What was North East to do with vagrants, drunks, disturbers of the peace and other unruly types in the 1880s? Although a bailiff enforced the law, the town officer didn’t have a place to detain offender after they were arrested. Placing prisoners on one of the P.W. & B. trains running through town and carting them off to the county jail was one option, but that required a long, costly trip to Elkton. An appearance before a magistrate and a fine could set things straight for some offenses. Of course, if the violator was drunk or disorderly, that was another matter.
Yet like any other community North East had its share of troublemakers and occasional outbursts of drunkenness and disorder. One of the more serious law-breakings during this period occurred when a crook broke into the home of Chas. E. Haley. (And there were those fish wagons running through town on Sunday, which shouldn’t be tolerated one newspaper scribe said.)
After the town lawman busted two troublemakers in 1885, he had to care for the wrongdoers since there was no place to detain them. Perhaps that was why town commissioners voted to build a lockup. Certainly for the Cecil Whig’s North East correspondent that was sufficient reason for he declared the town needed a place for those who indulge in disorderly conduct.
Soon enough town fathers spent some money acquiring a lot from Walter Armstrong on Cecil Ave. Then they hired architect Levi O. Cameron to draw up plans and once that was done they gave the contract for building the place to a Mr. Haddock. When it was finished the building had drained nearly $1,200 from the public purse.
October 1885 marked a turning point for law enforcement in North East. The next time the municipal officer cracked down on a notorious type he had a substantial lockup, with all the modern conveniences for containing the wrongdoer. Later the scofflaw would face the police magistrate, George McCullough.
Up in Rising Sun, the editor there thought that some “misapplied taste” was involved in this public project as the “artistic kind of lock-up” was a little too ornamental. Such places “should be gloomy horrid looking structures with death head and cross bones over the entrance to frighten evildoers and tramps away,” the Midland Journal advised.
While we don’t know who first occupied the cell, the perpetrator certainly heard the clang of big keys as iron barred doors slammed securely shut in the town of 1,000 inhabitants. As for how many violators were detained in the town jail or when it when it stopped housing them, it’s hard to say for the written record is mostly silent on that subject. But we do know that in 1887, the town newspaper, the Cecil Star, bragged North East had a “good lock-up that is seldom used.”
Former North East Mayor Ulysses Demond (he served his first term in 1957) and his wife Lucia recalled hearing a story from an earlier generation of residents about someone being put behind the iron-bars. Years ago, an elderly lady told Lucia, “Once they put the town drunk in the cell and by morning he was gone.” The iron bars were removed during World War II, Ulysses recalled.
When Marshall L. Purner became the police chief in 1957, the place no longer had a holding tank for holding wayward types. For a headquarters, all he had was one drawer in a desk in the building he says. Although Purner never heard of anyone being put behind bars in the two-story brick jail, as a child growing up in North East, he had another memory about the place. “On warm summer evenings they kept all the windows open in the lockup and I could hear them [the town band] practicing. North East’s band was one of the best in land, and their room was on the 2nd floor.”
Regardless the little fortress-like structure with its three pronged turrets and bars on the windows must have served as an incentive for those notorious types wandering about to stick to the straight and narrow in the little town at the head of the North East River.