Preserve our Hancock County history


Have you ever been to jail? Wait… you don’t have to answer. But I did get your attention.

Hancock County has had six jails. The first jail was built in 1829 just south of Gooding’s Corner, the current City Hall. The cost of construction was $140.50. It was built of wood and burned down in 1833 by inmate John Hays who was a former Sheriff in Rush County. He was attempting to escape, and he was killed in the fire. The second jail also of wood was built by Cornwall Meek in 1836 at a cost of $2,200. This structure was located on the south edge of the Courthouse Plaza. The third jail was built on the site of the second in 1853. It was built of logs and currently resides in Riley Park as the Hancock County Historical Society Museum. Before it was moved to Riley Park, it was relocated to the site of the Greenfield Gas Company from the south edge of the Courthouse Plaza. The logs of this jail had nails or spikes driven into the wall to prevent escape. The fourth jail was the former prosecutor’s office, and it was built in 1871. The style of architecture for the fourth is Second French Empire and the construction cost $45,000. This building had 11 cells and was approved for a capacity of 20. The fifth jail was built in 1988 under the administration of Sheriff Gulling. The cost was $6.5 million. It has a capacity of 125 with 63 cells. The new jail is the sixth.

The fourth Hancock County Jail was the site of much mayhem and the condemned prosecutors’ office in recent years in the community’s history. For example, Mr. Willam Keemer had stopped at the Blue River Township farm of William Vaughn while the men were working in the field. Upon hearing Mrs. Vaughn scream, the men chased Keemer into Rush Co., where he was jailed and then moved to Greenfield due to rumors of a proposed lynching

In 1875, a mob of 160 masked, white men from Hancock, Rush, and Shelby counties subdued Sheriff Thomas and dragged William Keemer — a 26-year-old black man from Carthage — from his cell in the Greenfield jail and hung him at the county fairgrounds. His body was buried at the county farm pauper cemetery. His final words were “Men, you are doing wrong.” There was no trial and no evidence or confession. The accusation was later recanted. No one was ever prosecuted for the murder of Mr. Kemmer.

Also, The Brady gang was in the fourth Hancock Jail under Sheriff’s Watson custody on a change of venue from Marion county. They were awaiting trial for the murder of a police officer and perhaps others. The Brady gang was notorious, and some claimed it was more dangerous than the Dillinger gang. The date was October 11, 1936.

The break happened on Sunday morning. It was Sheriff Watson’s custom to do the housekeeping of the jail cell. Watson had emptied the paper baskets from the cell, and he had opened the heavy door to put the baskets back in the cell. When he did that, gang members Brady, Shafer and Dahlhoffer were eating breakfast with their back to the door. When Watson opened the door, Brady jumped up with a yell and threw himself into the door opening. Watson knocked him back into the cell and stepped inside to close the door behind him to keep them from escaping. At this point, the other two convicts joined Brady. After some investigation, it was later learned that the gang had succeeded in breaking a piece of iron from the cell and had covered it with a T-shirt. Brady had struck Sheriff Watson on the head with the weapon when Brady and Sheriff were fighting to gain control of it. The other two convicts were doing what they could to prevent Watson from winning the struggle. Watson’s sister, Edna Tinney, who was doing the cooking and the housekeeping, ran to Watson’s office to get his revolver. She had just succeeded in opening the drawer of Watson’s desk where he kept the revolver and just got ahold of it when Dahlhoffer, who had followed her, threw her out of the way and took the gun. So as Watson and Brady were fighting down the hallway over the iron bar, Dahlhoffer came along and pistol-whipped Sheriff Watson. Watson and Brady fought down the hallway and rolled down the front steps and ended up with Sheriff Watson sitting on him and hanging on to the iron bar in the street in front of the jail. At that time Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Ridlen, owner of the Columbia Barber Shop, now the current site of the Greenfield Bank, drove by and saw the fight. He stopped to assist Sheriff Watson and he succeeded in knocking the gun out of Dalhoffer’s hand but unfortunately it landed near convict who picked it up again. After a struggle he shot at Ridlen and the bullet went through his jacket lapel. There was another pistol whipping with the butt of the gun and the Sheriff was knocked unconscious for a short time. The gang escaped in Ridlen’s car. After Sheriff Watson gained consciousness, he got up to the front door of the jail and told his wife to call the State Police.

The Brady Gang was apprehended in Bangor, Maine. Brady and Shafer were shot to death attempting to escape arrest. Dahlhoffer was arrested and flown back to Indiana, tried, found guilty and was electrocuted. It took almost a full year after the Greenfield escape to bring the Brady Gang to justice. The Brady Gang were bank robbers and robbed banks around here and one or two in Ohio. One of the banks the gang robbed was in Carthage, Indiana. In 1939, the fourth jail was remodeled at a cost of $25,000 to $30,000.

Downtown Greenfield has a few empty lots because of fire and buildings being torn down. It would be a good idea to save the old jail and let it be used for other purposes. We have a good set of county commissioners, and I know they will do the right thing in preserving our history and community integrity.