Volume V, No. 2, Winter 1977
The darkness seemed to be the most distressing aspect of the buildings, or maybe the smell. Even after all these years of standing empty, that indescribable scent was still there. The dampness from the two foot thick stone walls brought visions of cockroaches, lice, bedbugs, rats and other dark and damp seeking varmints. The atmosphere was similar to a cellar--a place to store or preserve. Only these storage places were for people, to hold and isolate them for a few days to a few months in order to preserve the peace for society. These places are typical old county jails surviving from the period from the Civil War up to the 1960's.
Unfortunately, wherever there are communities of people, there needs to be jails to restrain the unlawful element. One of the first public buildings erected in a pioneer settlement was usually a jail house of some kind. The early ones were log like the small one built in Lebanon in 1851 with walls constructed of three layers of logs for greater security, or the more elaborate one like the two story log jail of Nevada which was partially burned during the Civil War.
But in the period following the troubled times of the Civil War and the bushwacker activities, county governments in southern Missouri contracted and built permanent and supposedly inescapable jails of stone and brick. The stone jail of Vernon County at Nevada was begun immediately after the Civil War. The imposing federal style stone sheriff's home was added in 1871. In 1868 work began on the somewhat smaller, but still adequate brick Laclede County jail and sheriff's home in Lebanon. The tiny cellar-like stone jail for the small Missouri River town of Arrow Rock was also finished in 1871, while 1873 saw the tall square jail completed for Hickory County at Hermitage.
Three of these jails besides being built in the post-Civil War era have another thing in common. They are constructed of sandstone block. Those in the Vernon County jail measure about two feet thick and some weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. The stones at the Hickory County jail are eighteen inches thick. Even if a persistent prisoner could manage to chip away all the mortar around a rock, even with assistance he would have great difficulty removing such a weight. Two prisoners did manage to remove a smaller stone in the north wall of the Nevada jail. The skinny guy got away, but his fatter companion stuck fast in the hole not able to move either way, needing a doctor's assistance to get him out.
All four jails were used well into the twentieth century with the Hickory County jail still operating. 1960 saw the last prisoner in the Vernon County jail, 1965 the new modern Laclede County jail retired the old one, and though there are no records to say when the last prisoner was locked in the Arrow Rock jail, it was probably in the 1930's.
The reason for abandoning these buildings was not because of structural weaknesses. They were built to last. Present sheriff of Hickory County, William V. Kennedy said, "If a tornado ever comes and I could get my family in the jail, that's where I'd take them 'cause I don't believe there is anything short of dynamite that'd take that jail down."
What outmoded the jails was society's change in attitude toward the prisoners' living conditions. But up until the present age there wasn't much concern about treatment of people in jail. They were being punished. They had no rights for they had forfeited their rights by their transgressions. Law enforcement and treatment of prisoners Kennedy said has changed more in the last ten years than it had in the last thousand years. Stanley Butner, son of former Vernon County Sheriff W. S. Butner, said of his father, "He wasn't scared of anything. He was a different type of lawman in those days than what we have now. You have to back off anymore. You don't have authority. In those days a lawman took authority. If you were in a tight spot you didn't let him shoot you. You did the shooting and asked questions afterwards."
Now there is much concern about humanitarian treatment of prisoners, which applies also to the county jails where prisoners are kept from a few days to not usually more than six months while awaiting trial or serving out short sentences. Though electricity and plumbing were later installed in the old jails, they were not adequate for modern management of prisoners. Today the old jails at Nevada and Lebanon are maintained as museums by local historical societies, and the one at Arrow Rock is part of Arrow Rock State Park. So also is the jail at Hermitage available to the public, but since it is still in operation, it is available only to those who break the law in Hickory County.
Being interested in all aspects of Missouri life, Bittersweet staff members have visited these four jails and talked with local people who could tell of life and experiences in these jails and in the sheriff's quarters.
FOUR 100 YEAR OLD JAILS
The sizes of the four jails vary from the sixteen by ten foot one at Arrow Rock for one to two men at the most, to the Vernon County jail which measures thirty-six by thirty feet not counting the sheriff's residence and the women's cell. The total measurements of that building are thirty-six by sixty feet, with built-in bunks for twenty-four men. This does not include the two storied bull pen and ample open space for more men.
