Old Stone Jail

Old Stone Jail, Tenth St., Honesdale

By Gloria McCullough - Photos by John Van Horn

Old Stone Jail

The Old Stone Jail has occupied an unobtrusive site along the banks of the Lackawaxen River at the eastern end of 10th Street. Built in 1859 at a cost of $16,000, this venerable stone building was not the first structure to house Wayne County’s lawbreakers.

Wayne County’s first jail was built in 1801 in Bethany, then the county seat. The thirty-two by thirty-six foot building, constructed of hewed timber laid up like logs in a cabin, was a story and a half in height. Two small cells were located on the first floor and the jailer and his family occupied the remainder of the building. It burned in 1815 and by 1817 a combination courthouse and jail had been constructed. During the construction two rooms had been partitioned off in David Wilder’s public house to provide temporary quarters for local wrongdoers.

In 1841, when Honesdale became the seat of county government, another wooden jail was built on the present site of the old stone jail. A separate structure next door served as home to the jailer and his family. Living conditions aside, the most troublesome aspect of this latest wooden jail was the ease by which the unwilling occupants gained access to freedom. After much deliberation a decision was made to construct a more substantial replacement but the project was fraught with controversy. In 1858 the building contract was awarded to Kelly & Co., despite allegations of bribery in the local press, and construction commenced.

Jail Cell
Jail Cell

While the workmen labored, the prisoner’s unsanctioned leaves of absence continued unabated. The old wooden jail was torn down to clear the site for its replacement and prisoners were confined in a large room in the upper story of the jailer’s residence. They were handcuffed and shackled to the floor as an extra measure of security. In June of 1859, just prior to the completion of the stone jail, one lone prisoner was in residence.

During the day, this enterprising individual hammered at his shackle, taking advantage of the noise of the nearby construction to mask his efforts. He managed to break the shackle and during the night he made his escape. Lowering himself by means of bedclothes from the second story window, the handcuffed prisoner disappeared into the night, minus his coat and pants.

By August the stone jail was ready for occupants. An article in the August 11, 1859 issue of The Wayne County Herald reported that Sheriff Turner had arrested a young man named Thomas Lee for robbing a store in Binghamton and had taken him to the new “Lock-up”. This same newspaper, on April 7, 1859 declared, “We admonish all evil doers to keep out of this jail, if they wish to enjoy their liberty, for if they get behind the double iron doors, they will be hopelessly fast until released by due course of law”.

Stepping across the threshold of this somber stone edifice, one is inclined to share the attitude of that newspaper correspondent. Upon entering the building, the descriptive word that immediately comes to mind is “dungeon”. The squat, one story structure is constructed almost completely of rough stone. The interior walls are rough stone as is the floor. The ten foot arched ceiling is brick. A trap door in the ceiling leads through a crawl space to a latticed cupola on the roof. This cupola seems an oddly esthetic touch to an otherwise bleak structure. The heavy iron door opens to a very narrow corridor with another iron door at its opposite end. Five cells, each measuring about twelve feet by nine or ten feet with arched ceilings, flank the corridor on each side. The entrance to each cell is considerably lower than a normal doorway, making it necessary for even a man of medium stature to stoop to gain entry. Each cell has a long narrow vertical slit for a window resembling an aperture one might see in a fortress. Once the solid metal cell door was closed this aperture would be the prisoner’s only source of light.

A cell on either side of the front entrance served as a room for the guard and a trustee. The walls of the corridor still retain the marks of what evidently had been a gate that separated these first two cells and the front entrance from the rest of the jail. The last cell on the right may have been where the jailer’s wife prepared the meals for the prisoners. A thick stone slab in one corner of the cell might well have been the location of a wood or coal stove.

Exterior of Jail

The overall impression is one of dampness and gloom even in the daylight hours. A kerosene lamp would have done little to relieve the melancholy atmosphere during the long winter evenings. Much later, at some point prior to the construction of the present county jail in 1935, electric wiring was installed. Portions of that antiquated wiring system are still in evidence.

From its construction in 1859 until 1935, the old stone jail has been the setting for many of life’s comedies and tragedies. Most of its occupants were people arrested for such crimes as selling liquor without a license, public drunkenness, assault and battery, petty theft or vagrancy. It was the setting for a number of suicides and, in 1878, the birth of a baby whose mother was being held for the murder of her husband. This particular story had a happy ending since the woman was acquitted. The first hanging in Honesdale, and the fourth in the county, was carried out in a barn constructed for that sad purpose behind the wooden jail. On Sept. 29, 1848 a tramp named Harris Bell was executed for the murder of Mrs. Gershom Williams near Scott Center on August 1, 1847. The three previous hangings took place in Bethany. In 1809 Peter Allen was hanged for the stabbing of Solomon Tice and claims the dubious honor of being the first man executed in the county. Nineteen year-old Cornelius Jones paid the ultimate price for the poisoning of his stepfather Isaac Roswell in 1817 and in 1828 Freeman Marthers was executed for the murder of Col. Jonathan Brooks.

It is said that stone walls do not a prison make and the history of the old jail seems to give truth to that old adage. Even the sturdy stone walls proved to be no match for the local criminal element that seemed determined to demonstrate that when there is a will there is a way….out. The county’s reluctant guests displayed remarkable ingenuity and teamwork in devising methods of escape. The Republic, in its issue of June 16, 1864, chided, "Out again. Last week two of the three boys who have broken out of jail so many times recently, again escaped and are now in the neighborhood of Equinunk. They have sent word to the Sheriff that if he wants them they will immediately return." In 1894 a horse thief, watch thief and two tramps joined forces to saw their way out of a door and climbed over a fence. It might seem reasonable to think that perhaps there was another member of the team who supplied the saw. In 1913, two prisoners with a flair for acrobatics piled two tables and several chairs on top of each other until they reached the cupola. They managed to break through the trap door, crawl to the roof and drop to the ground 20 feet below. Over the years various versions of these methods were tried. One man successfully managed to squeeze through one of the narrow windows but another unlucky inmate found his egress through the cupola thwarted by his bulky frame.

Wardent's Office
Warden's Office

Perhaps the most celebrated escape was that of James P. McCabe in 1887. Mr. McCabe of Preston Township was convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder of Michael Riley in December of 1885. He was sentence to be hanged on May 26, 1887. In the early morning hours of May 18th, McCabe escaped from his cell despite the fact that two guards were sleeping nearby. It was believed that he had outside help and a $500 reward was issued for his capture. He remained at large for nearly four months but was finally captured in the loft of Martin McClune's barn in Preston Township on September 13, 1887. McCabe's escapade had serious repercussions for Sheriff Medland, who, with two deputy sheriffs and three county commissioners, was indicted for "gross negligence in discharge of their official duties". Fortunately, they received a verdict of not guilty.

McCabe, however, was not so fortunate. On November 10, 1887, he was hanged in another hastily constructed barn behind the old jail. The barn in which Harris Bell had been executed so many years before was now used as a stable.

Although a large crowd gathered outside the jail, about 70 black-bordered invitations had been issued to a select number of people who were to witness the event. McCabe's was the fifth and the last hanging in Wayne County.

Thanks to the Wayne County Commissioners for giving permission and our many volunteers, the Old Stone Jail will usually be open the first Saturday of the months of June, July, August, and September. Check the Calendar for opening times.

Visit our library for more information and photographs.