Franklin County Jail, ca. 1905-1924.
The old Franklin County jail on East Nash Street in Louisburg was completed in 1875, a year after an event that shook the county. At 11 p.m. on the evening of January 7, 1874, the bell in the Franklin County Courthouse in Louisburg awakened the town to an unfolding tragedy. A large group of citizens soon discovered that the county jail, probably located southeast of the courthouse and near the business district, was on fire. The jailer was nowhere to be found, and the door to the structure was locked.
Men used axes to gain entrance to the smoke-filled building, only to discover that the door to the downstairs "dungeon" could not be opened. As The Franklin Courier reported on January 9, the cell's "two helpless mortals were left to their doom." Racing upstairs, men freed two male prisoners by breaking the bars on a window. A female prisoner held in a room on the opposite side of the jail's second floor apparently suffocated because she was too infirm to assist those who tried to save her. The newspaper reported that "the groans and cries of the poor beings appealing for assistance was pitiful, and will long be remembered."
One of the prisoners who escaped claimed that the fire had been set by one of the downstairs prisoners in an attempt to escape from the jail.
The Franklin County Commissioners soon received advice on how to rebuild the jail and heeded it. "A Countyman" published an article in the January 23, 1874, issue of the Courier, urging the commissioners to locate the new jail on Cedar Hill: "The location is better," he reasoned, "and in case of fire its burning would not endanger any portion of the Town, and ... there is more ground there than on the old site, and with a small outlay, a house could be built suitable [f]or the residence of the Jailor." He recommended rock as a readily available building material. An editorial in the Courier on January 30 echoed these ideas, adding that the county already owned a two-acre lot on Cedar Hill. According to historian Edward Hill Davis, Cedar Hill, named for the large cedar trees that stood there, was a notorious horse-trading area that teemed with people and animals during semi-annual sessions of the superior court.
The commissioners passed a resolution on February 2 to petition the General Assembly to enact legislation authorizing the county to levy and collect a special tax to raise $8,000 for the construction of a new jail. Legislators complied with this request on February 16, thus enabling the commissioners to pay cash for the new structure.
Wasting little time, the commissioners voted on April 13 to advertise for bids in The Franklin Courier, as well as in newspapers in Raleigh and Richmond. The notice in the Courier stated that the two-story jail was to be built of granite "convenient to the spot." It would measure forty-four by twenty-two feet. According to the ad, "Propositions will also be entertained for a jail, with Jailor's house attached."
Meeting on May 21, the commissioners awarded the contract for building the jail, with "Jailers House attached," to the firm of Cayton and Duncan. This partnership may have involved John Cayton of Raleigh, a stone cutter who owned a business at the corner of Blount and Morgan streets. The commissioners agreed that the jail would be located on "Millners Hill at such Point as may be agreed upon by the Board." This was a reference to property formerly owned by Patewills and Jacobina Milner, who in 1779 had sold the land on which Louisburg was established. The Milner house was located northeast of the intersection of Cedar and Nash streets. The board appointed Philemon B. Hawkins, Joseph J. Davis, and Joshua Perry as supervisors of the construction project. Funds would come from an assessment of 33 1/3 cents per $100 of real and personal property.
Work began soon after this meeting, and disbursements for work accomplished by the contractors were made beginning in August. The contractors apparently hired a man named H. J. Calisher to do much of the work. James J. Minetree, a dry goods merchant in Louisburg, also received payment during the construction process. In addition, the commissioners paid W. J. Dunn to build a granite wall in front of the jail.
Workmen completed the building early in 1875. During the construction process, prisoners had been housed by the sheriff of Wake County.
Published in The Franklin Times on October 9, 2014.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at email@example.com. He wishes to thank Sammy Beasley for providing the photograph and most of the research material for this article. Joe Elmore and Billy Lumpkin provided additional assistance.