The 1838 jail

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, May 2000,
May 2000

Author: Grace Shackman

Jailbreaks were a constant danger

Even in the good old days there were criminals. Ann Arbor was smaller and more neighborly in the nineteenth century, but there were still very serious crimes, including robbery and murder. Thus, there was a need for jails. For half the century, from 1838 to 1887, local wrongdoers were imprisoned in a Greek Revival building on North Main, where the Ann Arbor Community Center now stands.

When John Allen and Elisha Rumsey founded Ann Arbor in 1824, Rumsey gave the land bounded by Fourth and Fifth avenues and Liberty and William streets (now containing the downtown post office, the Blake Transit Center, and the YMCA) to the community as a site for a jail. Allen contributed the block at Main and Huron still used for the county courthouse.

The county’s first jail was built on Rumsey’s square in 1829. The project was organized in a socialist fashion. “The citizens of Ann Arbor and vicinity contributed, each according to his ability, some timber, lumber, work or other materials necessary for the construction of a building that would answer for a county prison,” wrote a local historian in the Charles C. Chapman 1881 History of Washtenaw County. The wooden building included quarters for the jailer’s family as well as one room for prisoners.

The first jail was notoriously insecure. According to O. W. Stevenson’s Ann Arbor: The First Hundred Years, “No one could be sure that a prisoner who had been placed within its confines on any particular night would be found there the next morning.” Less than seven years after it was built, a grand jury concluded that a new jail was needed. The county bought the land on North Main, four blocks from the courthouse, and the next year the Davison brothers began construction of a two-and-a-half-story red brick building.

The work evidently took several years to finish; local newspapers published numerous letters asking why it wasn’t done yet, and explanations for the slowness of getting the necessary funds. Meanwhile, large numbers of prisoners continued to escape from the old jail--five when the door was opened for delivery of some dishes, and seven others who managed to cut a hole through the floor.

Photograph of Ann Arbor Tire Supply,
formerly the jail

After the jail moved to downtown Ann Arbor, the old jail building on North Main was converted first to a private home and then to a gas station.

“When erected [the Main Street jail] was considered a handsome building, in which the citizens felt a just pride,” Chapman’s historian wrote. William Spaulding, son of sheriff Ephraim Spaulding (who served from 1847 to 1852), had a less cheerful description in his memoirs, written in the 1920s. Spaulding remembered how “the family lived in a wing of the big gloomy jail, with its barred windows, in the lower part of town. ‘When we lived in the jail’ was a very common reference in our family, and there was no stigma attached.”

Spaulding’s entire family was involved in keeping the jail. “My brother James was old enough to act as ‘turnkey,’ which involved locking and unlocking cells at stated times,” Spaulding recalled. “Imagine a boy serving in such capacity in one of our modern prisons.”

The sheriff’s wife, Jane McCormick Spaulding, cooked for the prisoners in her own kitchen. “Father and mother made due allowance for the fact that the jail was a place of enforced restraint. But, when these stern requirements were satisfied, every effort was made to treat the prisoners with consideration and kindness. . . . This policy not only contributed to the discipline and good order of the institution, but it actually gained the confidence and good will of many of the prisoners,” Spaulding wrote. He went on to say that his parents often helped the families of prisoners, and that after they were released, they often came by to “give good account of themselves and testify their appreciation. In testimony of this Mother treasured various keep-sakes of hand-craft which had been presented to her on such occasions.”

Ann Arbor’s citizens had reason to worry about their safety even after the new jail opened. Criminals held there included horse thieves and bank robbers. Murderers were sent to the state penitentiary (as they still are today), but even they stayed in the county jail while they awaited trial. And despite the new jail’s brick construction, jailbreaks in Ann Arbor were still rife. On June 1, 1842, the State Journal recorded that “Henry Andrews, indicted for larceny, made his escape from our jail on Sunday last by digging through the outer wall. He was not confined in a cell. He has acquitted himself without the assistance of judge or jury, and avoided his trial which was to have taken place today.”

Chapman’s history tells of two men convicted in 1857 for the murder of Simon Holden and sentenced to the state penitentiary for life. About a year after the sentence, the court ordered a new trial. “They were returned to Ann Arbor jail, but before court next convened they escaped from jail and were never re-captured.”

Allen K. Donahue, who lived across the street from the jail, reminisced about it toward the end of his life in a 1943 Ann Arbor News interview. Many of his stories concerned escapees such as Charles Chorr, who was sentenced to hang for murder in 1843 but escaped and was never caught. Donahue recalled a pair of prisoners who got out through the jail’s chimney in the middle of winter but were glad to be caught again because they were so cold. Two other prisoners tried to escape through the underground drainage pipe but couldn’t get beyond a heavy grate and were dead by the time they were found. Another escapee, a horse thief, was shot and killed while trying to get to the stables.

There were escape attempts even during Spaulding’s benign reign. “One story which my father told was of pursuing and capturing a number of prisoners who had escaped. There was a rough-and-tumble bout between the officers and the fugitives. Revolvers hadn’t been invented, and shooting was not such a ready resort. Father grabbed one of the escapees, wrestled him down, and was sitting astride him, when he chanced to glimpse something out of one corner of his eye which caused him to dodge with the free part of his body. It was just in time to avoid a large rock which the fellow hurled at him: the missile whizzed by and split open the head of the prisoner beneath.”

If Spaulding couldn’t stop all escapes, his methods allowed him to stop one. “Once, when a gang of tough customers had just been incarcerated, they managed to secure from outside confederates, tools to saw their way out, and arms. They had nearly brought matters to a climax, and were prepared to murder the guard or anyone who opposed them, when a warning word was passed by one of the inmates to the sheriff. At least that was a substantial return for the humanitarian policy toward prisoners.”

There were also quiet times in the jail. Donahue recalled that he had seen the jail “swamped with inmates and devoid of any life at all.” An 1843 newspaper article noted little activity. “There is but one person in our jail and he is committed for want of bail to keep the peace. It is supposed that the man is partially deranged or he never should have been there.” Unfortunately, the incarceration of mentally ill people is still an issue.

As the county grew, especially in the years after the Civil War, the Main Street jail became too small. After a new courthouse was finished in 1878, civic leaders began discussing building a new jail. They lost a ballot issue in 1884, but by selling the old jail they managed to raise enough money to buy land at Ashley and Ann. The jail stayed on that site, in two different buildings, until 1970, when it moved to its present location at Hogback and Washtenaw in Pittsfield Township.
John J. Robison, who had served as state senator, county clerk, and mayor of Ann Arbor, bought the Main Street jail in 1887 and made it into his family home. He took off the cell block in back and used the bricks to build two houses to the south, one of which was turned into a store.

In 1917 Morris Kraizman bought the old jail and used it for a tire company, gas station, and scrap metal and junk store. Later it became the Pentecostal Church of God, then apartments. In 1951 it was severely damaged by fire. In 1958 what was left of the building was torn down. The Ann Arbor Community Center was built on the site two years later.