“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
St. Augustine in Saint Johns County, Florida — The American South (South Atlantic)

Chain Gangs

The Convict Lease System

Chain Gangs Marker image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, December 10, 2014
1. Chain Gangs Marker
Following the Civil War and the reconstruction period the state of Florida found itself in debt. As a way to offset some of the state’s expenditures, newly elected governor George Drew put into practice the convict leasing system in 1877. Prisoners were leased out to individuals and large companies to do various jobs from building railroads to working in turpentine camps. The person leasing the prisoner would pay the state a fee of $26 per prisoner per year. They were also obligated to provide clothing, shelter, food, and medical care for the prisoner. The price per prisoner quickly rose to $150 per year.

Conditions in the camps were very harsh. Prisoners were flogged for not performing enough work or other minor infractions. They slept chained together by the ankles in wooden buildings where fires were a common occurrence, or in jail wagons that were infested with parasitic bugs and vermin.

In 1919 chain gangs were introduced as demands for more and better roads increased due to the booming tourism industry in Florida. The conditions for prisoners working on the chain gangs were no better than those who were leased. Men accused of petty crimes worked side by side with those whose offenses were more serious. Chain gangs were segregated according to race and also by whether or not the inmates had tuberculosis.
Chain Gangs Marker (<i>view showing stone base</i>) image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, December 10, 2014
2. Chain Gangs Marker (view showing stone base)
Not all the prisoners were chained together while working. Those who were considered escape risks wore heavy shackles that cut into their skin and their chains were never removed.

While the practice of prisoner leasing was popular with county officials, the general public was opposed to it. Escaped convicts knew that if they were able to reach rural homes, the residents would often aid them in their escape. This is the origin of the term, “home free.” Convict leasing and the injustices that were born out of it stopped at the state level in 1923.

(upper left) Road work crews were often moved and quarterd in jail wagons outfitted with bunks.
(lower left) Many convicts were leased by turpentine camps where work conditions were usually harsh.
(upper right) Leased prisoner labor was a lucrative business in the early 1900s. Many farms, agricultural enterprises, and road construction companies were in constant need of workers.
Erected by The Old Jail Museum.
Location. 29° 54.494′ N, 81° 19.179′ W. Marker is in St. Augustine, Florida, in Saint Johns County. Marker is at the intersection of San Marco Avenue (Business U.S. 1) and Missouri Avenue, on the left when traveling south on San Marco Avenue
Chain Gangs Marker (<i>wide view</i>) image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, December 10, 2014
3. Chain Gangs Marker (wide view)
. Touch for map. Marker is located in front of the Old Jail Museum complex. Marker is at or near this postal address: 167 San Marco Avenue, Saint Augustine FL 32084, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Spreading the Wealth Since 1900 (within shouting distance of this marker); The Old St. Johns County Jail (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line); The 1910 Mary Peck House (about 400 feet away); Gault Street (about 700 feet away); Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (approx. 0.2 miles away); First Spanish Muster Site in Florida (approx. 0.2 miles away); Nelmar Terrace Historic District (approx. ¼ mile away); Mission Nombre de Dios (approx. 0.3 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in St. Augustine.
Also see . . .
1. Timeline: 1914-1919 - A History of Corrections in Florida.
Florida's chain gangs are introduced in 1919 partly because an increasing number of roads are needed to keep pace with the growing number of tourists to Florida. Even after the convict leasing system is abolished in 1923, prison chain gangs continue because Florida needs the roads to accommodate tourism. (Submitted on December 10, 2014, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 

2. Timeline: 1966-1967 - A History of Corrections in Florida.
Captain James Wesley Parr, 35,
Chain Gang image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, December 10, 2014
4. Chain Gang

Statues depict early 20th century chain gain working on a road project.
died on August 11, 1966 in Pompano canal while chasing an inmate who escaped from an inmate road crew working on U.S. 441. He was a Captain at Pompano Beach Road Prison at the time. On July 16, 1967 a flash fire inside the barracks used to house chain gang inmates results in the deaths of 37 men. One of the most notorious Florida prison movies ever made, the Paul Newman motion picture "Cool Hand Luke" is based on a book written by former Florida inmate Donn Pearce about life on a 1940s-era chain gang. (Submitted on December 10, 2014, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 
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Credits. This page was last revised on June 10, 2018. This page originally submitted on December 10, 2014, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. This page has been viewed 353 times since then and 37 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on December 10, 2014, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. • Bernard Fisher was the editor who published this page.
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