Murky future for Madison’s historic jailhouse

STRONG FOUNDATIONS: Madison County’s historic jailhouse, built in 1905, has withstood floods, demolition proposals and the eroding effects of more than a century of use. With the building currently involved in an upset bidding process, many Madison residents are anxious to see the old jail utilized to continue serving the community in some regard. Photo courtesy of Madison County Development Services

UPDATE [6/24/16]: Madison County Commissioners voted to accept the $99,800 bid for the old jailhouse property Thursday, June 23, at their monthly meeting by unanimous decision. Josh Copus, a local potter and founder of Clayspace Co-op, announced he and several partners are the purchasers on Facebook. Initial indications are the building will be utilized as a studio or gallery, after renovations are complete.


 

For more than a century, the old Madison County Jail in downtown Marshall housed hundreds of men (and at least one woman) serving time for crimes great and small. When completed in December 1905, it was one of the most modern buildings in the county, with a stone foundation, massive walls and even electric lights — a luxury in a rural mountain community back then.

Until 2012, when it was finally replaced, the whitewashed brick structure was the oldest active jail in North Carolina. And during those many years of service, the modest edifice survived several floods, a proposed demolition and time’s relentless erosion. Since then, however, it’s sat empty while town and county officials considered what to do with the property, which faces the Good Stuff music venue across Bailey’s Branch Road.

And with the county currently accepting bids, the venerable building’s future has become a hot topic of debate.

Many residents hope to see the old jailhouse can continue to serve the community in some capacity while standing as a testament to the area’s colorful past.

“Madison County doesn’t have — outside of Mars Hill University — a museum about the county,” notes local historian Dan Slagle, who began digging into the structure’s history more than a decade ago. “To create a museum in that building would be right in line with National Register ideas.”

Built to last

Marshall’s “old jailhouse” is actually the third such facility since Madison County was established in 1851, says Slagle.

By 1904, the county commissioners had realized that the existing jail — a wooden structure located near where Zuma Coffee is today — had become “unsafe and insufficient to keep prisoners charged with felonies” and was “too old to be repaired,” according to meeting minutes.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Madison's historci jailhouse is actually the third such facility to house prisoners for the county. In 1905, the "new" old jail house replaced the "old" old jailhouse (pictured above), which County Commissioners had deemed no longer fit for service. Photo via Leo White Collection, Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill University
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Madison’s historic jailhouse is actually the third such facility to house prisoners for the county. In 1905, the “new” old jail replaced the “old” old jail (pictured above), which County Commissioners had deemed no longer fit for service. Photo via Leo White Collection, Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill University

The commissioners wanted “a building located in the county seat that would accommodate its law enforcement needs for years to come,” says Ryan Cody, director of the county’s Development Services Department.

In response, the Board of Commissioners began advertising for bids on the construction of a new jailhouse, with a budget set at $15,000. In March 1905, the Pauly Jail Building Co. — which bills itself as the nation’s oldest correctional facilities contractor — was awarded a $14,150 contract, though the following year, the county tacked on an additional $425 to enhance the original building plans.

“They agreed to make the stonework of the foundation 20 inches thick, instead of 18,” says Slagle. “The brick walls on the first story were built 17 inches thick, instead of 13. I’m not sure why they changed the specifications, but it made for a stronger building.”

By the time it was decommissioned, the jail had 24 beds spread over seven cells, plus a common room for daytime use.

Electric lighting, says Slagle, was probably included because a power source was readily available. “The power would have come from the dam, which was originally for a gristmill across the French Broad River,” he reports. Capitola Manufacturing Co., which made textiles and furniture, bought the gristmill property, including the dam and power plant, in 1905. County records indicate that Capitola installed the lighting in January 1906 for a whopping $39.40.

All told, the construction cost about $375,750 in 2016 dollars — a relative steal, Slagle maintains. “That building has withstood numerous floods in downtown Marshall,” he points out. “We see why by the specs — that thing is built sturdy.”

