Behind bars — Victorian style


“Let us paint a picture of this crime question. Its stark nakedness should halt every passerby. It will reveal a cancerous octopus that threatens his own and the country’s welfare.”

— Joseph Perkins Byers

“America’s Crime Cradles”

“Hayes again attacked the county jails as the most defective part of the state system, complaining that they mixed the innocent and the mentally ill, the young and the old, the novice and the hardened criminal.”

— Ari Hogenboom

“Rutherford B. Hayes, Warrior and President,” 1995

The state of jails and prisons in America shortly after the Civil War was deplorable. As Ari Hogenboom wrote in his biography of President Hayes two decades ago, local jails were particularly poor. Beyond the issues of housing men, women and children together, mixing violent criminals with petty thieves and locking up the mentally ill, jails and prisons of that era also housed prisoners in deplorable conditions and forced them into hard labor — sometimes selling their labor to manufacturing jobs.

The situation caught the attention of Rutherford B. Hayes, then governor of Ohio. He launched a personal crusade to see that prison and jail facilities and the conditions within them, were drastically improved. During his time as governor, the First National Prison Congress was held in Cincinnati in 1870. He carried his crusade with him into the White House after his controversial election to the presidency in 1876.

Hayes’ position of authority in Ohio led to much reform within the borders of the Buckeye State. Among the innovations of the era was the plan for housing the sheriff and his family in a single building with the prisoners. In this way, the sheriff would always be on hand to supervise his “guests” and his staff (in many cases, the sheriff’s wife and family) could prepare meals for the prisoners.

Delaware County had originally constructed a log cabin jail at the corner of Franklin Street and University Avenue in 1814. Legend has it that one could “escape” from that original jail simply by climbing to the roof. The modernization efforts by Hayes led to the construction of a Italiante style dual-use jail and sheriff’s residence in 1878. That structure on the county’s main campus at the corner of Central Avenue and Franklin Street remained in use for 110 years.

Constructed for a cost of $25,845 (nearly $4,000 over budget), the building was designed by Toledo architect David W. Gibbs, who designed several jails and courthouses in Ohio and the Wyoming statehouse. The sheriff’s residence and jail in Delaware was an exact duplicate of the building in Marion, which was torn down more than 40 years ago.

Since 1988, when the Delaware County Jail moved to its new location on U.S. Route 42, the building has served a variety of purposes. Last year, it was sold to the Delaware County Historical Society and work is underway to develop a comprehensive plan for its use and preservation. While that work is ongoing, the jail is currently home to the local office of the 5th District Court of Appeals, and other office space will soon be made available for rent. The cell block has not changed since 1988 though, and the cells are still marked with the “colorful” drawings and comments of those who last occupied them. Although the public does not generally have access to those cells, public tours are now being offered in conjunction with every First Friday in downtown Delaware.

The funds to make the purchase were very generously loaned to the society by a local benefactor, and a fundraising effort to repay those funds and support the ongoing work of the society is forthcoming. This is the community’s building, and it will take a community effort to preserve and cherish it.

Ari Hogenboom’s book on Hayes is published by University Press of Kansas and can be found at many libraries. Joseph Byers’ composition (quoted at the top of this column) can be found at the library of the Ohio Historical Society. An internet tour of the Wyoming State Capital building can be found online at

By David Hejmanowski

Case Study

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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