No, not the Amish! We’re changing course here and taking a look at criminals. I imagine many of your family trees just might include someone who lived on the other side of the law. This is what makes genealogy fun really! We’re not proud of ancestors who we finally found – behind bars – but it does add a little pzazz to the family tree.
In Kentucky, it was common for a time to have stocks. Yes, those wooden contraptions where the criminal sat on a stool or log with his arms through holes on both sides and his head through a larger one in the middle.
Then came the local jails. I had to chuckle when, here in Barren County, they had a jail but the jail was not locked. The city council had to make a motion to buy keys for the jail! The jails were all shapes and sizes and it wasn’t always all that difficult to “break out.”
Let’s go back to 1792, our Statehood. The law was very strict in stating that every felony except one was punishable by hanging. Arson, forgery, horse stealing and more were hung on the nearest tree. If the offense was more minor, they might have their hands burned, be whipped or be put in the stocks.
The Kentucky State Penitentiary was located in Frankfort, KY – the first prison west of the Allegheny Mountains. In 1798 Judge Harry Innes donated an acre of his land for the building. Rules there included: convicts must be clothed with coarse material of “uniform color and made so as to distinguish them from good citizens.” They were to be fed bread, Indian meal or any inferior food; two meals of coarse meat every week. The men were to be “kept at hard labor” and no matter what their crime to be placed in the penitentiary for “confinement and punishment rather than rehabilitation and training.” The penitentiary opened in 1799.
Things continued this way until 1855 when the penitentiary was leased to a man for $6,000-$12,00 a year. He was to house, feed and care for the inmates and he then lease out convict labor to business interests or employed inmates in manufacturing inside the prison. Many of the old State records are on line and there were many references to this period and its many, many problems. Complaints were made constantly as to the treatment of the prisoners, the bad food, etc. But, during this time, prisoners made furniture, built wagons, made harnesses – even clothing such as shirts, skirts and shoes. There was much abuse in doing this and by 1873 nearly 10% of the inmates died of scurvy or other diseases because of bad or improper feeding.
From 1875-1900 the cost of feeding an inmate was 10 cents a day. The beds they slept upon were made of moss and the cells housed two men each in a 6x3 area.
In the 1880’s, the State again took over control of the penitentiary and hired a state-paid superintendent.
The prison population grew and in 1884 construction began on the Kentucky Branch Penitentiary in Eddyville, KY. The building took 6 years to complete and cost $420,000.
In 1888 parole was introduced by State statute. First-term convicts who had good conduct records and who had not been sentenced for rape or incest were eligible for parole. Murderers had to serve 10 years before being paroled. Every parolee who remained in Kentucky had to report to the Commissioner of the Sinking Fund every 6 months.
The Eddyville Branch opened in 1890 and Governor John Young Brown determined that it was “a stupendous mistake.”
In 1891, convicts were no longer allowed to be leased to labor outside the penitentiary. From this date until 1919, 48% of the inmate deaths in Frankfort and Eddyville was caused by tuberculosis.
In 1893, 68 out of every 100 prisoners had been whipped. In August alone, 1,263 lashes were administered and 19 of the prisoners escaped.
In 1896, the first prisoner is sent to Kentucky Branch Penitentiary (Eddyville) for execution.
1912 brought about name changes. The Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort is renamed Kentucky State Reformatory and the Kentucky Branch Penitentiary at Eddyville is named the Kentucky State Penitentiary.
Whipping of prisoners was abolished in 1912 at Eddyville.
Illiterate prisoners could not be paroled in 1921. In this year the population at The Frankfort Reformatory and Eddyville was 1,001. By 1930, there were 3,167 prisoners and 4,024 in 1935.
Rewards began to be offered in 1922 for escaped convicts. Guards were sent out, many time with civilian assistants, for the manhunt. Guards were not allowed to collect the reward, the civilian could. The cost of the manhunt was paid for by the inmate out of his earnings.
By 1923, Frankfort had 206 employees; Eddyville had 46 and there were 32 at the Kentucky House of Reform at Greendale which had opened. A riot occurred this year at the penitentiary in Frankfort. Three convicts somehow obtained guns and killed three officers, wounded a fourth officer and barricaded themselves in the dining room. The fifty-Fourth Machine Gun Squadron is called to the scene from Hopkinsville. Shots are fired in the dining room. The siege lasted from a Wednesday morning until Saturday night – 81 hours of continuous firing. At the end it is discovered that 3 convicts had been dead since Wednesday; two had killed themselves and left suicide notes and a third convict died of wounds.
By 1926 there are 674 inmates at Frankfort of whom 335 are white and 339 are black.
We’ll continue next week with 1928.