Franklin County completed a new jail on East Nash Street in Louisburg in 1875, but it soon proved to be problematic. Living conditions and security in the facility were recurring problems.
The editor of The Franklin Times in March 1889 raised concerns about the condition of the building. "The law requires (under a heavy penalty for neglect) that the apartments shall be kept clean and comfortable," he warned, "but if any one who was in the habit of living in comfortable quarters should be so unfortunate as to get into jail here, we do not believe that they could stand it very long." Two windows were kept open at all times, "without shutters or anything to keep the cold winds from sending their chilly blasts through its apartments."
Perhaps two inmates had this in mind when, just days after the editor published his remarks, they escaped from the facility. First, they tried to burn the jail, but Sheriff Henry C. Kearney stopped them. After they were placed in an upstairs cell, the prisoners removed enough of the ceiling to scramble into the attic and then escaped through a "small latticed window" in the gable end of the building. They then broke the lock on the gate of the jail's enclosure and disappeared.
The county commissioners soon charged two of their members, William B. Uzzle and T. S. Collie, with the responsibility of having the jail repaired and of investigating the cost of steel cells. Commissioner George Winston observed that the jail should be "bull strong, pig tight and horse high." The Franklin Times agreed: "Unless something substantial is done it is useless to do anything. Too much money has already been thrown away trying to patch the present pile of rock which was once called a jail."
Meeting in July 1889, local magistrates and the county commissioners took action. They agreed to pay the Champion Iron Company of Kenton, Ohio, $3,300 to install four steel cells and associated equipment, including toilets, a water tank, and hardware on which to hang four hammocks per cell. The commissioners believed that with these improvements, the jail would be one of the best in the state.
The census of 1880 shows Calvin and Thomas A. Coley among the children of Samuel and Betsy Coley of Griffins Township in Nash County. Image courtesy of NC LIVE.
Despite the added security, in 1894 two brothers, Calvin and Thomas Coley, who had been convicted of murdering a Jewish peddler two years earlier, escaped from the jail. According to W. F. Shelton, who told the story of the Coley brothers in his book The Day the Black Rain Fell (1984), Cal and Tom were soon apprehended.
On July 13, 1894, thousands of people gathered in Louisburg to witness the hanging of the murderers on a gallows erected near the jail. They stirred up so much dust that when a thunderstorm rushed through town, "black" rain fell.
Problems associated with the jail persisted well into the twentieth century, and the county commissioners took steps to maintain a secure facility on the same site for the incarceration of criminals.
Published in The Franklin Times on October 30, 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 and Joe Elmore for providing some of the source material used in this article.