COMMUNITY'S FIRST JAIL NOT TOO COMFORTABLE
By JUDY JENKINS
Poor Jonathon Anthony must have been totally humiliated when, in 1799, the county court received a report on his construction of the community's first jail.
The team who inspected the just-completed $339 jail informed magistrates in writing that “by order of the court, we proceeded to view the jail, and found the doors of the lower story to be about three and one half inches thick, not well spiked, and that part of the hinge which goes into the log for the door to hang on does not go through to clinch; the facings of the door are not spiked; the staples are not sufficient.”
Moreover, the report continued, “Some of the logs of the upper floor of the under story are loose, and ought to be made fast. The locks we can't say anything about, as they are not on the doors.
“The bars of the windows are not an inch thick; the door of the upper story is not well spiked, nor the facing, which out to be done. The windows are not so large as called for, and the facing not well spiked. Some of the logs are not squared and not sufficiently close.”
It was really unfortunate that the logs weren't more tightly fit, because the two-story jail had no source of heat whatsoever to warm the lawbreakers on the first floor and the imprisoned debtors on the second floor.
According to local historian E. L. Starling, the prisoners, when it was cold outside (and inside!), were compelled “to go to bed, keep up a lively callisthenic drill, or freeze.”
Eight years later; the court ordered that a new jail be constructed. To the relief of the habitual criminal, this one had a fireplace on each floor.
In 1819, the county was ready to build its third jail, and this one was to be considerably more substantial than its two predecessors.
Constructed at a cost of $35,000, it was 40 feet long, 26 feet wide and two stories high. Its walls were two bricks thick, and the structure was located on the courthouse hill at the rear of county government headquarters.
This facility proved to be one of the county's more secure ones, as it saw only two jail breaks in its 43-year history.
During the Civil War, the county's fourth jail was constructed, but it turned out to be nearly as inferior as the first had been. Though a brick wall at least 15 feet high was constructed around the combination jail and jailer's residence, prisoners escaped with an embarrassing frequency.
That's why, only seven years after that structure was completed, the court ordered that a fifth jail be built. Building specifications required 16 wrought-iron cells and outer walls of “good hard well-burnt brick or blue limestone, lined with iron.”
The jail was a costly one, with a final price tag of $33,400.
Alas, it wasn't as sturdy as it was meant to be. Had it been sounder, it's likely that Jailer J. Elmus Denton never would have chosen to kill himself.
When a jailbreak occurred in 1875, Denton, described by Starling as “a high strung, impetuous, honorable gentleman,” saw the escape as a personal failing.
Prostrated with feelings of inadequacy, and believing that the public condemned him, Denton, on December 18, “walked up Main Street and settled the accounts he owed.” Then “without a farewell look or kiss of his devoted wife,” went upstairs in the jailer's residence, bolted the door “and fired a leaden ball through his brain.”
He left a note saying he hoped his death would atone for the jail escape.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Saturday, April 24, 2004
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS