One of the nineteenth century’s most idiosyncratic inventions was the rotary jail. Inspired by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, rotary jails were circular enclosures that allowed guards a 360 degree view of inmates through moving cells via a crank. There was only one access point, making escape more difficult. This type of jail was invented in Indiana by architect William H. Brown and iron industrialist Benjamin F. Haugh. These Indianapolis-based inventors filed their patent patent in 1881.The design became popular, largely because it decreased interaction between guard and prisoner. In fact, the prisoner did not even have to be removed from his cell to dispose of waste. In this blog post, we’ll expand our knowledge of these jails through more newspaper accounts from throughout the United States.
But how do we start? One great tool for looking for subjects and their relevance to newspapers is usnewsmap.com. A joint venture of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the University of Georgia, US News Map provides visitors with an easy search tool that show where subjects show up on the map. When I typed in “rotary jail,” I got eleven hits; some were as far east as Vermont and as far west as Utah.
In Burlington, Vermont, a rotary jail was built as early as the late 1880s, with city planners waxing enthusiastic about the invention after their visit to the flagship rotary jail in Crawfordsville, Indiana. “They were most favorably impressed with the new rotary jail at Crawfordsville, Ind., and the probability is that they will decide to erect a similar one in this city,” wrote the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 1887. In Picturesque Burlington, a short history written in 1893 by Joseph Auld, describes the rotary jail in detail:
This “cage” is closely surrounded by a barred iron railing with only one opening. When a prisoner is to be placed in his cell the “cage” is revolved till the proper cell fronts the door; then the prisoner is put in, the cage is turned, and he is secure. The number of prisoners is small and the offences venial, largely violations of the prohibitory law.
For example, one particular story from the Burlington Free Press comes to mind. As reported on April 7, 1892, a man named John Arthur Simpson, whose aliases included “George Simpson” and “George A. Stillwell,” was accused of murder in Dover, New Hampshire. Simpson, whose past lives included “Baptist minister, later a burglar, horse thief, incendiary, farmer, bigamist, and finally a murderer,” apparently bared a remarkable resemblance to Julius McArthur, who “killed Deputy Sherriff Charles H. Hatch of New Hampshire May 6, 1891 while resisting arrest for stealing a horse and who escaped from the rotary jail of this city Jul 17, 1891.” According to the newspaper report, Simpson likely escaped from jail using a knife “as a wedge to open the cell door” and the authorities searched for a supposed accomplice who gave him said knife. Even though rotary jails garnered a reputation for being tough to escape, Simpson’s story shows they weren’t completely impenetrable.
Another rotary jailbreak occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah. Charles Riis, convicted of larceny under the name “Charles Merritt,” reportedly “went through the bars of the supposedly impregnable steel rotary at the county jail as though they were made of putty,” wrote the Salt Lake Herald on February 2, 1907. Riis was said to have “crawled” through a cell “eight inches wide by fourteen inches and length” after sawing through a bar over a few days, slowly as to not alert the sheriff. He then used the sawed bar as leverage to scale down the side of the jail wall with a blanket. At the time of this article, his whereabouts were unknown. Riis’s clever maneuvering utilized the weaknesses of both the rotary jail as an invention and the law enforcement agency’s inability to anticipate his covert actions.
However, these stories pale in comparison to what was reported in multiple newspapers in Kansas. Carrie Nation, noted prohibitionist and provocateur, instigated a spat with the Wichita Sheriff’s wife and placed in a rotary jail cell in 1901. From here, we get two different sides of the story. According to the May 3 1901 issue of the Kinsley Graphic, Nation was “placed in the rotary cell at the county jail. She abused the sheriff’s wife, calling her all kind of vile names, the ‘devil’s dam being one.” She also called another woman “two-faced” as she was sitting in the rotary cell. However, the Topeka State Journal quoted Nation directly, painting a contrasting narrative. Nation, quoted in the Journal, wrote:
I was put in this [rotary] cell because I told Mrs. Simmons, the jailor’s wife, that when I was here before she tried to have me adjudged insane. She said I was a woman who used low, obscene language to her husband. I told her she lied and all liars would go to burn in the lake of fire. Her husband told me this morning when he came to remove me that his wife wanted me to be put here. Poor, depraved wretch! What a shame to see a cruel, revengeful woman. John the Baptist lost his head from just such a one. I would rather die in this unwholesome place than be such. I wish she would let Jesus change the bitter to the sweet in her nature. What a miserable woman she is! My poor sisters in this Bastille are trusting in the Lord.
She then railed against the liquor trade in Wichita, advising all citizens to “avoid getting anything from this cursed Sodom,” and comparing her treatment in the rotary jail to the “cruelty and injustice” of the “Spanish inquisition.” Nation’s brush with rotary jails is one of many legendary stories of the gilded age crusader.
