more than 300 African-Americans memorialized at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018. These are Jeff N. Rogers, February 2, 1884; John Fitch, Sept. 18, 1896; and John Anderson, Oct. 24, 1898.