The Sugar House – A Slave Torture Chamber in Charleston

By Professor Damon L. Fordham, MA

You may have heard the expression, “If these streets could talk, imagine what they would say.” That is especially true in the case of what used to be The Sugar House on what is now the corner of Logan and Magazine Streets near Fielding’s Home for Funerals, The Robert Mills Housing Projects, and The Old City Jail Building. It is rare that person who walks by there today knows that this was once a slave torture chamber during the days of slavery where slave masters once sent enslaved people for disobedience.

According to the Charleston News and Courier of December 27, 1931, “Before the American Revolution, there was on this ground a Sugar House for the manufacturing of loaf sugar. About 1775, this was converted into a Work House. Slaves were sent to the Sugar House for punishment, and advertisements for runaway slaves ask that they be returned to the Work House.” Elijah Green, an elderly ex-slave interviewed by a black Charlestonian named Augustus Ladson in 1937 recalled, “The Work House (Sugar House) was on Magazine Street, built by Mr. Columbus C. Trumbone.” Henry Brown, another local former slave interviewed by Mr. Ladson, remembered, “No slave was supposed to be whipped in Charleston except at the Sugar House. There was a jail for whites, but if a slave ran away and got there he could disown his master and the state wouldn’t let him take you.”

A picture of the sugar house

Perhaps the most vivid and harrowing stories of the Sugar House were told in an unsigned document in an unsigned document entitled “Recollections of a Runaway Slave” that appeared in an anti-slavery newspaper called The Emancipator on September 30, 1838. It reads as follows;

“I have heard a great deal said about hell, and wicked places, but I don’t think there is any worse hell than that Sugar House. It’s as bad a place as can be. In getting to it you have to go through a gate, in a very high brick wall. On the top of the wall, both sides of the gate, there are sharp pointed iron bars sticking up, and all along the rest of the wall are broken glass bottles. These are to keep us from climbing over. After you get into the yard, you go through a gate into the entry, then through a door of wood and an iron door, chained and locked together, so as both to open at the same time. The lower story is built of stone of great thickness,–and above, brick. The building is sealed inside with plank. Away down in the ground, under the house is a dungeon, very cold and so dark you can’t tell the difference between day and night. There are six or seven long rooms, and six little cells above and six below. The room to do the whipping in is by itself. When you get in there, every way you look you can see paddles, and whips, and cowskins, and bluejays, and cat-o’-nine tails. The bluejay has two lashes, very heavy and full of knots. It is the worst thing to whip with of anything they have. It makes a hole where it strikes, and when they have done it will be all bloody.

In the middle of the floor are two big sills, with rings in them, fastened to staples. There are ropes tied to the rings to bind your feet. Over the sills is a windlass, with a rope coming down to fasten your hands to. This rope leads off to the corner of the room, and there are pegs there to tie it to, after they have got you stretched. Slaves are carried there to be whipped by the people in the country four or five miles round, and by all the people in the city, and the guard men carry there all the runaways they take up.”

Recently, Dr. Susanna Ashton of Clemson University identified the author of this horrible story as James Matthews, who ran away from slavery Charleston in the 1830s and eventually lived in Maine, where he died in 1886.

Another interesting tale of the Sugar House came from Janie Mitchell. In 1931, Mrs. Mitchell, an elderly member of Mother Emanuel AME Church, wrote down her recollections of Charleston in a journal that was discovered and published eighty years later as “Janie Mitchell, Reliable Cook-An Ex Slave’s Recipe for Living, 1862-1931” by Evening Post Books. Among other stories, she told this fascinating anecdote about the Sugar House.

“In Slavery days at the corner of Magazine and Mazyck St. (now Logan) on the South West corner was a wing of the hospital and a door was there and all on this side was the Sugar House, where slaves were sent to be whipped for any crime they had done. Once an old man was sent to the Sugar House, they told him for sugar. He told us he got a gentleman to read the note. (It said) he would have got fifty lashes, 25 with a paddle and 25 with a cowhide. He ran away and was never seen by his owner again. Such tales! It was sad to think of now.”

Today as people walk near the corner of Logan and Magazine Streets, they may want to take a minute to think of these stories of what took place at the Sugar House that once stood there. This would help many people to understand that whatever problems they may have today, they compare little to what happened to those who lived during slavery with the ill fortune to have been sent to the Sugar House.

14 Comments

  1. Kat Morgan on December 11, 2017 at 10:16 am

    Thank you Dr Fordham for sharing these important pieces of history with us. When I pass that intersection I’ll pause and think of the people who were brutalized and those who brutalized them and rededicate myself to making sure we in Charleston share the full truth of our city with our visitors, ourselves, and each other.