Finally, rotary jails not only dealt with prisoners getting out, but also unintentionally trapped in. The November 10, 1886 issue of the Fairfield News and Herald, out of Winnsboro, South Carolina, reported that the rotary jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa “became locked Monday morning by some disarrangement of the machinery, and no prisoners could be taken out nor any admitted.” The paper further noted that a “large force of men were at work all day on the machinery, but the trouble was not removed until Tuesday morning.” This story was also picked by the Laurens Advertiser, the Manning Times, and the Pickens Sentinel.
Between the escapes and the structural failures, you would think that rotary jails would have lost sway with the law enforcement community and the general public. As the previous post mentioned, efforts to stop the use of rotary jails began as early as 1917. By the mid-20th century, many rotary jails were discontinued or the cell blocks were immobilized. Two former rotary jails served as county jails well into the 20th century, with the Council Bluffs jail closing in 1969 and the Crawfordsville jail in 1973.
Although the rotary jail is no longer used, the seminal Indiana invention left a profound mark on the history of crime and punishment in the United States. Its design really broke the mold, or as you could say, broke (out of) the cell.
The “religion vs. science” debate has been a hot media sensation since 9/11. Syria’s refugee crisis is causing further argument over why some believers haven’t helped people obviously in need, though many have. But venomous debates over religion and refugees aren’t new to American history.
Black History Month reminds us that religious voices have played a profound role in American struggles for justice — with many of the most religious Americans being treated as criminals for their pains on behalf of others. Some historians have even remarked that the Civil Rights movement was “primarily a religious and spiritual movement.” The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, and many others drew powerfully on their interpretation of faith. In fact, you could even argue that the African and African American encounter with Christianity — and vice-versa — eventually unlocked religion for many Europeans and Americans who were only nominally Christian to begin with.
Whatever the truth there may be, radical Christianity rang out loud and clear during one of America’s (and Canada’s) first refugee crises — the exodus of fugitive slaves seeking asylum under “the North Star.” That exodus took thousands of refugees across the rural Midwest.
Abolitionist history is certainly full of iconic Christian imagery. When a slave from Virginia, Henry Brown, experienced a “heavenly vision” and decided to mail himself out of bondage in 1843, he had himself concealed inside a 3-foot by 2-foot dry goods box or “pine coffin.” Lined with wool and containing only a few biscuits and some water, the box and its occupant were carried north, delivered after a week on the road to the office of Passmore Williamson, a Quaker merchant active with the radical Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Like a well-known Byzantine icon of Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows” — which shows Jesus rising from the dead and an equally tiny box — Henry “Box” Brown climbed out in front of a group of Philadelphia abolitionists and asked “How do you do, gentlemen?” A fabulous engraving of the event was given the name “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown.”
(Passmore Williamson, a Pennsylvania Quaker, at Moyamensing Prison in 1855, where he was jailed for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons escape from slavery. Williamson was also an early advocate of voting rights for women.)
Several major “routes” of the Underground Railroad passed through Indiana, leading to farmhouses and barns in the Wabash Valley, the fields around Quaker-dominated Richmond and Fountain City, and the swamps and prairies north of Indianapolis. Yet Hoosiers — like other Americans — were deeply torn over whether to obey the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial law that made it illegal for any citizen to assist a runaway slave and exacted harsh penalties for helping refugees. The federal law was absolutely designed to protect humans defined as “property” and even as “livestock.”
Many Christians, of course, were slaveholders themselves, though their views often depended on whether they lived in the North or South. Northern and Southern Baptists, for example, had sharp differences of opinion on slavery. Though Methodism’s founder John Wesley wrote against human bondage in 1778, Southern Methodists often owned slaves. Ministers who didn’t take their congregation’s — or government’s — line on slavery were sometimes kicked out of the pulpit or physically attacked. At least a dozen chapels built by anti-slavery Baptists and Methodists in Jamaica were burned down by white settlers.
The religious situation was never simple. The Jesuits, whose famous South American missions were admired by Enlightenment philosophers as an experiment in earthly utopia, had long owned slaves. Just two years before Pope Gregory XVI spoke out against the slave trade in 1839, Jesuit priests in Maryland were putting slaves to work on plantations to support Georgetown University, a Catholic school built by slave labor and where students brought their slaves to class. (In 1838, the Jesuits sold thirty of them to the ex-governor of Louisiana, whose son was a student of theirs.) One Maryland priest used the Bible to defend slave ownership. Yet the Jesuits were no more guilty than the religious freethinker Thomas Jefferson, who along with forty other signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves while announcing “All men are created equal.” Jefferson used a blade to create a famous Bible of his own, cutting out the miracles and superstition to focus on Jesus’ ethics and morals. Jefferson, however, went to his grave a slave-owner, having thought about it for fifty years.
