Ribbons of peeling lead paint hang from the ceilings. Broken glass litters a hallway floor. And graffiti covers the walls of the dark, cramped jail cells – a window into the minds of the prisoners held there in the 1960s.
Under a sketch of a cross, an inmate wrote: “Eight men, four women give me this time, but when I get out, I’ll walk the chalk line. But God bless the power of Love. Jack Tank will survive this 7 to 10.”
Perched atop the 1920s-era courthouse on Trade Street – above its expanses of polished marble, not far from the offices where Mecklenburg County prosecutors build their cases against modern-day felons – lurks a hidden piece of Charlotte history.
I don’t know what Folsom Prison looked like when Johnny Cash visited. But I’d like to think it looked something like this once did.
Meghan McDonald, spokesperson for the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s office, said, referring to the old county jail.
The old county jail was emptied and all but abandoned a half century ago. It remains there, largely untouched.
It isn’t open to the public. But on a recent weekday, a spokesperson for the county District Attorney’s office escorted an Observer reporter and photographer to the courthouse’s rarely visited fourth floor.
After leaving the elevator, she pushed open a door with heavy steel bars and revealed a virtual time capsule.
Little has been written about the old jail in recent decades. But the graffiti inside spoke volumes.
After being sentenced to 25 years for bank robbery, a prisoner apparently turned to a jailhouse wall to record his reaction. “Did I s---? Yes I did,” the inmate wrote. “But I can make it. I hope I can. I am 22 years old.”
A second inmate counted off his 30 days with hash marks.
Still another prisoner used graffiti to ponder a question of faith. “Is God’s work to be question? Did Jesus have enough love for himself only?” the inmate asked.
In smaller letters, another inmate answered those questions: “Obviously so. I am still in here.”
Meghan McDonald, the DA’s spokesperson, said one of the supervisors in her office quipped that the the place “looks like a Johnny Cash song.”
“I don’t know what Folsom Prison looked like when Johnny Cash visited,” McDonald said, referring to a popular Cash song. “But I’d like to think it looked something like this once did.”
Home to the infamous
The old jail – along with the elegant, Neoclassical courthouse beneath it – opened with fanfare 89 years ago, about a year before the Great Depression.
County commissioners had instructed the architect to place the jail atop the three-story courthouse. “Only in this way could they assuage the fears of nearby residents concerning the proximity of the jail,” according to a 1977 report by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
On March 10, 1928, Charlotteans flocked to the grand opening of the $1.25 million courthouse. For those who toured the new building, the rooftop jail was the most popular attraction, the Charlotte Observer reported at the time.
Soon, it became a temporary home for some of Charlotte’s most famous scoundrels.
Cotton heir George King Cutter had a bed there for three months in the summer of 1961 between the time he was arrested and tried for the murder of his longtime paramour, Delette Nycum.
Cutter had outfitted an old bus as their love nest, complete with beds and a bar, and kept it in a shed near the airport. They went there on July 4, 1961 for a tryst, and Nycum was beaten to death. Cutter went to trial in September, one of the most sensational in Charlotte history, and despite a mound of circumstantial evidence, he was acquitted. He never returned to the jail, dying in disgrace four years later at age 53.
Monroe Medlin was jailed there in 1949. After he was abruptly fired as the butler to the Esley Anderson home in the 1100 block of Queens Road in Myers Park, Medlin returned to collect his things.
He went to speak one last time with Virginia Anderson, who retrieved her husband’s shotgun and ordered him to leave. A struggle over the shotgun left Anderson dead on the floor before Medlin ran away with some jewelry from the house.
Medlin was convicted and died in the gas chamber of Central Prison three months after the slaying.
‘A dingy, dark place’
Even by the standards of the 1960s, the old Mecklenburg County jail was primitive, according to several who visited it. Life inside was crowded, hot and dull.
The two-person cells were just seven feet by five feet. The eight-person cells were the size of a typical kitchen. None of them had windows.
In a 1964 letter to an Observer reporter, one of the jail’s inmates wrote that the toilets were often stopped up and that “cockroaches as big as your thumb crawl all over you at night.”
For all four decades it was in operation, the jail was racially segregated. The county didn’t begin integrating its jails until the 1970s.
The old jail could hold 170 inmates, according to a 1964 story in the Observer. At the time, it employed 12 jailers, who earned roughly $100 a week.
There was a lot those jailers didn’t see. Inmates then – much like those in state prisons today – sometimes dismantled pieces of glass, steel and iron from the jail and turned them into dangerous weapons. Occasionally, inmates escaped.
Retired District Court Judge Tom Moore was a young defense lawyer in the 1960s when he visited indigent clients at the jail.
“It was hot,” he recalled. “There was no AC. It was awful.”
Former Mecklenburg District Attorney Peter Gilchrist remembers visiting a friend there who had been wrongly accused of rape in the 1960s.
“It was, of course, a dingy, dark place,” said Gilchrist, who in those days was working as an accountant.
‘A person could lose all hope’
The jail remained in operation until 1969, when the county moved its prisoners to newer quarters.
County officials later began using part of the old jail to store aging files. But most of the old jail remained untouched – an anomaly in a city where new development often obliterates history.
“I love that we still have a piece of 1920s Charlotte,” McDonald said.
McDonald occasionally gives tours of the jail to new prosecutors. But the lead paint and limited accessibility mean that it likely will not be opened to the public, she said.
County commissioner Pat Cotham is among the few who have seen it firsthand. She recalls touring the district attorney’s offices in 2013 when DA Andrew Murray asked: “Hey, do you want to see something interesting?”
Murray took her to the fourth floor. What she saw there, she says, shocked her to her core.
“It looked like a place where a person could lose all hope and be forgotten,” she said.
Cotham said she’d previously been unaware the old jail was up there. Other local officials were, too, she said.
“It was kind of hidden,” Cotham said. “I guess I wondered: ‘Are we hiding it because we want to dust it under the rug? Because we don’t want to remember?’”
Photos and video by Diedra Laird.
Staff researcher Maria David contributed.