The Will County jail, no picnics here

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Francis Goodspeed

Josiah McRoberts

By Sandy Vasko

The State Penitentiary gets all the glory. It once housed bad guys from all over the state, and now, people from all over the country come to see it. It has been in documentaries, movies, etc. However, there was another place of incarceration, and it was much more dangerous. Today, we look at the Will County jail.
The Will County jail, along with a courthouse, the first public building in the county, was built in 1837. By the 1870s, a fine limestone structure was built, with the Sheriff’s residence next door. Our first look at the facility is gruesome.
From August 24, 1876, Joliet Weekly Sun, “A jail escape occurred in this city about half past seven o’clock last evening for which, so far as we can learn, no one is responsible.
“When Mr. Arnold went into the jail last evening to light the gas and take up the night’s supply of water, he was suddenly assaulted. He did not fall at the first blow, but at the second, he fell to the floor. From the wounds on his head, we think he received four blows, any one of which, had it not been for Mr. Arnold’s heavy hat, would have been fatal. Altogether he received seven cuts. Had the prisoners not met with such a vigorous resistance from the old man, they would not have used him so roughly but, as he fought them fiercely, the only way for the to do was to render him helpless.
“When this was accomplished, they dashed out of the door at their own free will, one of them passing through and out of the front of the house, one jumping out of a side window, and two passing out of the side door to the jail. The latter met the janitor, whom they knocked down, and ran across into the C. A. & St. L. R. R. switch yard.
“Those who know about the arrangement of the jail will be at a loss to understand how the prisoners got into a position to attack Mr. Arnold when he opened the double door. This is explained when it is stated that they first broke a bar out of the grating between the cell room and the dining room. The bar broken out was about 12 inches long, with a piece of flat iron an eighth of an inch thick and four inches long welded to the end of it. The prisoners used this as their weapon in their attack upon Mr. Arnold, and it is supposed that Hanna was the man who did the most of the bloody work.
“The prisoners who escaped were: Samuel Hanna, who is a very hard and desperate character, and the other three were the burglars recently arrested for ‘cracking’ a hardware store in Mokena. They are young professional burglars, O’Brien, alias, Conlen, is an ex-convict and had only been out of the penitentiary a few days when he was arrested. John Eagan, alias McAllister, has been to the reform school. He is eighteen years of age. James Burns is a professional burglar, though he is only 19 or 20 years of age. Sheriff Arnold is using every endeavor to recapture them.”
That jail breaks were common, is obvious. From April 23, 1878, “The county jail lost one regular boarder last Saturday morning. Frank Smith, alias Pluck Whalen, who was serving out a sentence for larceny, and lacked a few days of paying the penalty adjudged against him, broke jail and up to the present writing has not been recaptured. He was very well aware that upon the expiration of his sentence, he would be wanted to answer to more serious charges, and took the first opportunity to make ‘leg bail.’”
Not all attempts were successful. From October 29, 1878, “An attack upon the keeper of the prisoners at the county jail was well planned, but poorly executed, last Friday night. Jailer Barrowman entered the cell room at the usual hour to lock up the prisoners, when a rush was made upon him by Murphy, McQuade and others, expecting to overpower him and easily gain their liberty. Fortunately, the officers of the jail had been apprised that such an attempt would be made at the time and a sufficient force was on hand to support the jailer. The prisoners were easily secured and safely locked up in the dark cell and there left to ponder over the failure of their little scheme.”
Who were these law breakers and where did they come from? We have a partial answer. From the County Jail register; “From Dec. 2nd, 1872 to Dec. 2nd, 1873, 60 were incarcerated; 1874; 58; 1875, 91; 1876, 75; 1877, 145; 1878, 128; making a total of 558, or an average of one every 4 days.
“Of these the majority were native born, as the following will show: United States, 325; Ireland, 91; Germany, 41; England, 20; Canada, 15; Italy, 3; Wales, 2; France, 1; Poland, 1; Sweden, 2; and unknown, 36. At the time of incarceration 373 were residents of this county, which is a bad showing for the County of Will.
“The cause of incarceration is as follows: Larceny, 173; burglary, 69; rape, 10; violation of liquor law, 29; assault with intent to kill, 52; assault with deadly weapons, 3; mayhem, 8; murder, 10; bastardy, 7; contempt of court, 8; perjury, 4; held as witnesses, 5; false pretense, 3; insane, 19; arson, 8; threats, 5; keeping lewd houses, 1; malicious mischief, 14; assault and battery, 23; forgery, 3; adultery, 4; riot, 33; breach of promise, 1; manslaughter, 2; resisting officers, 1; robbery, 10; incest, 2; swindling, 1; embezzlement, 5; desertion, 1; carrying concealed weapons, 1.”
Next time, we continue our look at the County Jail history, which includes sewage and public hangings.

 

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