A woman’s touch

Today, the word “prison” evokes images of razor wire fences, concrete walls and rows of sterile cells, but for both the inmates and staff of the old Madison jailhouse, life was much cozier than that.

Until the 1930s, the facility was split into two sections. The front half served as the living quarters for the jailer, his or her family and servants; the back housed those charged with various crimes, “from the violent to the nonviolent,” notes Cody.

Women played notable roles in the jailhouse’s early history. The 1910 census listed 50-year-old widow Eliza Henderson as the “jailor”; it also identified two inmates as “residents.” Henderson drew a $15 monthly salary to serve as cook and caretaker.

The jailhouse also hosted its fair share of colorful characters during more than a century of service. Perhaps the most intriguing was Maude Hamlin, the first (and possibly only) woman to be imprisoned within those thick brick walls.

Accused of poisoning her husband, the pregnant Hamlin was incarcerated in Marshall from 1912-13. A News-Record article detailing her 1913 trial describes the 22-year-old Hamlin appearing in court in mourning attire and carrying “a lovely baby boy whom God sent to her behind the bars of the Madison County Jail.”

Hamlin was eventually acquitted of her husband’s death, and the family reportedly moved out of the area. “Years ago,” recalls Slagle, “I was at a genealogy fair, and this guy just happened to come by our table. His father was Maude Hamlin’s son: He was the guy born in the Madison County Jail!”

In 1907, John Randall clubbed his wife to death in a fit of drunken rage and was housed in the jail. His trial revived the county’s reputation as “bloody Madison” and was cited by local politician Jeter Pritchard, a lawyer, U.S. senator and federal judge, as an argument for Prohibition.

Fast-forward to 1997, when Burnsville resident Mark Franklin Bernheisel was convicted of killing his friend Jiri Posmourny, a Czech national. After escaping to Mexico in Posmourny’s rental car, Burnheisel was eventually captured in Canada and sent back to Madison County, where the crime was committed, to be tried.

Joe Penland, a Madison native, professional storyteller and musician, tells the tale of a man known colloquially as “Rocky” Rothschild, who was arrested along with an accomplice by legendary Madison County Sheriff E.Y. Ponder for robbing a store near Blood Creek in 1955, during which the store owner died of a heart attack.

LOCAL LEGEND: Synonymous with the old Madison jail's history are the bevy of colorful lawmen, such as former High Sheriff E.Y. Ponder (pictured), who kept their own brand of law and order in Madison County. Photo courtesy of Madison County Development Services
LOCAL LEGEND: Synonymous with the historic Madison jail’s history are the bevy of colorful lawmen, such as former High Sheriff E.Y. Ponder (pictured), who kept their own brand of law and order in Madison County. Photo courtesy of Madison County Development Services

“They put them in separate cells, so they couldn’t converse,” Penland recalls. “The story is that Rocky and his partner dipped the water out of the commodes and talked through the sewer pipes, since [the pipes] were so antiquated.”

Ponder soon discovered the subterfuge and sent one of his deputies into a separate cell to empty the toilet bowl, Penland reveals. “They sat there and listened to the prisoners implicate themselves.” Rothschild was convicted of first degree burglary in 1961 and sentenced to life in prison. “How much of the evidence was collected through the toilets,” muses Penland, “no one knows.”

“Raping Marshall”

By 2004, though, the old building had essentially run its course as a functional jail, says Cody. It was small, had no separate facility for women, and expensive upgrades were needed, including a new sprinkler system and automated cell doors. (In the event of a fire or other emergency, the jail keepers literally had to unlock each cell by hand.) The county didn’t want to spend that kind of money on a hundred-year-old building — particularly one whose proximity to the river posed an additional hazard.

