The basement in the Town Hall was used as a prison until 1867, when Bergen County Jail was ready to incarcerate criminals – one man to one prison cell. In the Town Hall basement more than twelve prisoners could be put in each cell. The basement also accommodated the mentally ill in a bedlam.
The Town Hall basement was both a police station and a prison. The conditions for the prisoners were extremely poor. 12 -15 prisoners could be kept there at the same time, with no prison yard where the prisoners could get some fresh air and exercise. If they were given the opportunity to move about at all, it was in the corridor right outside their cell. Also, according to Gjest Bårdsen – one of Norway’s most famous and infamous criminals in the 19th century, men and women could be found in the same cell in the Town Hall.
In 1750, the City Magistrate reported: “In all these abundant holes and passages there is however not a single place where the prison warden can live, and as long as he cannot live with the prisoners, it is impossible for him to have control with fire, light and heat, which the poor people after all might need. Due to this situation the poor people have to sit all night and day for a half, a whole, one and a half, yes even two years, all depending on the time it takes to appeal from one court to another, locked up in a hole, in the stench and the darkness, with nausea, without light, without heat and without comfort, which is often more harsh than the penalty in itself, due to the fact that they are after all only in custody.
Mostly, the prisoners in the Town Hall were in custody awaiting trial. When judgement finally was delivered, they could be transferred to the Manufactory House or the Slave House at Bergenhus Fortress, or they cold be fined, corporally punished or on some occasions executed. Executions were commonplace, and the burden of proof was not necessarily heavy. Many people may have found their destinies more or less just, but certainly hard:
“In April 1630 a woman was executed. She had stolen from Jens, the Parish Clerk. Eight days earlier she had been married in Korskirken. Two other thieves, who had stolen from Jochum the Roper, were executed on 31 January 1631.
“In 1632 a girl was arrested, accused of having caused a shipwreck. After having been tortured and convicted, she claimed that another woman, Anne, had caused this disaster. The latter woman’s neck was consequently wrung on Tuesday night 19 June in the prison. In May 1633 a sailor was burned for sorcery.” These people may all have spent prison time in the cell which up until 1835 was called The Witches’ Arrest.
In the 19th century death sentences became less frequent. The jailbird and escape artist Gjest Bårdsen left prison alive. After a long career as a thief, and after having escaped from prison 57 times by his own account, he was finally put in the most secure prison at the time – at Akershus Fort in Oslo. He was reprieved from his life sentence and spent the rest of his life in Bergen as a married man as well as a renowned auto-biographer. Chains and irons designed especially for Gjest are still kept in Bergen police department’s historical collection.
In the 18th century it had become customary to deport convicts. Many of the beggars and petty criminals were sent north to Finnmark, where they most likely settled down for good. In 1692 the King received an application from a man called Jørgen Thormøhlen, who wanted to keep women in his custody and bring them to his colonies in the West-Indies. The King allowed this, but on the condition that the women, who had been arrested for theft several times, were whipped first. Thormøhlen in turn demanded that the town should provide the two habitual criminals with clothes and other equipment.
In the Town Hall basement there was also a bedlam, where the mentally ill were kept. What kind of treatment – if any at all – the mentally ill received is unknown, but we can assume that a stay in this bedlam next to the prison cells did not involve any form of nursing.
It is hardly possible for us to comprehend how people thought of and behaved towards the mentally ill in the 17th century. But surely fear, irresolution and lack of knowledge played a part when the following took place:
“Black Hans was arrested in 1634 for having helped an insane shoemaker back to his sanity. His reward was to be put in the Town Hall’s arrest and executed some time later. He strived against the execution for so long that it had to be postponed.”