(The cutting-room floor of Jefferson’s Bible. Though he included Luke 12:48 — “To whomever much is given, of him much shall be required” — the master of Monticello must have been uncomfortable with the next passage, “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …Do you suppose that I am come to send peace on earth? Nay, but a sword.” Jefferson sliced it out. As the English critic of slavery, Dr. Samuel Johnson, put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negros?” Contemporary science was no help to Africans. Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, the most famous American scientist of his time, commissioned the best-known daguerreotypes of African slaves to provide evidence for the old theory of “polygeny,” or “separate creation” of the human races. Originally a heretical religious theory, the scientific version was given credence by the atheists Voltaire and David Hume. Voltaire believed that whites and blacks were different species.)
Not all American Christians appreciated the politicizing of the pulpit. Under the pen name “Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.,” humorist Mortimer Thomson satirized their reaction to “politico religious hash” — i.e., hyper-political sermons. “Doesticks,” who grew up in the Midwest, wrote for Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery New York Tribune and even did a famous undercover report on a huge slave sale in Savannah, Georgia, where he posed as a potential buyer to get the full scoop. Thomson received death threats for his exposé of slave auctioneering. As a satirist, he was much admired by Mark Twain.
Indiana was no stranger to this religious battle. In 1855, the year Passmore Williamson went to prison in Pennsylvania, the Reverend Thomas B. McCormick got into hot water with congregations and the law in Princeton and Mechanicsville, Indiana, two small towns between Evansville and Vincennes. Gibson’s flock were Cumberland Presbyterians, a branch mostly centered in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Princeton lay on a main line of the Underground Railroad running up the Wabash Valley. Unlike most “agents” and “stationmasters” on the Railroad, Rev. McCormick made no secret of his hatred for the Fugitive Slave Act. He actively aided runaways from Kentucky and preached on the topic of slavery and its sinfulness. A native Kentuckian himself, McCormick had been a minister in southern Indiana for fourteen years when he ran afoul of the law.
At a session of the Indiana Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterians, who met at Washington in Daviess County in 1855, church elders passed a resolution (17-3) stating “That it is not expedient to discuss the subject of American Slavery from the pulpit.” McCormick had just preached an anti-slavery sermon. He ignored the elders.
When the Cumberland Presbyterians tried to silence Thomas McCormick from preaching, the reverend left and joined the Congregationalists — a denominational cousin of the Presbyterians but who were more united in their condemnation of slavery. McCormick’s activity piloting fugitives north toward Michigan and Canada, however, soon got him indicted by a Kentucky grand jury.
Under the 1850 federal law, Kentucky Governor Lazarus Powell was authorized to request the governor of neighboring Indiana — a technically “free” state, though many Hoosiers were pro-slavery — to extradite any Hoosier caught helping refugees evade slave catchers, who often traipsed onto Indiana soil. Governor Joseph Wright (namesake of Wright Quadrangle at Indiana University) complied with the noxious law. Like those he helped, Rev. McCormick himself had to flee to either Ohio or Canada, as “a large sum of money was offered for his body.” McCormick ran for the governorship of Ohio in 1857 on “the Abolition ticket” and wasn’t able to return to Indiana until 1862, when Governor Oliver P. Morton assured him he would be safe here. He died in Gibson County in 1892.
Calvin Fairbank, an abolitionist and Methodist minister who ferried slaves over the Ohio, was less fortunate than McCormick. For over a decade, Fairbank helped at least forty runaways slip into the interior of Indiana, many of them making it to the farm of Levi and Catherine Coffin in Fountain City, just north of Richmond. Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina, was called the “President” of the Underground Railroad.
In 1851, with the complicity of Governor Wright and the Clark County sheriff in Jeffersonville, Fairbank was arrested on the way to church by Kentucky marshals, who extradited him across the river to Louisville. (Some versions say he was “kidnapped.”) Fairbank eventually spent thirteen years at the old Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, where guards mercilessly beat him and lashed him with whips, by some accounts a thousand times, by others 30,000 times. With his body broken, he moved to western New York, where he died in poverty in 1898, an almost forgotten hero of American freedom.
The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who lashed out at American hypocrisy, once proclaimed: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle, a newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio, quoted Douglass’ words on the fervently Baptist Newton Craig, cruel superintendent of the Kentucky State Penitentiary and Fairbank’s torturer.
