The County gallows was located in this area. The gallows was erected when needed then disassembled. It was a grim symbol of the ultimate price of lawbreaking. Gallows were widely used in America to execute the convicted.
In 19th-century Virginia, the courts' jurisdiction was in flux regarding capital punishment. By 1828, capital punishment cases involving white persons were tried in the circuit courts. Slaves and free blacks could still receive capital punishment from the county courts.
The Gallows in 1875
The scaffold is situated at the northwest corner of the Court House yard; it is built of heavy pine posts, five feet and a half apart, with the platform seven and a half feet from the ground; in front of the scaffold seats are arranged for the press within the enclosure surrounding the scaffold.
Alexandria Gazette, March 19, 1875
(caption under center picture) This engraving of John Brown's execution in Charleston, Virginia, 1859 depicts a gallows typical of that time period. The artist likely made his drawing from a group of seats reserved for the press.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, v.9, no. 211 (1859 Dec. 17), p. . Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Death by hanging was meant to be a rapid means of execution. A court-appointed hangman would secure a rope around the prisoner's neck. The other end of the rope was tied around a beam above the prisoner's head. A trap door in the platform was opened under the prisoner's feet, dropping him or her toward the ground. This action would usually break the person's neck quickly.
Punishment in the 1800s
A prisoner being sentenced to die on the gallows was a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. The most common sentences were fees or interment in the county jail. Also, whipping or "lashing" were common outcomes of guilty verdicts. A whipping post was also located in the Brentsville Public Lot. Citizens often attended public punishments. These events allowed people to show chagrin for the guilty. They were also painful reminders that law breakers would be punished.
(caption for picture in lower right) The Prince William County Minute Book of 1833-1836 records a sentence given to Henry (alias Harry) Parker on June 20, 1834. His punishment was carried out at Brentsville:
?he is guilty of simple Larceny. Therefore it is considered by the court that the sd Slave Harry do receive on his bare back thirty nine lashes, well laid on at the public whipping post, and that the Sheriff do execute this Judgment forthwith?