Old Jail Managed to Outlive Its Usefulness in Just 128 Years

 Twenty years ago, the old, shabby Cecil County Jail on North Street in Elkton was abandoned for the modern detention center that now serves the county from its location on Landing Lane. The passing of the old jail was largely unnoticed, it routinely having been maligned as a lockup that somehow managed to outlive its usefulness in just 128 years. That old prison has an interesting history, one that evolved from the days of gallows and whipping posts. 

As the 1962 holiday season gets underway Santa passes the 1870s jail

When the contractors finished his work in 1871, the sheriff’s home and jail was hailed as a state-of-the-art monument to law and order, a credit to the county. Considering that it replaced “a so-called jail” where notorious types were “chained to the floor,” it probably wasn’t hard to make that claim. That first prison in Elkton (about where the People’s Bank stands on North Street), had been built about 1791 to house murderers, horse and chicken thieves, debtors, drunkards, and the unruly. Eventually, the county seat’s first facility for inmates became so “unfit as a place of detention” that Civil War era courts threatened to send prisoners to Baltimore and charge the county for the expense. The county thus decided it had to build a new sheriff’s home and jail.

There were few sad faces at the demise of the old jail. Passing by, as heavy sledges “were wielded by strong men” tearing down the building, the Cecil Whig’s editor wrote that he felt like saying, “peace be to its remains,”

For those who ran afoul of the law there were 20 cells at the new prison, surely enough to “accommodate any demand that Cecil county culprits,” could place on it, said the Whig. Sheriff Thomas, the first official to turn the key and swing open the wide heavy grated iron door, let in his “house guests.” In the years to come, those cells would have their own stories to tell and the jailhouse walls would stand as silent witnesses to more than a few tragic scenes.

hanging -- elkton - a

In 1905, the jail's yard was used for its last execution

Out in the old jail yard, more than one man would draw his final breath while at the end of the hangman’s noose. The last hanging took place where the Buckworth Senior Center is today in October 1905. Calvin Merritt, “who had built all the scaffolds used there in the past thirty-five years,” erected the gallows on the south side of the jail yard, said the Elkton Appeal. Sheriff George Biddle and Deputy Wes McAllister ascended the platform with the inmate. On the stand, the sheriff placed the noose around the doomed man’s neck and a black cap over his head. The trap door fell open, the body shot downward and his neck was broken. The man, who had been convicted of murdering a prominent Elkton judge, Albert Constable, had paid the full penalty for the crime. There were also hangings in 1893 and 1895.

The first whipping to take place in Cecil County since colonial times happened in 1896, according to the Whig. The cat-o-nine tails was plied by Sheriff Harvey Mackey to a prisoner who had been convicted of beating his wife. Nearly a hundred people witnessed the lashing in the north jail yard, where the whipping post was set up.

One early spring day in 1912, as the county felt the first tentative nudge of the approaching season’s warmth, a cold-blooded shooting in the outer yard snuffed out the young life of a Cecil County Sheriff. The incident took place when Sheriff J. Myron Miller attempted to take a pistol away from a trustee who had refused to obey an order. As the officer forcibly tried to take the weapon, the inmate, Antonio Ducca, placed the muzzle of the guan against the sheriff’s side and fired the fatal shot. Bystanders, running to aid the stricken-officer, over powered Ducca and got the gun away from him.

Not satisfied with life behind bars, a few inmates escaped from the jail. Deep into a July night in 1919, a chicken thief held at the jail began to unlock doors. Being careful not to make a sound that might alert the sheriff and his family sleeping nearby he first sawed off the lock on his cell. Then down the dark corridor he crept to make short work of a few more iron barred doors. Long before good light the man and six other perisons were over the jail yard wall.

A modern detention center started sprouting out of a corn field at the edge of town early in the 1980s. Then in January 1984, in a secret nighttime operation, Sheriff John F. DeWitt moved inmates from the jail to Landing Lane. Steel barred doors opened and closed electronically and the moves were remotely monitored by deputies in a secure control center while the inmate settled into their cells. An era had ended.


9 responses to “Old Jail Managed to Outlive Its Usefulness in Just 128 Years

  1. If you are interested ,there is a Painting of that old jail I painted. And is now hanging in the new Deptartment of Aging. There was a time when I volunteer there. Maybe a year or two back. I’ve done several Painting of Cecil County Building. Four of just the Fairhill coverd bridged for several Cecil County residente’s

  2. Kathleen:

    Thanks so much for letting me know about that. I assume the Dept. of Aging is in the new county office building? I’ll stop out and look at it someday. Cecil has such wonderful old buldings. It must be great to have the ability to paint them. Thanks for that effort.


  3. Pingback: The Hangman’s Gallows in Cecil County « Window on Cecil County’s Past

  4. Pingback: Maryland Life: Spectral Sightings at the Cecil County Jail: Ghosts of Prisoners Past | Window on Cecil County's Past

  5. Jeff MacKenzie

    I think there are only two of us left at the Sheriff’s Office that worked at the old jail on North St.

  6. Jeff who is the other person still there? Time is getting on.

  7. Having read this I believed it was rather enlightening.
    I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this informative article together.

    I once again find myself personally spending a
    significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments.

    But so what, it was still worth it!

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