According to an 1860 history of the prison, written by a friend of Captain Craig’s, the jailer’s ancestors had been imprisoned in colonial Virginia “for preaching the gospel” as dissenting Baptists, against the Anglican state church. In spite of his fervent religion, Craig, as abolitionists said, nevertheless had “the most inveterate hatred” toward “negro-stealers.” The jail-master earned a small fortune during his eleven years in charge, using convicts on nearby plantations, and is said to have “delivered long sermons to the inmates in his care.” According to a story mentioned by Frederick Douglass, he broke an expensive cane on Calvin Fairbank’s head:
(Frederick Douglass on Newton Craig. Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856.)
(Kentucky State Penitentiary. The note reads: “This is some Bird Cage. Looks like a church.” Frederick Douglass once wrote of America: “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other… [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.”)
Not long after Fairbank’s arrival behind bars, several other resisters joined him, including Delia Webster (a Vermont-born schoolteacher from Lexington and the only woman at the prison) and former slave Lewis Hayden. A lesser-known inmate was the Irish immigrant Thomas Brown, who with his wife Mary McClanahan Brown had posed as a traveling merchant and “notions pedlar” downstream from Evansville, Indiana. Operating on the Kentucky side of the river near Henderson, the Browns smuggled refugees under curtains in their wagon to the riverbank. Brown was arrested by marshals near the mouth of the Wabash and sentenced to a prison term in Frankfort, where he witnessed the murder of a free black man from Evansville by guards. Released in 1857, Brown wrote an exposé of the wardens, published in Indianapolis that year as Three Years in Kentucky Prisons.
By the end of the 1850s, anti-slavery voices had grown stronger than ever. The religious undertones were clear: from the fascinating dream-visions and out-of-body experiences of Harriet Tubman to the fiery Old Testament furor of John Brown. While the actions of Christians like prison warden Newton Craig and many more made Frederick Douglass’ suspicion of the churches a fair criticism, the “voice in the wilderness” was now crying strong.
A statement from a Senate report arguing that the Underground Railroad would be cause for war with a foreign nation, Evansville Daily Journal, January 23, 1861.
A reprint from the New York Express, written during the Civil War, mocking abolitionists as part of a procession leading the American people toward “the Limbo of Vanity and the Paradise of Fools,” Daily State Sentinel, October 17, 1862.
Crawfordsville, Indiana, has several claims to fame, most of them literary. Once hailed as “The Athens of the Midwest,” the town was home to Ben-Hur’s author, the novelist and Civil War hero Lew Wallace. For a few months in 1907 and 1908, it was also, briefly, home to the unconventional American poet Ezra Pound.
Born in Idaho, Pound was a flamboyant genius who later dabbled in Fascist politics in Mussolini’s Italy. At the end of World War II, he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army, prosecuted for treason, and spent most of the 1950s confined at a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where the Federal government kept him up under watch. Yet Pound might have considered Crawfordsville as the site of his first “incarceration.”
While still in his twenties, Ezra Pound taught Romance languages at Wabash College but found the school too conservative for his liking. After the professor invited a stranded prostitute or traveling entertainer to sleep in his room one winter night — later insisting that he slept on the floor while she took over the bed — the 22-year-old Pound got the axe from the college president, just into his second semester as a language professor at Wabash in February 1908. He immediately moved to Europe, going into poetry and the Modernist art world, describing Crawfordsville as “The sixth circle of hell.”
Ironically, both Lew Wallace and Ezra Pound had some unusual connections to incarceration — as did Crawfordsville itself. In 1865, Wallace had headed the commission that investigated Henry Wirz, the infamous Swiss-born Confederate commandant of Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, where Union soldiers were starved during the Civil War and some were allegedly killed by Wirz’s bloodhounds. (Wirz was executed following Wallace’s investigation.) As for Pound’s own experience with jails, after the Allies and the Italian resistance toppled Benito Mussolini in 1944, the former Wabash College professor-turned-Fascist, who had done radio broadcasts in support of Il Duce, was shut up in one of the U.S. Army’s outdoor steel cages in Pisa, Italy.
Like the army’s open-air “security cages” in Pisa, “benighted” Crawfordsville once experimented with ventilation. The Indiana town actually helped pioneer a new type of jail in the 1880s, when “The Athens of the Midwest” became home to one of today’s few surviving “rotary jails.” This was an architectural twist on the traditional one-room slammer that turned frontier clinkers into revolving, newfangled structures that looked something like a fresh-baked pie — at least on paper. (Ezra Pound might have compared them to an Italian pizza pie.)
In 1881, two men from Indianapolis — architect William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, owner of the Haugh Iron Works on Indy’s West Side — filed a patent for an ingenious invention. They later filed several variations on this patent, but the 1881 original begins:
The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard, and incidentally to provide it with sundry conveniences and advantages not usually found in prisons; and it consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners; second, in the combination, with said cell structure, of a system of shafts and gears, or their equivalents, for the purpose of rotating the same; third, in constructing within said circular cell structure a central space for the purposes of ventilation and the disposition of offal, &c.; fourth, in constructing niches in the side of the cells next said central opening to serve as water-closets, and arranging underneath said niches a continuous trough to contain water, to receive and convey away into a sewer with which it is connected all the offal deposited therein by the prisoners in all the cells. . . .
