There’s a fine line between kitsch and just-plain weird, and the Crime and Punishment Museum in Ashburn crosses and recrosses the line many times – surprising, really, given how small the museum is. This isn’t a bad thing. No, the museum is, in fact, a fascinating look at the way small-town criminals – along with sheriffs and their families – lived back in the day. And I’m hear to tell you, it wasn’t much like Andy’s jail in Mayberry.
Located just off I-75 at Exit 82 (look for the pig by the side of the interstate – it’s the exit where you can pick up homemade sausage at Carroll’s Sausage & Meats), the downtown museum is housed in what could be a quaint bed and breakfast, until you get inside and there are some things that are less welcoming. The red-brick, two-story home, built in 1906, the same year as the next-door, similarly constructed courthouse, was designed to hold local prisoners upstairs with the sheriff and his family living downstairs. Cozy.
Tours are provided by the Ashburn-Turner County Chamber of Commerce located just across the street. Call ahead to be sure they’re available. My guide, Ashley Miller, the office manager, was knowledgeable – about both facts and lore – and made us squirm and laugh in roughly equal parts.
The tour starts downstairs in the family living quarters. The daughter of one of the sheriffs donated some of the original furniture to the museum. And the parlor looks like the family will be back any minute to play and sing around the organ or do some needlework. From there, though, the tour gets a little spooky.
On the main level, you’ll see a collection of things owned by the lawmen and their families and some of the prisoners, along with items related to both crime and punishment. There’s a cat-o-nine tails whip that was used so often on prisoners it’s down to just three tails, a replica of an electric chair, photos of the sheriffs who served and lived there, and a wall of last-meal requests by condemned prisoners – not from that jail, though they did hold executions there.
A locked steel – original lock, huge brass key – door at the back of the house leads to the sheriff’s office and stairs to the jail on the second floor. The jail is a strap-steel cage divided into cells. It’s in the center of the upstairs with an indoor walkway all the way around. But the highlight (or low-light)
of the prison is the execution chamber, complete with noose (though it’s not original). Two convicted murders were hung at the jail, dropping through a trapdoor in the floor to the sheriff’s office below.
“The jail was in use until 1993 when there was a small riot,” Miller says. “The prisoners flooded the toilets. They started small fires and made a huge mess.”
“The sheriff who was living downstairs at the time, said, ‘You made the mess. You’re going to stay in it.’ He took black paint and painted the windows so they couldn’t see out and left them there for a week in total darkness. After a week the federal government got involved. They said, ‘Absolutely not. You cannot do that.’ They took the prisoners out.”
There are folks who believe some of those prisoners – and others who suffered in the dark, airless facility – haunt the building to this day. If you want to take the particularly spooky tour, get in touch with the Paranormal Society of Middle Georgia. They’ll tell you all about the ghosts of inmates past.
The Crime & Punishment Museum is open by appointment only – though I got my appointment by calling a couple of hours ahead, and the couple on the tour with me just happened to walk in at the right time to join us. But it’s worth the call – and a great place for a pit stop if you need a break from the interstate.