The Chain Gang and The Oconee County Cage

Posted by | May 5, 2016

Report on Oconee County Chain Gang
Mr. Newton Kelly Foreman: Visited July 11 1918
by Assistant Secretary Broyles

Convicts present: 16, 3 of them being trusties. All negroes. Camped about three miles from Seneca. The average daily population on this gang for the past two and a half years has been approximately 12. We found this camp just locating at a new site, which was fairly well chosen and well cleaned off.

 A Southern chain gang, between 1900 and 1906.

A Southern chain gang, between 1900 and 1906.

The men were washing ticks and blankets in a nearby stream under the direction of the foreman. Since our last inspection the Commissioners have provided new bedding for the convicts and have gotten slip covers for the cotton pads as previously recommended.

The pads have been in use over six months but they are clean and apparently new due to the use of these slip covers with which the foreman is very much pleased. The use of these slip covers has increased the score of the gang this year.

The absence of white men from the gang has further raised the score there being now no question of separation of the races either at work or in camp. The foreman stated to us that the authorities have decided to work no more whites on the chain gang but to send them to the Penitentiary or allow them to serve their sentences in jail. This is a wise decision.

The mule fly is badly torn and we recommend that the Supervisor purchase a new one. The Supervisor should keep in his office a careful record of the convict population showing the name, age, race, date of commitment, length of sentence, date of discharge and reason for the discharge; and finally, more medical attention to the gang should be provided for by paying the county physician a salary for, and requiring him to make, a physical examination of each new convict within 24 hours of his commitment to the gang, to vaccinate against smallpox when indicated, and to make weekly inspections of the convicts food quarters and especially the sanitary arrangements of the camp.

Oconee County Cage, used to house SC chain gangs in early 20th century.

Oconee County Cage, used to house SC chain gangs in early 20th century.

We recommend that the foreman have the blankets washed regularly every month, washing the ticks on the pads, at the same time that water and oil be put into the sewerage buckets every night when they are put into the cages; that the fecal matter thrown into the pit daily be covered immediately with about three inches of dirt and that this pit be burned out weekly with straw and oil, that the manure from the mule pen be raked up and piled daily and hauled away from camp weekly and scattered over a field, that kitchen slops be kept covered at all times, that every new convict be given clean blankets upon which to sleep and finally that the foreman secure a good book and keep a complete record of the convicts, showing in the book all the information asked for in the recommendation made above to the Supervisor, and in addition showing a description of the men with notes on characteristic scars, etc. which would help to locate or identify him should he escape.

The Quarterly bulletin, Volume 4 By South Carolina. State Board of Charities and Corrections

The Oconee County Chain Gang Report
Made July 13 1920

The Oconee County chain gang is not in as good condition as it was last year. Some of the reasons for the decreased score, however, are only temporary departures from the usual methods of the camp. Two sick men were confined in the cages at the time of this visit so that the beds could not be made up or properly aired. Foreman Cobb had also departed from his usual custom of having a pit for disposing of the sewage and was emptying the soil buckets out on the mountainside.

For the improvement of the camp it is suggested that a soil pit be dug that the buckets be emptied into it each day and that the waste be covered with at least three inches of earth, that the kitchen be screened to protect the food from flies, that each prisoner be given a separate tub of water to bathe in, that more washable covers for the mattresses be purchased and that the practice of allowing the prisoners to initiate new convicts be abolished in order to prevent bad blood among the men, as well as to avoid unwarranted punishment.

Quarterly Bulletin, Volumes 1-2 By South Carolina. State Board of Public Welfare

During the early twentieth century, it was not possible to return prisoners doing work in the most distant parts of Oconee County to the county jail at Walhalla every night.

The solution was the Oconee County Cage, or “Jail on Wheels,” a prison pulled by a team of horses.

While this treatment of prisoners seems horrible by today’s standards, it was hardly unusual for the early 1900s, and it was certainly far better than the treatment many prisoners received during the years before 1900.

Interior of Oconee County Cage, used to house SC chain gangs

Interior of Oconee County Cage, used to house SC chain gangs in early 20th century.

Although the cage is only fourteen feet long, eight feet wide, and seven feet high, there were four metal bunk beds of three tiers each inside for a total of twelve beds. A small metal barrel in the center of the floor was used for a fire on cold nights, and canvas covered the sides of the cage to protect the men from cold winds.

The men who worked on the roads in the county and who slept in the cage at night were often serving short sentences of less than two months. On weekends, their families sometimes visited them and brought small baskets of food from home. One man, who remembers visiting a relative assigned to the cage while performing county work, remarked that everyone including the guards would have lunch together on Sunday and talk about friends and local happenings.

In 1915, when the prisoners were working on the Oconee Station Road, they were fed fried bacon, biscuits and syrup, and coffee for breakfast; cabbage, bacon, and cornbread for lunch; and fried bacon, biscuits and syrup for supper. This diet was probably standard at that period.

After the county acquired gasoline powered trucks and machinery in the 1930s and built a county stockade (prison), the cage ceased to be used. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Sources: The Quarterly bulletin, Volume 4 1918 By South Carolina. State Board of Charities and Corrections
The Quarterly bulletin, Volume 1-2 1920 By South Carolina. State Board of Charities and Corrections

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