In other words, one of the primary goals of the revolving jail was to facilitate the disposal of human waste without having to ever release the prisoner from his cell or even to come into any contact with him at all. The other goal was to render escapes and prison riots virtually impossible.
Operating a hand crank, a guard could literally spin an entire block of wedge-shaped cells. Prisoners would be moved around without ever exiting through the block’s one access point. In addition to improving ventilation and drainage — the system involved an advanced “soil-pipe” or sewer — Brown and Haugh’s patent explained that one of the real safety feature of the rotary jail was for the sheriff or guard himself:
The prisoners are handled without any possible chance for personal contact with any except the one desired, as the cell structure is rotated until the door-opening of the cell desired is brought opposite the general door opening in the outside grating, and while one cell occupies this position the rest must of necessity be securely closed. This arrangement makes the whole prison as convenient to the keeper as though it consisted of but a single cell, and as safe as if it contained but a single prisoner.
Plans for a “rat trap” or “steel trap” prison were being considered by the New York Penological Society in 1897. A syndicated news story incorrectly states that “It is an English idea.” It was a Hoosier one.
Constructed in 1882, the Montgomery County Jail was one of at least eight rotary jails built in the U.S., though by some accounts there were around eighteen total, spread between Kentucky and Utah. Salt Lake City was the only large city that seems to have had one, and the plan was considered best for small-town jails. Only four of them survive today, with none still operating as a jail. The Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was the last rotary jail to still be in use. It was discontinued in 1969.
Although the website for Crawfordsville’s Rotary Jail Museum claims that the real motivation behind Brown and Haugh’s patent was “to help maintain strict Victorian social order,” revolving cell blocks were almost definitely an improvement on the pits that 19th-century prisoners were frequently chucked into.
Yet as these new jails were built, their advantages were soon shown to be mostly theoretical. By the 1930s, in fact, the Montgomery County Jail came under criticism for poor ventilation, bad natural lighting, unsanitary conditions, and an “old, insecure, unsafe” structure — all problems that its designers had meant to resolve. Over the years, too, the limbs of inmates in American rotary jails occasionally got caught in the rotating bars, crushing or maiming them.
A critic in Wichita, Kansas, in 1917 called the rotating cages a “medieval relic of barbarism.”
Crawfordsville jailers tried to make improvements, but the town’s old rotary jail was finally abandoned in 1967. Montgomery County officially took it out of use in 1973. Like a couple of its historic kindred in Missouri and Iowa, it survives as a museum known as the Rotary Jail Museum.
Ironically, the iron that went into Indiana’s lone rotary jail came from Haughville on Indianapolis’ West Side.
Haugh, Ketchum & Co. Iron Works had moved from downtown west of the White River in 1880, just a year before owner Benjamin F. Haugh filed his patent with William Brown for a revolving cell block. Haughville or “Haughsville” in the 1880’s soon became known for its busy foundries, which included the rival National Malleable Castings Company, and it was considered a prosperous town when Indianapolis annexed it in 1897. Local industries attracted thousands of German, Irish, and Slovene immigrants to the area.
By the early 1900s, Haughville had become the center of Indianapolis’ Eastern European population, including Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, and Hungarians. A wave of Southerners, both black and white, moved in after World War I. Haughville’s industries, however, slowly declined. When its two major employers, Link-Belt and National Casting, shut down in 1959 and 1962, the neighborhood slipped into serious decline and has never recovered. The closing of Washington High School and the old Central State Hospital (a huge mental institution which probably incorporated a lot of locally-produced iron) also hurt the area.
Efforts have been made to revitalize Haughville, but this part of Indianapolis that once created iron for jails remains a feared part of the city, suffering from serious gang violence, drug addiction, and one of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the Midwest.
“The most damnable spot in America.” “A disgrace to civilization.” “Filth and abomination.” “Indiana’s Black of Hole of Calcutta.”
The Hoosier State sometimes get bad national press, but in 1923 the criticism was homegrown. True to Hoosier stereotypes, the alleged horrors took place on a farm, the state penal farm, and involved the abuse of prisoners.
On the eve of World War I, a new, “open-air” penitentiary opened about an hour west of Indianapolis. Overcrowding at the major state prisons in Michigan City and Jeffersonville, as well as at county jails all over Indiana, led the legislature to pursue a “progressive” alternative to mere incarceration. Many prisoners, after all, were behind bars for minor crimes like theft and assault and battery. That changed in 1917, when Indiana Governor James Goodrich initiated statewide Prohibition, two years in advance of the Federal liquor ban that came with the Volstead Act in 1919.
