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.

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