Arrow Rock was a river community of between 500 and 1,000 population. The jail was used mostly to sober up overnight drunks on Saturday night. No real criminals were kept there for they were taken to Marshall.
In comparison the jail at Nevada is enormous. At the time of construction the population of Nevada was not so much greater to warrant such a structure, but two factors may have influenced its size. First this was a county jail while Arrow Rock was a town jail. Also Vernon County and Nevada were known active hangouts for bushwackers and other outlaws preceding, during and after the Civil War. The Union forces actually burned Nevada to the ground in 1863 to prevent further guerrilla activity. Being constructed so soon after, perhaps the large size was to accommodate the outlaws coming through. However, while W.S. Butner was sheriff from 1928 to 1931, there were never more than six or eight prisoners in at a time. Les Hunt, the last sheriff to use the old jail, from 1944 until 1960 when he closed it, said there would sometimes be over twenty prisoners, though not usually that many.
The jail at Arrow Rock was made entirely of stone--walls, floor and roof. It had a heavy wooden door which opened out for ventilation in the summer with an iron grate door for security. There were no windows. The only opening was in the back wall to accommodate a small stove pipe. There was no plumbing or electricity, only a cot and the wood burning stove.
The Vernon County building was much more complicated. The jail was attached in a T shape to a two story three bedroom sheriff's home which had a separate kitchen building. The jail entrance was through an anteroom of the home through a security controlled locked door. Inside the jail part there are two separate main cell blocks, two story each. Each floor of each cell block has facilities for four separately locked cells, each cell containing four bunks. The cell block on the west end had wooden stairs to reach the second story, but the block over the part called the bull pen, where hardened or dangerous criminals were locked, had no access other than climbing the latticed bars.
All around these two cell blocks was open corridor space. Most prisoners were free to move around without being confined in a single cell.
In comparison to Arrow Rock jail which would be completely dark in the winter when the door was closed, the Vernon County jail was light. However, people entering from the sheriff's home are struck by the gloom. The tall narrow windows cut high in the wall on the level of the upper cell blocks were inadequate to light such a large space. Even the occasional hanging electric bulbs did very little to dispell the gloom. Covered with bars and a wire netting, the windows were the only means of ventilation.
The women's cell was completely separated. It was upstairs in the back part of the sheriff's house, just one small room, but less jail-like with two windows and doors, all barred.
The Laclede County jail is the light-est and airiest of the four. It was originally built upstairs over the sheriff's two room home, but was expanded in 1912 with a new wing making more room for both the sheriff's family and the prisoners. It also had a cell block for new or untrustworthy prisoners, with an open area where most prisoners could walk around. The women's cell was downstairs in a gloomy corner.
The Hickory County jail, a few yards from the courthouse on the town square at Hermitage, looks very much like a twenty foot stone cube with a roof. It has only one door and two windows both on the ground floor. The only other openings are a brick chimney in the roof and a place on the side which once was an opening for the stove pipe. Though gone now, there was an inside wooden floor for an upstairs where women were kept.
For whatever crime they committed prisoners caught in the county were taken first to the county jail. The crimes ranged from a seventeen year old boy stealing a pop bottle to murder. The most common crime was drunkenness, with drug related crimes increasing in recent years. Fighting and stealing, including cattle rustling and horse stealing were high on the list of offenses. During prohibition times there was a lot of bootlegging. Stanley Butner remembered, "In this area during Prohibition people sometimes in those days and ages made whiskey and home brew and sold it. They were regular people like we are--maybe they were friends. Nevertheless they sold whiskey. Some of them distilled it, not in town for they had to have it out in the country because there were skinnings and so forth to get rid of.
But some of the folks bootlegged and they got two dollars a pint for liquor and one dollar for half pints. Home brew sold for about a quarter a bottle, I think. Some of those folks would be regulars in the jail. They would arrest them, bring them in and perhaps give them a few months jail sentence. As soon as they were released, they would go right back and bootleg. That was their way of life."
In the jail the prisoners did their own housekeeping chores. They swept the place, usually keeping it pretty clean. They didn't have anything else to do, and occasionally there would be good people with not serious offences. They would clean and scrub. The sheriff would disinfect and spray for bugs and roaches that would get in damp rocky places.
In later years the jails had minimal plumbing--lavatory, stool and maybe a shower. Earlier all the prisoners had was a bucket of water and dipper for drinking and washing with maybe a galvanized wash tub for bathing.