  2. Patricia Edwards on February 28, 2018 at 2:01 pm

    I love to learn things about my ancestors history. I do not love what they went through. I just love being educated. I did not know a place such as the Sugar House existed. I am sure there is a whole lot more I do not know. I hate that our ancestors had to go through this. We all need to be educated about the past, especially our younger generation today. Thank you for the information I really enjoyed reading the article. Will let others know.

  3. Del on June 19, 2018 at 6:35 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I never knew such a terrible place existed and my heart aches for those slaves who were tortured.

  4. Patty Mosure on June 20, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I have read much about the horrible lives of slaves on plantations and farms, but am only recently coming to understand that those acts were sanctioned by local government and written into law.

  5. Mira Carroll on June 20, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    Thank you for this excellent and much-needed article. The truth is sickening to behold. I’ve been researching the realities of enslaved persons in the Antebellum South for a novel in progress. Not being a particularly good student of history, it’s far worse than I imagined, and I knew in my bones it was very bad. I’ve come across historical accounts I can’t stand to read. I found I couldn’t watch the Roots remake because I saw the first one in 1977 and so I knew what was going to happen. The truth tears my heart. The brutality of American race-based slavery most certainly traumatized all who witnessed it, including the perpetrators (even if they claimed otherwise). But none more than the millions of men, women and children who endured its horrors. May we bless their memories with truth-telling and extend Love and forgiveness to each other as we walk the healing path. <3 <3 <3

    • Jay S Parks on June 20, 2018 at 8:48 pm

      I love how the refrain “forgiveness to each other” keeps repeating in thousands of different guises of word combination. I especially like the one used by Trump after the latest White supremacist, KKK, Neo-Nazi, outrage and murder. “There are good people on both sides”! He said. Can you believe it?!

      Please tell me: exactly what are the children and heirs of enslavers “extending forgiveness” to the children of slaves FOR?! What debt do they OWE?!

      • Mira Carroll on June 21, 2018 at 11:10 am

        As a child of God living according to spiritual principles, I understand that we all say and do things that others may need to forgive. Looking back on my own life, in my less-healed, younger days I said and did things I wouldn’t choose today. Someday I may see my actions today in a similar light—I may see that I could have done better. This is the nature of being human and learning through life on earth. That is the context in which I’m talking about extending forgiveness, and it applies to all of us. It has nothing to do with anything Trump—a man who epitomizes lying and the stubborn inability to reflect on oneself—has said or is likely to say.

        I am not suggesting at all that individually or collectively we bypass the truth-telling and go straight to forgiveness. That doesn’t work. Neither does it work to hold ourselves hostage to past events. When I am aggrieved by something that has been done to me, my freedom from it is found in open-eyed forgiveness. As I work through my emotions in a responsible way, my understanding grows. I become more and more like the Love that can hold all things, like the parent who can hold the child through ANYTHING. I taste peace in the present moment, and become willing to let go of cherished thoughts to have more peace. Eventually, in my own time and way, I’m able to let go. Forgiveness is a gift I give myself.

        The situation our society is called to walk through today in the aftermath of racial slavery is a lot like a bad marriage plagued by betrayal and fighting. We have to find a way to talk through where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going for the good of the children. We are ALL “the children.” We have to find ways to work, live and love together in spite of what happened. The apology from Charleston for its role in slavery is a good example of a place to start.

        Please notice I didn’t say “abuse” in my analogy of the bad marriage. Abuse that is happening now calls for swift legal action.

    • Dallas on October 6, 2018 at 1:26 pm

      Hi Mira, I’m currently in the process of researching some slave accounts for a project. Would you mind forwarding me any links or locations for some of the accounts you’ve come across? Thank you. DDM

  6. Alfonso Bryant on June 21, 2018 at 8:40 am

    Nevermind… but how it make it to my mama (pain)…

  7. Alfonso Bryant on June 21, 2018 at 8:44 am

    If 3/5 was the old. How many me makes a white-man. Don’t make me sue havard inequities, and could we have that portion of our women back that white-men secretly use behind white-women’s back. One of those women was my mama. Hooked her on crack and everything. Just saying, “have you no diginity at long last,” hun?

    • Ry on October 3, 2018 at 10:16 am

      WtF are you ranting about?

  8. Richard on June 24, 2018 at 5:36 am

    Thank you for sharing this painful yet essential historical reality.

  9. Ken Waddington on June 28, 2018 at 5:02 am

    I am involved with research into the firm of J&C Lawton of Charleston.
    In 1830 they purchased a slave named Hercules and shortly after sent him to the workhouse . I am confused as to the reasons they would do this ?

  10. Portia webb on July 21, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    I’ve been reading articles such as this one, about slavery in the U.S. for several years, This is the first time I have read, or heard of this building. It just goes to show that there is so much more to learn and discover about the history of slavery in America and, how evil and brutal it was.

    Thank you for sharing this enlightening article.

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