The old jail – along with the elegant, Neoclassical courthouse beneath it – opened with fanfare 89 years ago, about a year before the Great Depression.
County commissioners had instructed the architect to place the jail atop the three-story courthouse. “Only in this way could they assuage the fears of nearby residents concerning the proximity of the jail,” according to a 1977 report by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
On March 10, 1928, Charlotteans flocked to the grand opening of the $1.25 million courthouse. For those who toured the new building, the rooftop jail was the most popular attraction, the Charlotte Observer reported at the time.
Soon, it became a temporary home for some of Charlotte’s most famous scoundrels.
Cotton heir George King Cutter had a bed there for three months in the summer of 1961 between the time he was arrested and tried for the murder of his longtime paramour, Delette Nycum.
Cutter had outfitted an old bus as their love nest, complete with beds and a bar, and kept it in a shed near the airport. They went there on July 4, 1961 for a tryst, and Nycum was beaten to death. Cutter went to trial in September, one of the most sensational in Charlotte history, and despite a mound of circumstantial evidence, he was acquitted. He never returned to the jail, dying in disgrace four years later at age 53.
Monroe Medlin was jailed there in 1949. After he was abruptly fired as the butler to the Esley Anderson home in the 1100 block of Queens Road in Myers Park, Medlin returned to collect his things.
He went to speak one last time with Virginia Anderson, who retrieved her husband’s shotgun and ordered him to leave. A struggle over the shotgun left Anderson dead on the floor before Medlin ran away with some jewelry from the house.
Medlin was convicted and died in the gas chamber of Central Prison three months after the slaying.
Graffiti visible on the outside wall of a jail cell at the long-defunct Mecklenburg jail, which closed in the 1960s.
Even by the standards of the 1960s, the old Mecklenburg County jail was primitive, according to several who visited it. Life inside was crowded, hot and dull.
The two-person cells were just seven feet by five feet. The eight-person cells were the size of a typical kitchen. None of them had windows.
In a 1964 letter to an Observer reporter, one of the jail’s inmates wrote that the toilets were often stopped up and that “cockroaches as big as your thumb crawl all over you at night.”
For all four decades it was in operation, the jail was racially segregated. The county didn’t begin integrating its jails until the 1970s.
The old jail could hold 170 inmates, according to a 1964 story in the Observer. At the time, it employed 12 jailers, who earned roughly $100 a week.
There was a lot those jailers didn’t see. Inmates then – much like those in state prisons today – sometimes dismantled pieces of glass, steel and iron from the jail and turned them into dangerous weapons. Occasionally, inmates escaped.
Retired District Court Judge Tom Moore was a young defense lawyer in the 1960s when he visited indigent clients at the jail.
“It was hot,” he recalled. “There was no AC. It was awful.”
Former Mecklenburg District Attorney Peter Gilchrist remembers visiting a friend there who had been wrongly accused of rape in the 1960s.
“It was, of course, a dingy, dark place,” said Gilchrist, who in those days was working as an accountant.
One of the eight-person cells at the long-defunct Mecklenburg jail, which spanned the years from the late 1920s to the late 1960s.
The jail remained in operation until 1969, when the county moved its prisoners to newer quarters.
County officials later began using part of the old jail to store aging files. But most of the old jail remained untouched – an anomaly in a city where new development often obliterates history.
“I love that we still have a piece of 1920s Charlotte,” McDonald said.
McDonald occasionally gives tours of the jail to new prosecutors. But the lead paint and limited accessibility mean that it likely will not be opened to the public, she said.
County commissioner Pat Cotham is among the few who have seen it firsthand. She recalls touring the district attorney’s offices in 2013 when DA Andrew Murray asked: “Hey, do you want to see something interesting?”
Murray took her to the fourth floor. What she saw there, she says, shocked her to her core.
“It looked like a place where a person could lose all hope and be forgotten,” she said.
Cotham said she’d previously been unaware the old jail was up there. Other local officials were, too, she said.
“It was kind of hidden,” Cotham said. “I guess I wondered: ‘Are we hiding it because we want to dust it under the rug? Because we don’t want to remember?’”