Each prisoner had a bed, either a bunk bed or cot furnished with a pad with washable cover and a quilt or some cover. Sometimes the bunks would fold up to give more room during the day. Laundry was sent out.
In the winter the big chore for prisoners was to keep the stove going. Whether the stove used coal or wood, the sheriff set the fuel inside, and it was up to the prisoners to build the fire and maintain it, including cleaning out the ashes. In smaller jails like Lebanon and Arrow Rock, one stove was sufficient to keep it fairly warm, but in the big Vernon County jail, one small stove in the huge tall building was hardly adequate. Prisoners wore heavy clothing and those who were not confined to a cell stayed close to the fire.
Summer was better in some ways, at least as far as temperature was concerned. The stone buildings kept out some heat, but they would eventually steam up and get hot after a long hot summer. High narrow windows or none at all didn't help in ventilation. "But they got along," Butner said. "They weren't going anywhere, so all they had to do was keep cool."
With nothing to do prisoners looked forward to the arrival of meals. Usually the sheriff's wife cooked the meals. At least it was his responsibility to feed them. Unmarried ones sometimes contracted with restaurants to feed the prisoners. The sheriff's wife cooked about the same as for her own family. "They eat what we eat," Kennedy said. For breakfast there'd be coffee, oatmeal, toast and eggs, for dinner meat, potatoes and gravy, vegetables, lots of dried beans--just ordinary food.
The sheriff's wife would put the food in unbreakable trays divided into compartments and pass it through a special place in the door just large enough for the trays. Prisoners who were not confined would serve themselves and wait on others. Usually they had only spoons to eat with and a tin cup with a handle to drink from. If prisoners would beat up the cups or utensils they would usually have to continue using the beat up one anyway before they would get a new one. There might be an eating table for them to use, but those in the cell would eat on their beds.
Being locked up was bad enough without living in these primitive conditions. Obviously prisoners would sometimes become depressed. Usually the first three days were the worst, but after that most became reconciled. Les Hunt said, "Some of them were just happy as larks and didn't care if they ever got out or not."
There wasn't much to do for entertainment. The men would play cards or other games and read magazines. They often didn't get the daily paper or get to listen to the radio or have much connection with the outside world. Some passed the time drawing pictures or writing on the walls. In the Vernon County and Laclede County jails since they have become museums open to the public, most of the pictures have been painted over since they were often obscene.
Local prisoners could look forward to visitors--usually only relatives. Visitors could come only certain times and under certain conditions. Usually they visited through the door. Of course, the visitor was searched to see if he had a saw blade or anything to pass to the prisoner. Trustworthy prisoners sometimes would be allowed to sit in the anteroom with a deputy near.
Sometimes visitors were a problem to the sheriff, especially those who tried to visit through the windows. There is a state law against talking to any prisoner, but the temptation to talk through the open windows is great. When this happened the sheriff would have to run them off. Illegal visitors are one of the greatest problems the sheriff has to deal with in the Hickory County jail with the two ground level windows right on the public square.
Being confined in close quarters with nothing to do often caused fights among the prisoners. The sheriff or his deputies would have to separate them, often having to lock one in a cell away from the others. None of the lawmen remembered any riots or serious fighting in the jails as the prisoners were in for short terms, rarely any hardened criminals. Unless a prisoner was addicted to dope and would make as much disturbance as possible to get attention, the prisoners were not usually noisy. Sometimes they'd yell out the windows to passersby.
If the prisoner became sick, he would be taken to the hospital where an extra deputy hired at the county's expense would guard him.
Though most prisoners adjusted to prison life, some managed to harm themselves even with all the sheriff's precautions. A man in 1960 hung himself with a sheet strung around a metal holder in the cell block in the Hickory County jail, as did a woman in the Vernon County jail. Sometimes visitors would manage to slip prisoners a razor and they would cut their wrists not bad enough to hurt them, but enough for sympathy and special treatment.
Other prisoners more prone to action tried to escape. Rather than chisel through the rock walls, though some did that also, most tried in more vulnerable areas--the metal bars on windows, the floor or ceiling. Though there have been many attempts over the years a surprising few have actually escaped.