Since some Indiana counties and towns had already passed local dry laws, by 1915 sheriffs were cracking down on operators of illegal saloons, moonshine distillers, and town drunks. While most violators were never tossed in the clinker for more than a few weeks or months, as the war on alcohol got more serious, Hoosier jails began to fill up fast. The temptation to make a profit off jails was a further problem, a situation that still exists today.
Prohibition laws provide a fascinating glimpse into the dark side of reform movements. As one Hoosier editor, Muncie’s George R. Dale, discovered while investigating allegations of prisoner abuse at the State Farm in Putnamville, punitive social reform — including the ban on alcohol sales — had scarcely hidden undertones of racism and class operating behind it. Working-class Americans, African Americans, and Catholics bore the brunt of laws framed mostly by women’s rights advocates and middle-class white Protestants. Liquor laws, oddly enough, turned out to be a major milepost on the intellectual superhighway that led to the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 — coincidentally, the year of the penal farm’s founding. The original Klan had died off in the 1870s. Revived just before Word War I, it found its highest membership not among stereotypical rural Southerners and defeated Confederates, but among white middle-class Midwesterners. The ideology of “the second Klan,” moreover, wasn’t totally foreign to the reform movements of the 1910s.
In 1922, Dale, a civil liberties maverick, joined the campaign to investigate the penal farm — then went there twice as a prisoner, sentenced to hard labor for criticizing a Delaware County judge with Klan connections.
Though the farm would soon fall under suspicion, the plans behind its creation were full of good intentions. Jailers and prison reformers had always been vexed by the failure of jail sentences to cure some criminals of their attraction to lawbreaking. The theory was that inmates were bonding behind bars while living in “idleness.” As a Hoosier paper, The Hagerstown Record, put it in 1916,
Jails are simply breeding places for vice. Lawbreakers thrown together in sheer idleness day after day have opportunity and incentive for devising more lawlessness. The hardened men create an atmosphere of viciousness that influences the less hardened, while the shiftless vagrant finds very little punishment in free board and no work.
Penal labor, though not wrong in itself, had an enormously dark history — from Charles Dickens’ hellish “workhouses” in David Copperfield to British convict colonies in Australia and of course the Siberian gulags of Tsarist and Soviet Russia.
A 1913 law passed by the Indiana legislature made possible the establishment of a pioneering state penal farm. That law appropriated $60,000 for the purchase of at least 500 acres of land. To help prevent party control and graft, the bipartisan committee, like the prisoners themselves, would receive no salary for their work.
The committee eventually bought 1,600 acres around Putnamville, five miles south of Greencastle, in a hilly, rocky part of Putnam County. Much of this acreage was considered “too broken for agriculture.” Yet this didn’t put a halt to plans, since the penal farm would include several industries besides farming. Underlain by Mitchell limestone, prisoners were put to work breaking rock in quarries, used for road building and the production of crushed limestone fertilizer used on fields. Prisoners also sawed lumber from a neighboring forest reserve. Additionally, the farm kept a dairy herd, apple and peach trees, and fields that grew corn, hay, soybeans, sorghum, pumpkins, and tobacco (a crop now practically extinct in Indiana). In 1916, the prison kept 190 “fat and sleek” hogs. Most of this produce went to fed patients and staff at state hospitals.
A brick plant came in 1918, with prisoners turning out 30,000 bricks a day. The bricks were used in the construction of a new medical college and a military warehouse in Indianapolis and of the Indiana Village for Epileptics, later renamed the New Castle State Hospital. (This happened at a time when epileptics were considered a menace to society and segregated. Indiana’s 1907 eugenics laws forbade epileptics to get married, putting them virtually in the same class with criminals subjected to forced sterilization.)
The money-making possibilities of the state farm were already stirring up buzz among citizens of Putnamville, an old pioneer town on the National Road that nearly became a ghost town when the Putnam County seat was moved to Greencastle. The Indianapolis News reported that rumor of the farm’s coming “spread over the hills and valleys like wildfire” and that residents believed it would “make the old village glow with new life.” “Friends of prisoners” and “sightseers” will “come and go and Putnamville will thrive on the nickels and dimes they spend.”
Locals didn’t seem worried about having prisoners as neighbors, though the penal farm was barely guarded at all. Punishment for escaping was apparently considered enough of a threat to deter the attempt. Fugitives from the law would find their sentences, sometimes a mere 90 days, extended to two years in a state prison if caught.
