Today the Cabildo is a facility of the Louisiana State Museum, but the courtyard of the Cabildo was part of a prison complex for nearly two hundred years, across French, Spanish, and American rule. Constructed in 1730, the prison and police station were some of the city’s earliest structures. In 1769, following the transition from French to Spanish rule, Spanish officials demolished the existing structure and built The Cabildo, or town hall—a complex with a military prison, a civil prison, police station, jailer's quarters, and government chambers. The Great Fire of 1788 damaged the Cabildo and another fire in 1794 destroyed parts of the complex. In 1799 the second Cabildo was completed, and this is the structure you see today.
In the early 1830s, the city council authorized plans for enlarging the prison to deal with its notorious overcrowding, but the city also built a new Orleans Parish Prison behind what is today the Municipal Auditorium near Louis Armstrong Park. After the construction of the new prison finished in 1839, the old prison was abandoned and subsequently torn down. Throughout the Spanish and American periods of its operation, government officials and visitors commented on the poor condition of the facility, from lack of food and clothing to rat infestations.
In May of 1988 the third story of the Cabildo, by then a part of the Louisiana State Museum, caught fire. Following the fire, the museum hired Dr. Jill-Karen Yakubik and Earth Search, Inc., to excavate the Cabildo courtyard while concurrent historic restoration efforts were underway. The site excavations of 1990 and 1991 confirmed accounts of prison conditions.
The team found eighty-five buttons in the excavation areas of the former prison interior, and debris from the manufacture of bone buttons, perhaps an activity of prisoners. Animal remains also provided clues to the prisoners’ diet. The type of animal bones found led Yakubik and her team to conclude the prisoners ate low-quality, cheap meat although some wild game remains suggest occasional consumption of higher quality proteins such as sheep, goat, and turtle. Recovered remains of an infant pig confirmed that jailers raised livestock in the courtyard. While rats have never been an anomaly in the French Quarter, the discovery of dietary remains and rat remains in close proximity paints a picture of an unsanitary environment.
The dig also unveiled a significant number of wine and liquor bottles. The volume of these alcohol containers was so high that they made up roughly half of the glass vessel assemblages in both the sites within the prison interior and within the courtyard. This matches accounts about whiskey rations given to prisoners. The archaeology report also implies that prisoners were supplied with a ration of tobacco due to the high volumes of smoking pipe fragments uncovered.
Various stone marbles were also found indicating prisoner participation in gaming and gambling. This interpretation is supported by Spanish Governor O’Reilly’s ordinances that detailed jailer’s duties to prevent prisoners from gaming. The vast majority of gaming artifacts found in the dig were confined to jail cells, potentially indicating an attempt to keep such items hidden from guards.