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William B. Scott, Jr., Architectural History

Sarah Jackson Smith, Jail History and Folklore

Dorothy Donnell Steers, Court Record Research

June, 1992


An accurate history of the Simpson County jails presents a unique problem to historians as most of the records were destroyed in the 1882 Courthouse fire.

As best can be established the buildings located on the southeast corner of College Street and West Washington Street were used as the third and fourth jails. The first two jails are known to have been located within the Courthouse square. The first jail was built May 1820 shortly after the formation of Simpson County in 1819. A second jail was  built by 23 May 1834.

By an 1835 act, the jailer was required to live within 200 yards of the jail. Such a requirement makes it plausible that the building known as the Old Jailerís Residence may have been used solely as a residence prior to its conversion for use as both by 1860.

This building dates primarily from three different periods of construction during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

The first structure was a single brick room measuring 18 feet square.  Construction methods suggest it dates possibly as early as 1830. The room was solid brick with the exception of a single front window and door. On the south wall of the house is evidence of two small windows which may have originally flanked a chimney.

At least two major overhauls of the house have taken place. The first seems to have been in about 1880, just after construction of the new jail was completed. From this point forward, this building seems to have had the sole function of being the jailerís residence. At this point a number of maintenance items were completed. These included gutting the earliest part of the building, replacing old floor and ceiling joists, adding new flooring and adding new plastering. Floor joists in the south rooms are log and those in this old section would have likely been the same.

An addition, consisting of a second story room and hall, was added to the building a few years later. The resulting building gave an appearance of a typical hall/parlor type residence. Surviving interior moldings from this alteration are of the late Federal style with beaded edges on ceiling beams, door moldings and baseboards. These suggest a date in the early 1830's. The south wall becoming the north wall of the center hall, the two small windows were filled, the original chimney torn down and 17 Ĺ inch interior chimney added to the north wall of the building.

A second major addition was made, again, in very short order. This time, two rooms were added on the south end of the buildings. This gave the two story facade a balanced look - a central entrance with a room on each side. With their well-planned chimneys, mantles and superior construction quality, they are no doubt the finest rooms in the house. This period is the point in time we are currently restoring the building.

Finally, a one-and-a-half story ell was added to the rear of these last two rooms. Torn away some years ago, the date of this addition is not known. The ell, as well as the entire jail complex shows on E .L. Crullís "Birdís Eye View of the City of Franklin" dated 1871. Seemingly very accurate, the map shows the jail property occupying about one quarter of the block. On the alley to the south, one sees the privy building.

The second major overhaul is dated about 1901, as a newspaper fragment of that year was discovered in a window casing during the current restoration. At this time, a two-story balcony was added to the length of the facade. All the windows were thus lengthened to the floor to take full advantage of this new feature. The most significant interior change at this time was the replacement of the original staircase and the reorienting of the new stairs toward the front of the hall. It was this addition that destroyed virtually all the original character of the building. The current restoration attempts to restore the building to the period prior to this sad alteration


The building referred to as the Old Jail is believed to be the fourth jail in Simpson County.

A handbill dated January 19, 1878 offering a $200 reward for the capture and delivery of John Bunton at the Franklin jail in Simpson County might have heralded the incident that prodded the county fathers in moving faster with their plans for the construction of a new jail.


The jail was designed by H. P. McDonald Brothers, shortly after opening their Louisville office. At this time, McDonald was the fastest rising architect in the state. About 1880, McDonald developed a number of standard designs for building such as schools, hospitals, courthouses and, of course, jails. Two of these standard designs, which would be repeated dozens of times, are realized in the Simpson County jail (1879) and the Simpson County courthouse (1882). The firm designed a number of Franklin buildings including the Presbyterian Church (1886), the Franklin Female College (1889), and the Goodnight house (1893). The pinnacle of McDonaldís career came in 1887 when their design for the Kansas State House was accepted and built. It should be noted that a certain patriotism is demonstrated by Simpson County by their use of Kentucky architect as opposed to those of much closer Nashville.

The unique style of the Old Jail is based on a medieval fortress conveyed through thin lancet windows and massive stone work. Such a design combines psychological deterrence to crime and provides an escape-proof enclosure for prisoners.

The very visible iron bars and straps bolted to the stone are unique to the Simpson County jail. It is thought these bars were added about the turn of the century. Similar McDonald Brothersí jails exhibit these narrow slits between the stones, but without bars. It was believed no prisoner could be small enough to slip between the huge stones. Apparently the Simpson County court was convinced the large stones could be pushed out and escape made possible.

The Simpson County Jail has a cruciform or cross-shaped floor plan. Such and other details were somewhat modified for other McDonald jails to accommodate different needs including budgets, available materials and occupancy.

