Old Jail stories captivate families

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March 8, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Allen County Historical Society’s new director, Jeff Kluever, thought he had to offer a popular family movie, “Night at the Museum,” to lure Iolans to the first ACHS family night at the old jail.
Turned out he was wrong.
“I thought they would come for the movie,” Kluever said of about 30 people who came to Friday evening’s event. But, he happily noted, “They came for the jail.”
The crowd, broken into small groups to maneuver tight corridors, loitered in the building a good hour and a half.
From inside steel cells, Moran history buff Larry Manes told tales of former inmates, while Kluever held sway upstairs in the jailer’s quarters, restored to how they  looked when jailers and their families lived above the cells.
The jail was built in 1869 and used by the county until 1958. Jailers lived above the prison until 1904, he said, when it was then converted to additional cells for women and a jail office.
At that time an interior stairway was added, Kluever noted.
Before, jailers’ families were segregated from prisoners through an external stairwell to their quarters, a security measure in case someone should escape the steel cages that packed the jail’s main floor. 
“No one ever did” escape the cells, though, Kluever noted, not once original wooden cells were replaced. “There were so many escapes in the first two years with wooden cells that they had to bring in a steel cage,” Kluever said.
“It was dropped right in the middle,” of the building, with a corridor between the cells and the building’s walls, Kluever noted.
If prisoners somehow escaped, they’d be stymied by two feet of limestone and a heavy steel door, which made a most impenetrable fortress. In addition, Kluever said, the old jail was fully enclosed by a fence.
Inside the building, graffiti scars the silver-clad walls.
Some of the scribblings are comical, such as the name “Cornflake Hotel” given to one cell, or “cockroach hotel” to another. Names of sweethearts like Mary Francis and Libby are carved into another wall. Hatch marks counting days are found near every bunk. Profiles of faces, cartoon characters and the admonition “crime dosen’t pay” (sic) also add color to the old jail.
The cartoon caricatures could have been drawn by former LaHarpe resident Eddie Bone, said Dwight Minott, who was on the tour.
“Eddie would get drunk once in a while and be brought here,” Minott said. “He was quite a good cartoonist.” Minott said he was a boy at the time of Mr. Bone’s shenanigans.
Other prisoners left their names, such as Emmit Lack, who visited a cell on May 29, 1955. Or Dave Webb, in the “Hotel Cockroach.”
Manes said only one prisoner was ever removed from his cell unwillingly.
An old farmer, notorious for his temper, was housed in the jail in 1870, Manes said. Elsie Dawson had taken an orphan boy on as a farmhand, and in his rage to discipline the lad, had killed him by stepping on his throat.
He tossed the body down a well, hoping the crime would go unnoticed.
It didn’t.
Into the jail went Dawson.
One evening, Manes said, a man who claimed to be the Neosho County Sheriff came to the jail door with a supposed prisonerto drop off. He made his way inside, took Dawson and headed outside, where another 50 vigilantes waited.
He was found the next day, hanged in a barn, Manes said.
Another prisoner of infamy was Ella Reese, an Iola woman who ran a “house of ill-earned wages,” Manes said. She was imprisoned in 1908 for corrupting a minor and sentenced to hard labor.
Being a woman of considerable girth, Manes noted, no work clothes could be found to fit her. As it would be unseemly for a woman to do street work in a dress, the mayor at the time asked for her release, Manes said.
“She spent only two days in this establishment,” Manes said, though after her release she was no longer found in the annals of Iola, he said.

UPSTAIRS, a trundle bed, an early Victrola, wash basins and a wreath of woven human hair adorn the four rooms of the jailer’s quarters.
Kluever especially likes an old pie safe in the kitchen, where a cherry pitter shares table space with a cast iron St. Bernard nut cracker.
A woman’s cotton underdress hangs on dressmaker’s dummy in the bedroom, while other period clothes hang in the closet.
A hard bench with a rail is in the sitting room. When asked “Do any of you know what this is,” one young boy piped up, “it was to keep the baby from falling off.” Turns out he was correct.
Guesses as to the use of a perforated pan on a long handle hanging near the bed brought ideas such as “popcorn popper” that were far from the true purpose: a bed warmer, to be filled with live coals and run between the sheets before retiring at night — the jail was not insulated.
In the hall at the top of the stairs hangs a letter written by Florence Hobart in 1962.
Miss Hobart was a baby at the time her father, Allen County Sheriff Lewis Hobart, lived with his wife Eliza Jane and six children above the jail in 1889.
Her father served four years as sheriff, and though the family moved to “quieter and more spacious quarters in a two-story house at 113 E. Jackson St.,” Miss Hobart wrote that “the backyard of this jail was the playground for the neighborhood children,” herself and her siblings included.
“Prisoners,” she continued, “would sometimes talk to us through the bars of the windows, and occasionally give us pennies or nickels, which I saved in empty pill boxes.”
Proving, it seems, that though behind bars, the men kept their humanity intact.

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