Legislation for the establishment of a royal prison for the Province of Maine was enacted in 1653, and after some delay a building for this purpose was erected at Meetinghouse Creek in the village of York in 1656. The present Gaol was built in 1719 with timbers salvaged from the original structure. With the influx of settlers into Maine in the mid-18th century, the building was enlarged to provide more space for the housing of prisoners, as well as improving accommodations for the gaoler's family. The humanitarian drive to better prison conditions for debtors following the Revolution resulted in the addition of a large debtor's cell in the 1790s, giving the building its present shape.
Aside from its cells and dungeons for felons and debtors, the Old Gaol housed the gaolkeeper and his family. During the first part of the 18th century quarters for both prisoners and gaoler were modest--even primitive. All prisoners, regardless of their crimes, shared two dungeon rooms; the turnkey's family had two adjoining rooms, a hall and parlor. Later in the century as more cells, as well as additional space for the gaoler, were added, living conditions improved. Records for its first years have not survived, but those from 1760 indicate that most of the Gaol's prisoners were debtors, although some of the incarcerated were guilty of committing crimes such as slander, petty theft, and becoming drunk. Greater crimes included arson, grand theft and murder and convicted criminals were publicly hanged at Stage Neck. For the lesser crimes, people were placed in the pillory or stocks, or whipped publicly outside the Gaol.
Until 1760 the Gaol was a prison for the entire province of Maine; it then served as a county jail until 1820. For the next forty years it continued to be used for the incarceration of local wrongdoers. The Gaol then served briefly as school, a boarding house, and a warehouse, and by 1895 it stood abandoned and in peril from neglect.
William Dean Howells, a summer resident of York Harbor and editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and Mary Sowles Perkins (also a York summer resident and the mother of Miss Elizabeth Perkins) are credited with starting the movement to restore the building and use it as a museum. James T. Davidson, the president of the Old York Historical and Improvement Society, led the campaign to solicit funds for this purpose. On July 1, 1900 a festive parade and party on the lawn of the Old Gaol heralded its rebirth as a "museum of colonial relics." At the opening festivities local and state dignitaries, as well as prominent representatives of York Harbor's summer colony, gave speeches. On hand for the celebration were such luminaries as Mark Twain, Thomas Nelson Page, and a contingent of preservationists who had rallied to save the building from imminent ruin.
Today's visitor to the Old Gaol sees the gaoler's quarters accurately restored and furnished to reflect the occupancy of Gaoler William Emerson and his wife Eunice in 1789. The cells still echo with the stories of criminals and debtors confined within their walls. Three rooms in the south end of the building serve as a display gallery chronicling the history and evolution of the building, including a reinstallation of part of the Museum of Colonial Relics that was in this location in 1900.