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Brentsville Jail: Murder and Scandal in 19th-Century Prince William

Story and Photos By Amy Falkofske

One hundred and forty-five years ago in 1872, the trial of the century took place right here in Prince William. Standing in the very room in the historic Brentsville jailhouse where it all happened, Bill Backus, historian for the Historic Preservation Division of the Prince William County Department of Public Works, tells the story.

Prince William Commonwealth Attorney James Clark, in his late twenties at the time, “becomes enamored with a local girl in Manassas. She happens to be 16. She also happens to be a very prominent member of the founding family of Manassas,” Backus said.

In love, the couple decides to leave Virginia, but they end up coming back. Shortly afterwards, Clark was arrested for kidnapping and brought to the Brentsville Jail to await his trial at the courthouse next door.

One day while the jailer was out, the girl’s brother, Lucien “Rhoda” Fewell, entered the jailhouse with two pistols. He aimed them through the iron door on Clark’s cell and started shooting. Clark threw things at the guns in hopes of disarming Fewell, but that didn’t work. Then he started running back and forth to
make himself a moving target. Despite all his efforts, Clark ended up getting shot by Fewell and died on Sept. 2, 1872.

Fewell got away at first, but was eventually caught and went to trial. The trial garnered national attention. “This blows up! You could read about this Virginia trial in California, New York, Ohio and Florida. It was usually front-page news,” according to Backus.

Fewell ended up being acquitted, with one jury member proclaiming that Clark got what was coming to him because Fewell was just “taking care of his sister’s honor.”

Renovations to the jail took five years to complete.

A Diverse History
Back then Brentsville was the county seat. Manassas didn’t become the county seat until 1893, after Brentsville was damaged during the Civil War. And that’s the reason the buildings, now known as the Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre, are able to be preserved today.

“It [moving the county seat to Manassas] hurt the town economically, but it also allows us, in 2017, to have these 1820s buildings still survive,” said Backus. “There’s no reason to modernize the courthouse, and there’s no reason to tear down the 1822 brick jail to rebuild and remodel,” he said.

Both the jail and the courthouse have served the community in a variety of ways since then. The courthouse was a college for teachers, and the jail was a dormitory until the 1900s. The jail would then become a private residence into the 1970s. After that, it would serve as office space for the Park Authority. In 2005, the Historic Preservation Division took over the site to restore it and preserve its history.

Renovations on the jail started in 2012 and finished up in the spring of this year. During the restoration, some of the 20th century alterations were reversed to make the jail as it was in the 19th century again. These included restoring the façade of the building and closing in windows that had been added. Restoration also included new flooring and wall framing as well as the addition of a stairwell typical of the 19th century.

The headstone of James Clark remains intact on site.

Future Exhibits Showcase History
Currently, the jail is empty except for the plans to restore it as an exhibit where visitors can take guided tours. “Ultimately when this building is complete, out of the eight rooms, four of them will be historically furnished, so you’ll get a sense of what this [jail] looked like when it was an actively used building,” Backus said.

Plans for the room where Clark was shot include installing a panel that will explain the story of Clark’s murder. The panel will have a button that you can push and hear gunshots and someone running back and forth across the room.

The other downstairs cell will focus on educating visitors about how the building was constructed. Faux bricks will be available for visitors to practice creating structures on their own. Backus said the purpose of that room will be to “engage with science, technology, engineering and mathematics and how those were all used in the 1820s to build the jail before there were computers or calculators.”

Two of the rooms upstairs were initially used to hold debtors. One of these rooms will be historically furnished once the exhibit is complete. The other one will explore some of the people who were held in debtors’ cells.

Back then, people with mental illnesses were also held there while they waited for a bed in one of the state’s two mental hospitals. The cells were also used to hold abolitionists before the Civil War. During that time, people who spoke out against slavery were not protected under the First Amendment. One of
the upstairs rooms will be furnished like it was as a dorm room in the 1890s.

Finally, there will be a room that explores the African American experience in Prince William in the 19th century. In this particular room, one of the beams and part of the rafters are singed because a slave imprisoned in the cell tried to burn the whole building down and escape in the resulting confusion. He
ultimately failed and was tried, convicted and hung right on the grounds of the jail.

As to how and when the construction of the jail exhibit will take place, Backus said, “The Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation is working on raising the remaining funds for the exhibit.” The hope is to have the exhibit completed by next fall. Currently, the Centre is open May through October, Thursday
through Monday. From November to April, you can still visit with a week’s notice. Tours are $5 for adults and discounted for active military, groups and students. For more information, visit
pwcgov.org/history.

Amy Falkofske ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and photographer. She has a Master’s degree in screenwriting from Regent University. She lives in Bristow with her husband, two
boys and two Beagle dogs.

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