In spite of surveillance, some did get saws passed in to them. When no one was around, prisoners would saw through metal bars and gratings to escape through windows. The chinmey and roof seemed a likely place. At Hermitage several did escape through the roof until the county had an inch sheet of steel roofing put on top of the existing roof. Sheriff
Kennedy told of one time when some prisoners tore out the Chimney to get to the roof only to find it was steel. "And where the chimney was there was a hole about six inches around for the smoke to go through. That was the only outlet. No way you could get through there. And of course, they done all that work in vain. At that time we were heating by wood and without the chimney they didn't have no heat. I came down there the next morning and it was five above zero.
I had some mighty, mighty cold prisoners."
Another time a small ninety pound man used a broom handle and a coat hanger to tear off the lock on the little food door. He crawled through the eight by eight inch hole and escaped.
Of course with so many men over the years in the four jails, there were some unusual ones. Les Hunt remembered a man imprisoned for murder. He had killed his son in a dispute over the thirty-one dollars they got from selling a hog. "And this old fellow back in there, I remember he never would shave, but he'd take matches and burn his whiskers off. And if he didn't make a sight singed! You never saw anything like it. Really scary."
"I never will forget one guy we had in here," he continued. "I think we had about eighteen in here then. I think he was out of Chicago, and boy, he had connections where he had a lot of money.
Every morning we got a call from the telegraph office that there was a money order for this fellow and to come up and sign for it. He'd get a hundred dollars every morning. I'll tell you he fed all the prisoners and when he was in jail they ate high. They had pie and fried chicken. He'd spend the whole hundred dollars every day on the prisoners. I've seen some of them guys take a whole pie, instead of cutting it, they'd just eat it all. Some of them guys was kind of sorry when he left."
Stanley Butner remembered, "We had one fellow in jail one time who was on dope. After he began to get it out of his system, he began to get wild. He'd want attention. He caused a disturbance. He'd take his cup and ring it around there and take his dinner pans and just beat them. He'd want us to come up and call a doctor or give him a shot or some medicine to quiet him down."
A former resident of Arrow Rock remembered when he was small that the mayor put in the jail a black man who was always getting in trouble. He hollered all night. People all over town could hear him. He was trying to get the authorities to turn him loose because he thought a rattlesnake was after him. Actually it was a bat in the jail. But he didn't get out.
Living in the sheriff's house next to the county jail was just normal procedure for the sheriff's family. None of the family was afraid, even on the many times when the sheriff and deputies would all be gone. Butner said, "Mother was never afraid. We just accepted it. It was just one of those things. If you were sheriff, it was your home. Mother seemed to fit right into the picture and it didn't bother us kids a bit. Mother'd go ahead and take care of everything. She could use a gun, too. My mom was some mom."
If anything being a sheriff's son was exciting. Butner remembered one time when he was seventeen he helped his father make an arrest. The Frank Bailey Gang had robbed the Citizen National Bank in Ft. Scott, Kansas, just twenty miles away, one hot summer day at high noon. "Along in the evening my father had a tip that there were three suspicious characters out northeast of town, and I wanted to go with him. He didn't want me to, but anyway he agreed to let me go. First I went in his bedroom. I knew where he kept his guns and I got me a .38 automatic revolver and stuck it in my belt. We drove out there and over a hill, sure enough, there were three of them in a black '31 model Buick. We drove our car right up to their door, and boy, you could tell things was going to pick up. We stuck them up real quick. I got out and went around on one side of the car on the back and Dad was at the front. Frank Sawyer, an Indian was in the driver's seat. We had another deputy with us. Two men had got out on our side and the Indian was getting out in front of Dad. He still had his gun in his hand and Dad said, 'I've told you the last time, drop that gun.' He finally dropped it and it hit the running board of the car. After we got back up to the jail, Dad said to the Indian, 'How come you let us capture you so easy?' He answered, 'You had a fancy gun and I've been told never try a man with a fancy gun.'
"Besides the Indian there was Ed Davis and Jim Clark. Sawyer and Davis were escapees from Oklahoma State Prison for murder and Jim Clark had been sent up for cattle rustling out of Texas. We got a 30-30 automatic Winchester rifle. We got a sawed off pump gun, a .44 caliber double action Colt, .45 Colt automatic and a .38. Their ammunition was tied up in red bandanas on the back floor board. We got an arsenal out of there.