Newspapers give insight into the type of criminal sent to the State Farm. After Indiana’s prohibition law was ratified in 1917, more than half of the prisoners here came on liquor-related offenses — whether running a “blind tiger,” a rural whiskey still, or being drunk in public. Although bootleg whiskey could be very deadly, other prisoners were jailed for the slimmest of crimes. One was an 18-year-old from Indianapolis who stole a penknife.
The Indiana State Penal Farm’s bleak reputation wasn’t long coming. Less than a year after its founding, John Albright, a bootlegger from Terre Haute, actually requested deportation to his native Germany during the height of World War I rather than serve 90 days at the farm.
Newspapers also documented escapes from the farm, a few of them dramatic. In 1916, two prisoners who drove farm horses ran away with their steeds. They tied them to trees in the woods around Greencastle, where the animals were later found starved to death, “tethered a few paces from an abundance of grass and water.” A year earlier, two Indianapolis youths escaped, went on a burglary and horse-stealing spree near Terre Haute, and were then hunted down by a posse of Vigo County farmers. When four men escaped in 1917, including an African American from Lake County, a “sensational gun fight” ensued. The African American, a man named Hall, was shot dead.
In May 1915, just a month after opening, there were 217 prisoners living at the farm, including 30 African Americans. The total number that skyrocketed to almost 1,200 within a year. In its first decade, the farm “entertained” about 25,000 prisoners.
In 1920, a controversy broke out over allegations of cruelty at Putnamville. Charles McNulty, an Indianapolis saloon keeper let out on parole, filed a complaint with the State Board of Health. McNulty’s claims about unsanitary conditions and violence were backed up a year later when Oscar Knight, a prisoner, filed a further complaint with a judge. Knight claimed that jailers served inmates food that “is not fit for hogs.”
McNulty alleged that prisoners were routinely underfed and worked ten hours a day at hard labor. Meat was only served once a week, “one slice of fat bacon,” less than what prisoners at other jails got while merely sitting in a cell.
Musty meal was used for making corn bread three times a week until Putnam County health officers forbade the use of it. . . On Sunday, five crackers is the substitute for the dry bread of weekdays. Some of the paid guards are insulting and cruel and inhuman, especially to cripples and weaklings, using a loaded cane to beat them.
There were further allegations that Governor Goodrich’s family and “hirelings” of his administration profited from unpaid labor, since inmates at Putnamville were “farmed out” to the Globe Mining Company, partly run by the governor’s son. Charles E. Talkington, superintendent of the penal farm, blew these charges off by claiming that McNulty was a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies” Talkington had previously been head of the Farm Colony for the Feeble-Minded in Butlerville and Bartholomew County’s school superintendent. The “Feeble-Minded Farm” — also called the Muscatatuck Colony — was, like the epileptic “village” in New Castle, part of Indiana’s dark eugenics campaign, which blamed crime on mental retardation and figured into a backlash against immigrants and the poor.
Yet early charges made about the farm were tame compared to those reported in one of the most fiery and flamboyant Hoosier newspapers Dale’s Muncie Post-Democrat.
Dale had just begun a landmark battle against the Ku Klux Klan. Though the Klan almost took over Indiana government in the 1920s, it was rooted in years of corrupt politics and arguably even social reform movements like Prohibition and eugenics. During his long battle to expose the Muncie Klan, Dale would be attacked by gunmen who tried to shoot him and his son. Yet the white-haired editor took on the Klan with humor, writing outrageous lampoons about “Koo-Koos” and “Kluxerdom” in his weekly paper, which was almost wholly dedicated to ridiculing the Invisible Empire. Dale published lists of known or suspected Klan members. He also grappled with the KKK’s powerful women’s auxiliary at a time when thousands of Hoosier Klanswomen spread hatred through families in ways that their male counterparts actually had less success at in their public roles. Dale vocally supported blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, and anybody else targeted by the Klan.
In August 1922, Dale also came to the defense of prisoners at the State Farm. The battle would go on for years. Before it was over, he got a chance to see the terrors of the “Black Hole of Indiana” up close. For criticizing a Muncie judge with links to the Klan — Clarence Dearth, a man he called “the most contemptible chunk of human carrion that ever disgraced the circuit bench in the state of Indiana” — Dale was sentenced for contempt of court and libel, fighting a four-year-long legal battle to stay out of the farm himself. Dale’s campaign is an overlooked part of the history of freedom of speech in Indiana.
His first jab came on August 4, 1922. That story was based on the accusations of “a man from Muncie” who had just visited Putnamville. (Dale doesn’t give his name.)
When Dale criticized a libel ruling Dearth, the judge handed him a 90-day sentence at Putnamville. After eleven days in a Muncie jail, the editor entered the State Farm’s gates as “Convict 14,378.” Partly through the efforts of his wife Lena, the Indiana Supreme Court ordered Dale’s release after just three days. He now had a chance to write “from actual experience”, not the reports of others. Dale immediately set to work “serving notice on the Ku Klux Klan and its miserable tools in office.”