The building had to be evacuated during the 2004 flood, and in the wake of the deluge, local officials considered tearing down the jail. “There was a discussion about taking it down, and I think the county commissioners just didn’t feel that was something that should be done if we could help it,” says County Manager Forrest Gilliam. “It’s an interesting old building right on the river. There was talk at that time about a lot of potential.

According to a Dec. 14, 2005, News-Record & Sentinel editorial, the county stood to receive up to $448,998 in government money to demolish it. “The idea would have been for FEMA to pay for it,” says Gilliam. “But it may have been years before the federal funding was available, if ever.”

Meanwhile, the idea sparked considerable outcry. “Not once has there been a public hearing — or public dialogue of any kind — to discuss the future of the old jail,” another editorial the week before pointed out. “It’s a historic building that has … more economic potential for Madison County as a unique museum than any one-time demolition payment from the state or federal government. The perception is they are raping Marshall.”

Meanwhile, notes Cody, the county had no other facility the current prisoners could be moved to. And by 2012, when a new $7.5 million detention center opened at 348 Medical Park Drive in Marshall, there was “no will of the public to see the old jail torn down,” he explains.

In the meantime, in August 2007, the old jailhouse had been added to the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for various tax credits. National Register status also imposes some limitations on how the property can be altered, as does the fact that it sits in a flood plain.

“I’d lean toward some kind of historical purpose or use,” says Slagle. “When you read these old newspaper articles, other people feel the same way.”

Cody agrees, saying, “It would be worthwhile to see the building restored to its original look and made a focal point of the town of Marshall’s history. This building has a lot of character, and it’s centrally located.”

Neighboring Avery County set a precedent back in 1976, when it converted its former jailhouse into the Avery County Historical Museum.

Future on trial

A 2013 study conducted by graduate students at the UNC School of Government considered potential avenues for renovating the property. After evaluating the study, says Gilliam, the county commissioners decided that the private sector was best positioned to preserve the building. “While the county would love to do something with it, we just have limited funds and a lot of other needs that we have to meet first,” he notes.

In April, Madison County accepted a $70,000 bid on the property. Two upset bids have been received since then, says county planner Sara Nichols, though both were far below the property’s $184,378 tax appraisal.

SERVE TO PROTECT: While information on the identity and plans of the jailhouse’s current bidders is unknown to the public, Madison natives  such as Joe Penland and Dan Slagle hope the new owners will consider a use that preserves the role the building played in Madison’s history. “I don’t see any reason to sell what could be turned into a county museum or something we could have pride in,” says Penland. Photo by Max Hunt
SERVE TO PROTECT: While information on the identity and plans of the jailhouse’s current bidders is unknown to the public, Madison natives such as Joe Penland and Dan Slagle hope the new owners will consider a use that preserves the role the building played in Madison’s history. “I don’t see any reason to sell what could be turned into a county museum or something we could have pride in,” says Penland. Photo by Max Hunt

Under state law, governmental units seeking to dispose of public property must advertise any accepted bid and allow 10 days for other interested parties to submit a qualifying upset bid. To qualify, an upset bid must be higher by at least 10 percent of the first $1,000 of the current bid plus 5 percent of the remainder of it. If such a bid is received, it starts another 10-day period. As this issue went to press, the current bid sat at $99,800. Gilliam declined to identify the current high bidder, buts says that county commission will vote on whether to accept the current bid on June 23 at its regular monthly meeting.

Many residents are concerned about what a new owner might do with the building. “There’s been talk of a hostel-type hotel for this,” Cody reports. “Some have indicated an artist space or even a restaurant.”

And whatever the future holds, argues Slagle, “Residents need to know before the commissioners make a decision whether to sell it and for what purpose. It belongs to the people of Madison County.”

The most important thing, stresses Cody, is to “see it repaired and renovated, but most of all being used.”

Gilliam agrees, saying, “People definitely want that building restored. We’ve heard from people who have interest in a restaurant, lodging, office space, apartments, private residence. Some have submitted bids; some haven’t. But that’s the sort of stuff that’s been talked about.”

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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