Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
Not sure how many travelers passing through this quiet Washington County settlement on Georgia Highway 15 ever take the time to stop and see the Warthen community’s signature attraction — a nondescript wooden structure that Warthen claims to be the state’s oldest jail.
Growing up 25 miles or so from here, it took me over a half-century to stop and peek inside and survey the contents. A little nondescript debris is all I discovered. The aging building with a shingled roof sits under oak trees, which are likely younger than the old jailhouse itself.
It may well be the smallest jailhouse in the state, too. Warthen (pronounced Wur-then) was incorporated in 1812. If half of those living here at the time had gone on a weekend drunk and were arrested, there would not have been room to lock up more than a dozen, even if they all stood up.
According to the Internet, when Washington County was formed in 1847, Warthen “was chosen as its law enforcement center, which consisted of a court ground and the 12-foot square jail.” A plaque outside the old jail reads, “Erected in 1783 of logs. Aaron Burr incarcerated here in 1807 in route to trial for treason.” Burr, who was being returned from Mississippi where he had been arrested, to Richmond, Va., where he was to be tried.
Burr, who had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, became one of the tragic figures in early American history. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York and became vice president under Thomas Jefferson. He was never tried for the duel with Hamilton, although dueling was illegal, but was later accused of trying to create an independent nation, although he was acquitted on treason charges. The trial, however, destroyed his career.
The route he took, while under arrest, through Warthen, gives the community a treasured link to American history. A conversation with a former Washington County commissioner and longtime friend, Tommy Walker, allowed for an exchange of emails from Professor Bob Wilson at Georgia College in Milledgeville.
Seems that there is some discrepancy with regard to Burr’s actually having spent a night in the primitive hoosegow. Dr. Wilson cites a story which appeared in the Atlanta Journal in 1906, quoting a descendant of his Elijah Warthen, for whom the unincorporated town is named, with a different view.
Warthen was stationed at nearby Fort Wilkinson as the commissary when Burr was being escorted to Richmond. “The officer commanding the fort expected Burr to reach the fort in the late afternoon and to entertain them during the night in a manner befitting the social standing of the celebrated prisoner,” the descendant wrote. Warthen killed a “very fat” ox for the occasion. Afterward, he preserved the horn of the ox, which was kept in the family for years, a memento of the Burr episode.
Some reference in “The History of Hancock County” by Elizabeth Wiley Smith, according to Professor Wilson, notes that “the guard with their captive tarried the night in a little log cabin near Sparta, which is still standing and is often pointed out to strangers and visitors as a historical land mark.” This would obviously be Warthen, but nobody seems to know, for sure, where Burr spent the night.
Even though he had been arrested, Burr remained a man of distinction. If he had been elected vice president of the United States and were passing though your neighborhood, you likely would kill the fatted calf and enjoy an evening with him. Doesn’t matter where Burr slept, it is confirmed that he passed this way, which makes the old building worth a stop, a peek and a photograph.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.