All photographs are copyright Heather Counselman and cannnot be duplicated or copied without explicit written permission.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bye-Bye, Salem Jail (Part I)

Salem Jail
Salem, Massachusetts
Summer 2007 - Winter 2009

Originally built in 1813, this historic granite jail is unofficially no more as of December 2009.
I have been photographing the jail since 2007 and more frequently upon the start of demolition last year. Having lived in Salem for roughly 3 years, it was not only convenient but a truly fascinating place to photograph. However odd, it was the place I went to unwind, relax and sometimes just be by shoot of course. I'm not chilling in a cell, laid back reading a book, people. Although many claim it as the most haunted place in Salem, I never saw or felt anything unusual; on the contrary I was actually quite comfortable there. Frankly, it's both disturbing and sad that this jail is no more.

The first time I ever set foot in the jail was with a friends very beloved Nikon D70. No pressure.I was more worried about killing this persons fantastic piece of equipment than I was getting caught. I'm just gonna jump this rusty iron fence and gracefully try not to impale myself or get a shoe caught and have the nuns next door find me hanging from shoes, upside down with iron grating slapped across my face. As my grandmother would say, "Jesus, Joseph and Mary".....that would suck. My grandmother is a nice lady, she didn't say that last part, I was improvising.

Moving on.......Over the fence and into the graveyard we go.
I later discovered that a much easier way to enter through the graveyard was through Howard Street.....hey there's a fence that operates! Yet another discovery: they ticket! We'll call it my admittance fee for the day. Although there are warning signs covering almost every inch of the jail, there was never a time I was accosted by the cops. Or anyone else for that matter. It's also probably the most accessible abandoned building, even if it does loom over one of the most busy intersections in Salem. I recently read a fellow urban explorer's blog who had also photographed the Salem Jail, but only from the outside. They stated they could not bring themselves to photograph the inside for 2 reasons: fear of being arrested and fear of ghosts. I think they may want to revisit the definition of urban explorer. Sorry, but the tours that pass by the Salem Jail get better shots. Find your balls and some wire cutters and realize ghosts can't hurt you. So, grab your camera and Proton Pack and get out there! (yes, that was a Ghost Busters reference).

After cutting a sizable hole in the wire fence adjacent to the jail, I perused the property for a bit and made repeated attempts to jump and scuffle my way into an open window, much like the one to the right. Thinking back, if anyone was in fact watching, this must have been hysterical. A week later, I brought a taller friend who shoved me through the window. Unfortunately, height was something not included in my genetic makeup, which is why I make friends with people 5"9 and up. I landed on a platform between the first and second floors that connected what appeared to be a mess hall and the first series of jail cells. It surprised me that the jail was still in operation up until 1991; surprising because there is NO indoor plumbing (yee-haw!) and the minuscule size of the cells itself. I'm 5'2 and could not lay diagonally across the cell. It seemed like hell, even after being abandoned for over 10 years.

At the end of each stretch of cells were guard posts, semi-circle in shape. I've heard stories from individuals who worked as guards in the jail's remaining years. They spoke about the debilitating conditions in the cells, it's history and the eeriness that enveloped the property, particularly late at night. One prisoner went completely nuts, claiming he had heard and seen things in his cell that couldn't possibly be real. The only part of the jail that felt anywhere near ominous was the basement. I took 4 steps into it and promptly walked right back out.

There are three floors, not counting the basement and very claustrophobic attic. Crammed along each floor are cells upon cells and more cells. It was hard to fathom being stuck in such a small space. There is obvious signs of renovation throughout the years. First built from wood and eventually from stone, debris from hundreds of years are evident. The largest section of the jail is the first floor mess hell, wide open and with larger windows overlooking what is now an intersection of Washington Street and the Salem-Beverly bridge freeway. The floor here is still wooden, rotting from use and age. Iron stairwells criss-cross along each entrance, leading to second and third floor cells in this massive jail that was considered the largest in the country during it's height of use.

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