One of the McDonald Brotherís superintendents, Peter Pfeiffer, an experienced stone mason, supervised the job. Tradition had it that a Simpson Countian, Cornelius Peden, and his workmen undertook the Herculean task of quarrying, transporting, shaping and assembling the huge limestone blocks under the watchful and expert eye of Mr. Pfeiffer.

One of the largest of the stones quarried measured eight feet by two feet square and may weigh up to two or three tons. A smaller stone at the front of the jail bears the name of the local commissioners, I. J. Bogan, R. Milliken, and G. Milliken; also the names of H. P. McDonald, architect and superintendents P. Pfeiffer and R. N. Pfeiffer. The huge flat stone which serves as part of the second story entrance is cantilevered out four feet into space above the lower door.

The quality of composition of the limestone in the floors and ceilings differs noticeably from that used in the walls. The wall stones are hammered smooth on the inside and left rough for the exterior. The nine-inch thick floor and ceiling stones are finer grained and smoother textured stone. Perhaps they were quarried at a different location.

It is common knowledge that one quarry for the jail stone is located about three miles east of Franklin just off Roark Road near the property line separating Dr. John Curryís farm and the Dan Ware farm. The huge stones were probably hauled to the jail site by ox cart, finished and then hoisted into position. A tripod derrick made of long logs and a pulley system was, no doubt, used to raise, lower and place the stones as they were cemented together.

One of the most interesting features of the old jail is the location of eight-inch holes in front of each ground-level cell door. These were openings which drained into a trough beneath the lower hall floor. This drainage system is similar to the systems used in the P.I.C. pig barns in this locality. In the jail it was used to flush out the cells and drain sewage in the main sewer.

Most of the tales about the presence of an underground dungeon probably stem from the fact that this drainage system under the hall floor was lined with uncut stone walls accessed for cleaning and repairs as mentioned in County Order Book I, page 36, 1883. Perhaps the inmates and jail personnel noted its similarity to a dungeon, thus the rumors grew. Over the years it filled in with over a foot of silt and had a newer floor added. This cellar-like tunnel extends the entire length of the hall and about three or four feet beyond the north entrance of the stone jail where it seems to be diverted to the main sewer.

Another question often raised is whether the undiscovered "tunnel" could actually be an extension of one passageway of Hoyís Cave which is rumored to run under Franklinís square and courthouse. No recent explorations of this part of the cave have been done to verify possibility.

In the 1960's, modern plumbing was installed in each jail cell. This consisted of a stainless steel combination commode/wash basin set into the corner of each cell, except two reserved for shower rooms.

In the early days the jail was heated in winter by a pot-bellied stove located near the center of the downstairs hall. This stove featured a long stovepipe extending through a round flu opening into an exterior brick chimney. The present Simpson County jailer, Mr. James Mooneyhan, a third-generation jailer, explained that in earlier years a system of "storm windows" was installed each fall to keep out the cold but were removed each spring. These large wood and glass panels were attached inside each cell to wooden pegs inserted into holes in the stone walls. In later years the slits in the cells were bricked up to within a few inches of the top to eliminate the need for sudden difficult seasonal change-over. County court records dated November 22, 1893 tell of the construction of a new chimney for $18.50. One cell was equipped with a solid iron door and used for solitary confinement. Several cells had heavy iron rings set into the floor. It is assumed that these were used to manacle or shackle dangerous or unruly prisoners to the floor with chains and leg irons. In the ceiling and walls of the downstairs hall, heavy rings are also found which could have been used to shackle prisoners with wrist irons and chains.


The Jailerís Residence was used as the jail from at least 1860 through 1879, when construction of the fourth jail building was finished.  As mentioned, the jail is clearly delineated on Crallís 1871 "Birdís Eye View of Franklin, Ky." By this time the rear Ell is clearly visible. Prisoners were probably kept in the Ell and the two north rooms of the main house.

Of the thirty or more years these buildings served as the jail, no period saw as much activity as those during and those after the Civil War. According to the court order of 10 June 1865, the "JAIL OF SIMPSON COUNTY WAS TAKEN POSSESSION OF BY THE MILITARY AUTHORITIES OF THE UNITED STATES, THE KEY TAKEN FROM THE JAILER, AND POSSESSION THEREOF RETAINED BY SAID MILITARY." During this period, Simpson County prisoners who committed felonies were transferred to the Warren County jail.

On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. The period following saw the most notable days of the Simpson County jail. The first concerned the infamous Captain Ellis Harper and his gang of Confederate Guerrillas, among whom were listed several men with Simpson County ties.