"We captured those three men and brought them in. Of course, in the evening we were afraid someone would try to take them from the jail. My father had guards out around the outside most of the night. They finally caught Frank Bailey in Kansas City in a hotel room. We didn't get the money, but they got it in Kansas City. I think I got $150 reward at that time and I bought three cows with it."
"Back in that time," Butner continued, "times were hard and there were a lot of bank robbers. You see, we didn't have anything but the telephone. We didn't have very good communication like we have now. No television or anything like that. Very few radios. It was still like the old times. Robbers could rob a bank and run, and it would be some time before lawmen could get a road block set up, so they had a chance to get away. Or men would pull a robbery of some kind and hole up and move off the next day.
"Dad had caught three robbers that robbed the Dedrick Bank. He saw them in the bank at night and he and his deputies got stationed outside and waited till they came out. We caught those fellows. Another bunch robbed the Stotesbury Bank and Dad caught them. I remember those three bank robberies definitely.
"These fellows that robbed the bank at Ft. Scott had a hangout in the Cookson hills in Oklahoma. That was a place way back out of civilization. I mean the people that lived there were poor, poor folk. For a few dollars they would take these criminals in and protect and harbor them for fifty, twenty or ten or whatever they might give them. The Cookeon hills were noted for a bandit area. Pretty Boy Floyd hung out there. The Frank Bailey gang and Clyde and Bonnie Parker, they also operated there some."
Though none of the famous outlaws were ever held in the four jails, they traveled in the area extensively. Many local people would see them, especially Pretty Boy Floyd. Butner recalled, "I've seen him. He was really well thought of there in the Cookson hills in
Oklahoma. He had lots of friends. I think his mother lived in that area. That was home to him. But finally they got him. He was very fine looking. Really, you couldn't tell him from everybody else. He had nothing to say he was an outlaw at all."
Les Hunt remembered, "He's been through Nevada many a time. We had one station down here, a DX station, and when he'd pull in there, he'd leave a twenty dollar bill lying in the front seat. He'd get out real quick. They had a business restroom around the side. He'd run around there and stayed there long enough they'd fill the tank full of gas and if he needed oil, they'd put that in there. At that time gasoline was pretty cheap, around twenty-two cents, it seems like. He'd come out and jump in the car and be gone. Nobody didn't question him. He was always by himself. They always just picked up the bill and kept the rest as change. He was probably the most notable guy that ever run through here except Frank James.
"Frank James used to live here in Nevada. He worked here in a clothing store for a long time. He lived on South Cedar. He went straight after Jesse was killed and lived here while I was chief of police. I didn't want no part of him. I used to say I'd rather be a live coward than a dead hero. He was a law-abiding citizen 'cause he didn't bother anything down here at all. Down where he came from he was thought a lot of 'cause he would rob the rich and give it to the poor, like Robin Hood. That's what he done all the time."
Being a county sheriff was not all catching bank robbers and ignoring famous outlaws turned straight. There were many aspects of the job which were difficult. M. F. Taylor said, "One of the hardest things I think to do is take someone in whose family you know. And to take children in, that almost makes you cry." Taylor was sheriff in Hickory County for twenty years from 1945 to 1965. He had no deputies but worked single-handedly in that rural county to protect its citizens. In that time he never had a murder.
Les Hunt was concerned about his prisoners in the old jail in Nevada. He hated to put women prisoners in the cell and the conditions in the main jail seemed so bad to him that he finally closed the whole jail. "I didn't think it was fit for human beings to be confined in."
After a hundred years of use three of these jails are retired and the other will soon close because of state requirements it cannot meet. One wonders after studying these buildings that are still so structually sound what effect they have had on the generations of people held in their walls. Were they effective in deterring people from wrongdoing? Did they preserve the peace by isolating men in their gloom? Then one wonders if the modern lighted, air-conditioned and antiseptic prisons succeed any better--or as well.
But whatever effects these buildings have had on their inmates, there is one effect that no one can dispute. People in them were lonesome. Even the empty structures by their very design and locations look lonesome. What could be more lonesome than the Hickory County jail, a barren unadorned rock cage isolating prisoners in the heart of the friendly little country town, or than the mound-like Arrow Rock jail that only lacks dirt thrown over it to become a tomb. Lonesome. The nickname given to the Vernon County jail fits them all. Stony Lonesome.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues
Local History Home