1871 jail is part of historic district, worth salvaging

The architect’s county report focuses on jail facilities, but it also contains evaluations of other law enforcement facilities. Included is the former 1871 jail, now converted into the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office, which will need expansion in the future. The 1871 jail is an important feature of the Greenfield downtown, which is a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places under the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The architect’s study said the 1871 jail could be demolished, or the façade could be saved. I hope the façade can be preserved and useful.

The 1871 jail is likely the only French Second Empire building left in Greenfield. When Napoleon Bonaparte III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, became emperor of France in 1852, his reign of 18 years became known as the Second Empire. He completely rebuilt downtown Paris using this style, hence the name Second Empire. If you read or saw “Les Misérables,” you saw the crowded slums before his reign.

The odd-looking Mansard roof came about because French buildings were taxed by stories, so the sloping Mansard roofs gave the extra space for an untaxed floor.

Our 1871 jail had an interesting history, some of which is troubling. In 1875, a sorry event for constitutional government occurred. William Keemer, a man described as of “mixed race,” was accused of rape and incarcerated. One hundred and fifty masked men broke into our jail and forced the cell keys from the sheriff. Keemer was put into a wagon and driven to Morristown Pike near the National Road. Twice Keemer said, “Men you are doing a great wrong.” After he was hanged The Binford History reported that Keemer’s death certificate said “mobbed to death.”

In 1936, Sheriff Clarence Watson was without assistance for the weekend. The FBI’s most wanted man, Al Brady, and two of his gang members were inmates. Brady broke off a piece of iron from the cell, and a fight began. It continued outside, where a Greenfield couple tried to help capture the gang.

The prisoners escaped, but two were shot in Maine, and the third was sentenced to death for 150 holdups and two murders.

Hancock County has had four jails prior to the current jail. The 1829 log jail burned with a prisoner inside. An 1836 brick jail had three rooms, including one for debtors.

The third jail has been preserved as the Old Log Jail and moved to Riley Park. Its two upstairs rooms have nails hammered into the logs to prevent escape.

In the 1871 jail, the fourth, sheriffs lived in the front section.

A road sign on U.S. 40 east of Cumberland reads, ”The road that built the nation.” Our country was populated by, and enriched by, the National Road, which linked the original seacoast states with the Northwest Territory. The region was in the center of huge nineteenth century economic changes, including transportation, agricultural and manufacturing.

Hancock County alone had more than 700 gas wells from 1887 to World War I. That instant, but temporary, wealth was what enabled many of our downtown buildings, including the Courthouse, to be built.

Today, Interstate 70 has replaced U.S. 40 as the main commercial route. Unfortunately, it has also turned into a drug route. With too many of our citizens using drugs, we need more space to house prisoners. More programs to prevent recidivism, and more places for incarcerated women, would help reduce the jail population and rescue the lives of some of our citizens.

There are several Indianapolis sites where old buildings are joined to new ones with success, so I hope we try to make that work here with the 1871 jail.

Rosalie Richardson, co-author of “A Pictorial History of Hancock County,” is a former township trustee, member of the Hancock County Council and Greenfield-Central School Board. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.