Harper staged a bloody rampage and killing spree through Simpson County just before the end of the war. Eleven grand jury indictments were returned against Harper and his men including murder, robbery and malicious shooting. The few of Harperís men who were apprehended were lodged in the Jailerís Residence including Seaton Moye of this county. When transporting Moye to the Warren County jail for protection, Harper and his men ambushed the group and freed Moye. He was later recaptured and moved to Louisville in hopes that Harper and his men would not seek revenge in Simpson County.

The second event of the post Civil War era involving the Old Jail, or the one pre-dating the stone jail, is commonly known as the King-Owen Affair of 1866. (See page 8.) Two of the men involved in this Louisville and Nashville train derailment/robbery were apprehended and held in the old jail awaiting their trial, conviction, and execution o June 27, 1866. Both men were taken to a gallows on Cherry and Railroad Streets to be "hanged by the neck until dead." This was the last public hanging in this county.

Drawings in the north second-story room are from this period in the jailís history. They depict a number of Civil War period officers in uniform. These drawings could date from any period during and immediately after the War. Speculation is that one of the figures may even be that of John Hunt Morgan, whose protťgťe was Ellis Harper.

One of the most publicized early tragedies revolving around the jail was the lynching of John Redfern. This occurred in 1892 and a detailed account can be read from the July 14th edition of the Franklin Favorite. Also, an audio tape was made by a member of the Simpson County Historical Society of an interview given by Mrs. Lucy Gorin who remembered it well. It seems that the Redfern family lived in a tenant house belonging to Mr. P. Barton Dunn. Dunn and a black man employed by him attempted to evict the Redfern family. As Dunn and his hired man, Mr. Hobdy, approached the house, Redfern fired his gun killing Dunn and shooting the fleeing Hobdy in the back, killing him also. Redfern turned himself in to the jailer and was locked up in the stone jail. There was tremendous public outrage against Redfern and a lynch mob assembled to take justice into its own hands. About eleven oíclock in the night following the murders, the mob rode noisily into town. The account says there were twenty-eight masked men carrying torches who stormed the jail. The commotion and tension caused by the preceding events brought out some curious citizens who wanted a closer look while others hid in fear. One eye-witness and his uncle hid in the shadows of the recessed entrance of the Boisseau Hotel (near where the Methodist Church is located) listening to and watching the ensuing drama. The mob leaders dragged the jailer out of bed, held a gun to his head and demanded the keys to the jail. They then dragged Redfern out of his cell, tied him on a horse and led him screaming and begging for mercy, out of town, down Caudill Hill to the east side of Sharpís Branch on the farm now owned by Cora Mae Harper, where the mob hanged him from a large tree limb overhanging the road.

Another pathetic tale involving the jail can be found in the book compiled by Dorothy Steers: SIMPSON COUNTY, KENTUCKY AREA PRE-1911 OBITUARIES, page 18, concerning Mrs. Mary Wallace Alderson.

14 May 1903. Mrs. MARY WALLACE ALDERSON, wife of B. Alderson, died at her home near Black Jack last Monday night, after an illness of only a few days of Pneumonia. Mrs. Alderson was a daughter of Mr. W. A. Wallace and was 35 years of age. The remains were brought to town Tuesday and taken to the county jail where they could be viewed by her distressed husband who is confined there, under life sentence, for the murder of Mr. Pleas Hall. The scene at the jail was a very sad and pathetic one ... Their 6 children were present. The remains were taken from the jail to Black Jack Church where the funeral was conducted by Rev. A. Malone, of this place. Mr. Malone read a letter from Mr. Alderson... signed G. B. Alderson.

The following is the text of a newspaper article dated June 20, 1887, which offers the jail for rent.

"Jailer Crit Hunt has suggested to the county that the jail be "rented out." He has a very few state prisoners who, he says, he can confine in one corner of the large building and the other portion of same can be "spared" very conveniently. No county and town law breakers now in custody, so he informs us. We will add simply as an item of news, that this is a prohibition town and county."

Some former inmates of the stone jail occasionally come for a tour. One man bragged before his grandson that he had been in this jail seven or eight times. The grandson told him he should be ashamed to admit it. Another man told of looking down into the "dungeon" under the hall while he was a prisoner. One former inmate had his name boldly printed over the door of a certain cell which he occupied frequently.

If the old jail walls could speak, what sad and tragic tales they could tell! Stories of drunken men and women whose addiction to the bottle brought them there frequently and predictably on weekends. Tales of evil, abusive people who murdered, raped and terrorized the community. Stories of thieves, con-artists, petty criminals and drug addicts and pushers. Many of these people were the victims of their own wrong choices and undisciplined lives. Others were themselves abused by family or society and seemed to know nothing better. Still others just defied the law. Let us hope that there were indeed some who learned from their first stay in the "Bastille" and went on to become good law-abiding citizens.

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