While wealthy bootleggers and Prohibition violators with connections in government often got off scot-free, Dale wrote that when he went to Putnamville, he stood in line with working-class men.
Stepping into the prison barber’s, “in exactly ten seconds my head looked like a billiard ball.” The 56-year-old and father of seven claimed he was then forced to strip down and shower in public, received filthy clothes that “smelled like sin,” got sprayed down by a fruit-tree sprayer, and was vaccinated by a veterinarian. Of the eight meals he ate in the mess hall in the course of three days, he never got any meat. He slept in a miserable, freezing dormitory with 204 other inmates, most of them sick and packed in “like sardines in a can.”
Dale insisted that many of these inmates were jailed on trivial liquor charges. He described one man whose family was left subsisting on charity while he rotted at the farm for almost two years, “having no money to pay his fine,” though prisoners were supposed to receive $1.00 a day for their labor. Always keen to publish news about the discrepancies in punishment meted out to African Americans versus whites, Dale mentioned black teens at the penal farm sentenced for bicycle theft and other minor offenses.
The editor put out an appeal to Governor Warren Terry McCray to investigate the “Putnamville Disgrace.” While he commended the governor for investigating similar jail horrors in Marion County and at the new Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton, Dale insisted on “The Difference Between Men and Bulls.” Cattle on McCray’s bull farm near Kentland lived better lives than prisoners at Putnamville, he announced. Taking heed of these accusations, Dr. James Wilson, mayor of Wabash, Indiana, refused to send any further offenders to Putnam County “until that place of horror is changed from a torture pen into a place of punishment where convicts are treated like human beings instead of dumb brutes.”
In 1926, two years after Ed Jackson, a Klansman, became Governor of Indiana, Judge Dearth and editor Dale were still fighting. Dearth sent the newspaperman back to the penal farm once more when Dale continued to ridicule him. Dale was also found guilty on a “trumped up” charge of liquor possession and of libeling George Roeger, a Muncie distributor of D.C. Stephenson‘s newspaper, The Fiery Cross (printed in Indianapolis). Dale had accused him of being a “Ku Klux draft dodger.”) A jury allegedly packed with Klansmen also declared him guilty of carrying a concealed weapon. Dale appealed the case to the Indiana Supreme Court but lost. Judge Julius C. Travis wrote the opinion that “the truth is no defense” and that Dale had held the law up to ridicule. Newspapers in Chicago and elsewhere started a defense fund to support freedom of speech.
In July 1926, Dale spent a further nine days at Putnamville, digging a tile ditch. He was released, strangely enough, by order of Governor Jackson himself. He got another sentence in August 1927, but spent just half an hour there. It was enough time, however, for him to be fingerprinted and booked as a convict. He also described a conversation with a young African American, James Martin, sentenced to six months for stealing $5.00. Martin had a wife and three children.
Judge Clarence Dearth of Muncie was later impeached. George Dale went on to become Muncie’s mayor from 1930 to 1935. As editor and mayor, he kept an eye on corrupt judges and police.
The Indianapolis Times began a series of articles about abuse allegations that continued to come out of the Indiana State Penal Farm. Yet the farm survived, receiving many inmates throughout the Depression. Most came on charges of larceny, liquor offenses and issuing fraudulent checks. Some, though, were guilty of more serious crimes, like drunk driving and child molestation. Still others came for downright strange reasons, like a Kendallville man arrested for selling “fake radium belts” for which he claimed curative powers. Then there were the sentences that now seem downright cruel.
Heavy drinkers were packed off to Putnamville into the 1950s. Through the 1960s, inmates milked cows, tended an orchard, and grew vegetables, also raising 18 acres of tobacco. About 40 convicts a year escaped in the 1970s and ’80s. Staff and guards were unarmed.
In 1977, the farm was reclassified as a medium-security prison and began receiving convicted felons, which partly contributed to the decline of farming there in the 1980s. The State of Indiana later tried to revive dairy farming at Putnamville in the 1990s. In 1995, the prison was operating the largest dairy farm in the county. Yet of the farm’s 1,600 inmates that year, less than 100 were working in agriculture.
Conditions in the mid-’90s had definitely improved since the days of Prohibition. The Kokomo Tribune reported in 1994 that 900 gallons of food scraps a day were being taken from the dining hall, mixed with cow manure, and used in a composting initiative. That project cut the prison’s garbage bill in half.
Now called the Putnamville Correctional Facility, the institution survives. Almost 2,500 prisoners are there today, more than at any time in its history.