Naval Medical Center Portsmouth
With Halloween fast approaching, today’s #TBT is the “dungeon” in Bldg. 1. The area is under the front steps of Bldg. 1, and it’s had several uses since the hospital opened to patients in 1830. The bars on doors and over windows lead many to believe it was used to incarcerate people. It was, once.
In April 1862, at the outbreak of the Civil War, the 3rd Virginia Regiment was ordered to occupy and fortify Hospital Point. Col. Roger A. Pryor, a fire-eating secessionist and an avid Confederate, was placed in charge. He allowed 15 of his men to go downtown to the courthouse to vote on Virginia’s referendum to secede or to stay in the Union. When the men returned, Pryor ask how they voted. When they informed Pryor that they voted for the state to stay in the Union, Pryor became angry and had them locked in the dungeon. He then notified the governor about the great deed he had done for the Confederacy. The governor ordered him to let the men go as they were voting in a free election. For about two days, approximately 15 men were locked up in the dungeon.
It is also believed that the dungeon was built for the purpose of containing the mentally challenged patients, or lunatics as they were called, because it was widely believed that the moon (luna) affected their behavior. This is not true. The bars on the windows and doors were to keep people out, not in. The bars were to secure the materials from theft.
In the early days, the dungeon was known as the “lower chambers.” It was designed for storage for the building’s provisions: coal, wood, oil as well as chilling meat, milk, butter, etc. Each chamber in the dungeon was gated off and used for specific storage. The cell with the slanted floors on either side housed large blocks of ice that would melt towards the middle of the room.
While inside the dungeon on a sunny day, if you look towards the staircase, small streams of light can be seen poking through. Some like to say the slits where the sun shines through is where Confederate Soldiers stuck their rifle muzzles. No, they are merely windows that allows for sunlight to come in before the invention of electricity. The inverted arches in the dungeon were designed to support the massive structure of the building. The dungeon’s bricks were brought over from old Fort Nelson, which was located on the tip of Hospital Point and defended the harbor in Revolutionary times. More than 500,000 bricks from the fort were used in Bldg. 1's construction.