The History of the Meade County Jail
Gerald W. Fischer
Before Meade County was founded it was formerly part of Hardin and Breckenridge, Counties, and prior to that time the closest seat of justice was Hardinsburg, Kentucky. Near the courthouse, usually convened in the largest building in town, often times a tavern, a strong-secure store room or nearby cabin was designated a jail. Penalties in those days included corporal punishment like flogging and even branding. In the town common there would be a whipping post sunk in the ground with an iron ring affixed to it where a miscreant was tied and whipped. A whipping was not a little thing. Near Irvington a Negro woman was severely whipped causing her death. Occasionally there would be stocks that would hold and display a lawbreaker so the town’s people could publicly ridicule the scofflaw. On December 17th, 1823 Meade County was formed from a part of Hardin and Breckenridge Counties. Court was held on East Hill in the two story log tavern owned by Solomon Brandenburg. While it can’t be stated with certainty, prisoners so dangerous they needed to be jailed likely were lodged in the Hardinsburg or Elizabethtown jails until 1825 when the Meade County Jail was built.
The Meade County jail was a two story log structure with secure cells where prisoners awaiting trial were held. It was ordered by the county court on October 4th 1825 to be built on a lot owned by and purchased from William Fairleigh. The jail was completed in April of 1826 and located a short distance south of the log tavern on East Hill. In the jail there were quarters for the jailer and his family. Meals had to be prepared daily and the prisoners fed and watered. The disposition of their cases might result in a fine, corporal punishment (whipping), sentence to time in jail, or worse. In 1848 a slave girl Lucy Hamilton was hanged for killing the son of her owner. She was pregnant when she killed the man and because of the resignations of the judge and foreman of the jury she lived long enough to deliver the baby before she hanged. She was taken in an oxcart from the jail on a twenty minute ride to a grove of Black Jack Oaks at a place now across the street from the high school and hanged. She carried her baby and handed it to the sheriff’s wife before dying. There are only two known legal executions reported in Meade County, the one in 1848 and another fifty-one years later in 1889. Both were death by hanging.
There is no doubt that whipping was administered for crimes that today don’t seem that important, but in those days were egregious. Whippings like hangings were carried out publicly. The administration of justice, publicly for all to see was believed to be a deterrent to those witnessing. The last flogging at Brandenburg’s whipping post was publicly administered to three men, one black and two white for the crime of stealing chickens. People in those days depended on their chickens for food, and to barter for other goods since money was always in short supply. Stealing chickens was very nearly like robbery or burglary. G. L. Ridenour writes, “After the sentence of the court was carried out, hen roosts were undisturbed except by their true and lawful owners.” No one wanted to be whipped. The embarrassment and humiliation of public flogging was often times as severe as the pain. Occasionally the miscreant had a choice of taking the sentence of the court, such as Daniel Boone meted out as a magistrate, or being held in jail until the court met again usually a month or more later where the sentence could conceivably be worse. Typically ten to fifteen lashes would be administered. Boone would frequently listen to the evidence in an outdoor court, and rule, “Ten and done, or bound over for appeal.” Some times prisoners would choose the whipping post instead of being held over and be unable to work their farm or ply their trade. This second jail sometime later had a fenced animal pen associated with it for stray animals. It did double service as a dog pound. Before August of 1854 a new jail was built. Anecdotal evidence states it was started in 1852. It was a brick structure, and in August of 1854 the court ordered the old log jail, lot and stray pen be sold. It brought $27.00 to the county treasury. Little is known about this second jail other than in 1858 there was an armed attack on it by Indiana men bent on freeing three Hoosiers held without bail or court dates for fourteen months. Horace Bell and his brother John after arming themselves rowed a boat across the river to Brandenburg, and attacked the jail. The Jailer was in Garnettsville as well as half the population of Brandenburg attending a barbecue. They freed John and Horace’s father and brother and held off an armed party of men with gunfire while they made their escape to Indiana. It also held a famous Confederate guerrilla captured in March of 1865, Marcellous Jerome Clark alias Sue Mundy. Another Confederate soldier was lodged in the jail with him by the name of Henry Medkiff. This jail was the scene of the second legal hanging in Meade County on February 8th, 1889 when an axe murderer named John Ross was executed on a scaffold specially built by the sheriff. The second jail was in use until 1906 when the third Jail was authorized to be built at a cost of $7,947.50. This jail was located behind the courthouse and in use until 1976. It was sold in 1990 and is now the location of a fine Italian restaurant named “Jail House Pizza.”
After the tornado of 1974 that destroyed the courthouse and caused it to be rebuilt on Hill Crest Avenue, a fourth jail known as the Meade County Detention Center was built adjacent to the new courthouse. When it opened it had fourteen cells that could house twenty-five prisoners. It also contained an apartment for the jailer. An indoor and outdoor recreation area was provided for the detainees.
Some things never change. All of these jails were located close to the courthouse for convenience of conveying the prisoners to and from court. Facilities for the jailer were provided so that twent-four hours a day, meals, sanitation, and health care could be provided to the prisoners as well as security. Although the third and fourth jails do not have a stray animal pen, the animal control officer is located within a county complex that holds the courthouse, sheriff’s office, and county road department. Historically speaking the Meade County Jails and Courthouses have maintained a close proximity to each other and geographically speaking, these newer facilities are a little more than a minute’s drive, from the site of the original jail. When it’s not broken why fix it differently?