The following article by David Strange originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 16 May 2012. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.
Last week in this column, Charles Hartley wrote about Robert Zimmerman, who, among many accomplishments, built what we know as "The Old Stone Jail."
Let me now tell you a little about that old jail; what was once derided by some as "The Rock Mansion."
The McDonald Brothers of Louisville built the Old Stone Jail in 1891. As readers know, the project was supervised by Robert Zimmerman, who later became a prominent person in the county. The McDonald Brothers company built jails and also built some courthouses around the state, such as the one in Columbia. Our old jail remains today in its original location and form, right next to the Bullitt County courthouse.
Closed in 1947, the jail survived for decades mostly through pure strength and stubbornness, eventually being rediscovered as a tourism attraction. Restoration work was first done through Elaine Wilson and the Bullitt County Tourism office in 1990. Then in 2001, I took on the jail as a personal project, supported by Steve Darnell at NuWay Rental Company and the Bullitt County Technology Center welding class, as well as others. In 2011, Fiscal Court re-roofed the jail and repaired the mortar work.
The 22 by 22 foot square solid Old Stone Jail, consisting of four cells and a hallway, is built of 22 inch thick sandstone blocks. Even the floor and ceiling are large slabs of solid stone. The stone walls and iron bars gives the jail a look of a castle or dungeon. Capacity was four to a cell, using, at one period, four canvas cots hung between walls. So total capacity was up to 16, but I am told that (not verified) there were a couple of times when big brawls and parties were raided, and they packed fifty to seventy-five briefly.
In fact, when the jail was built, it was often ridiculed as "the rock castle" or "the stone mansion" because of its extravagant cost. "Extravagant" cost? Yes, the county leaders at the time decided to "go all the way" and build a stone jail that would last better than another wood or brick one that they had dealt with before. That "terrible cost" in 1891 was four thousand dollars.
There was considerable heated debate and argument before and after the jail's construction about whether Bullitt County was ready for such extravagance. Did the county really need such a "grand edifice"? A tax would have to be passed to pay for it. After all, hadn't we got along just fine for years without such grandiose plans?
Sound familiar today?
The magistrates voted July 24, 1891 to build the stone jail. It was completed and turned over to the county for use in December of the same year.
I'm sure that is something else that county leaders today can only dream of.
But the sole purpose of the design was to prevent escape. There was little concern for prisoner comfort or safety. In fact, water and "facilities" were not added until the 1930's. Stories abound about miserable prisoners fighting cold, heat, and bed bugs, so it is understandable that escape attempts would be made.
And escapes did happen.
For example, there is a story about a soot-blackened inmate escaping from the shadows, and another about two brothers who slipped under the iron door.
There is also the story about the crawlspace under the massive stones, and of heat-induced confessions in the "Hot Box." There are sad tales about people looking away from the jail as they walked by in order to avoid the stares of the miserable prisoners from the narrow windows, and tales of neighborhood children teasing the inmates. There is the humorous story of the inmate that had been in the jail for several days, yet mysteriously remained drunk.
But those stories will have to wait for another time, or perhaps for a book I hope to write some day about the jails of Bullitt County.
I am reminded of a historian's statement about the misery of the jails of past times. He pointed out that today it is argued that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. But a century ago the prisons were so harsh that living in a jail for a long time was the more cruel punishment. If the crime really deserved more than a year or so of time, then it was considered by many to be more humane to put the man out of his misery. So in many cases sentences used to be either a couple of years, or death.
Oh, and by the way, the inmates were not always men. There is the story of Mary Thompson, who was lynched, but survived, and housed briefly in the old stone jail with a reported 300 rioters outside her cell.
Such was, and is, the strength of the old stone jail, that it held up to such an attack.
Notice the heavy ironwork on the jail when you visit it. It is all done by hand. Formed, forged, and riveted. Quite a piece of work when you realize that so few modern ways of making such things existed. At the time of the jail's construction, there was no electricity; no welders; no torches; no power equipment. Yet it was built so well that it has held up for more than a century.
You can visit the jail. In cooperation with Bullitt Fiscal Court, volunteers at the Bullitt County History Museum keep the jail open for visitors whenever the courthouse is open, typically 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Just walk in and an automatic sound system will tell you a few of the stories of The Old Stone Jail.
Just be happy that you can walk back out again.
Copyright 2012 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.