They Say There Are Ghosts in the Old Cecil County Jail

Although it’s been unused as a jail for over a quarter of a century an inmate or two might still linger inside the unoccupied 19th century Jail on North Street in Elkton. If they do, they’re ghostly inhabitants since prisoners moved out of the aging lockup under cover of midnight darkness in 1984. Or could it be the spirit of some other occupant since sheriffs, their families, and guards lived and worked there for generations.

Some 12 years ago, a lady who had just taken a job in the building when it had been transformed into offices for Cecil County Senior Services revealed to me that the place frightened her. At first I thought this believable person was kidding as she mentioned creepy things like shadowy forms. The shadows seemed to disappear into dead-end, empty corridors.

On the evening when she came to talk to me about these troubling matters, she told of cold spots, things moving around, and unusual creaks and groans while working early evenings alone inside strong walls built to confine criminals. There were noises that rattled her nerves too. Men shouting, chains clattering, heavy footsteps reverting down unattended hallways, and metal iron-barred doors slamming shut in an otherwise empty building. It was all taking place in an ancient jailhouse built for hen-house robbers, horse thieves, drunkards, unruly types, cold-blooded murderers, and evildoers from another age.

As I listened, I had a chilling thought.  What more likely spot for spirits to linger but a place filled with centuries of violence and tragedy as thousands of people who ran afoul of the law passed through its steel-barred -doors.  The long obsolete lockup was constructed six years after the end of the Civil War, an era when the gallows and whipping post were major parts of the criminal justice system.  During its 123 years as the quarters for hardened lawbreakers, three executions took place there.  Two other men agonizingly passed their last night on earth in cells before being taken outside town to forfeit their lives on the hangman’s gallows.

Last hanging at the old Elkton jail.

Lots of other dreadful things took place there. The bloodiest day occurred in 1912 when a heartless shooting snuffed out the young life of a lawman as his wife watched. Sheriff J. Myron Miller was slain while attempting to take a pistol away from a prisoner. The dying officer was carried back inside where he lingered briefly.

Those cold walls have silently witnessed plenty of other sorrowful incidents of violence, suicide, and lonely natural deaths. And as her story of unexplained goings-on continued I intently listened while she talked frankly about things. Before the noise of those long vanished prisoners could really get on her nerves, she would hurry to finish work, getting out of there before darkness descended on the place.

But in the depths of winter that was a problem. On particularly troublesome cold, shadowy evenings she tried something else. I know so and so she would shout back at those spectral mischief-makers. My perplexed look caused my source to add a childhood friend’s father sometimes got locked up for having a little too much fun on Friday evenings out in the decades between the World Wars. If those long-ago jailbirds were making the racket causing her distress she reasoned this would stop those scalawags. It worked she declared. The jail quieted down!

Once she heard a distinct male voice painfully calling out a woman’s name. The next day I checked some old records and was surprised to find there was a connection between some of the names associated with tragic violence at this place. But how would my source know about those deeply buried facts?

The doubter in me contemplated what I was hearing about the jailhouse as I kept pitting logic against a convincing witness. Ghosts are not real I thought as I mulled it over and thought of some less dramatic tales I heard from other workers. Then there was the time I had a group for walking tour of the town, including some ghost hunters. While I stood outside walls that have witnessed human tragedies talking about the history of this building, the crowd shrieked that a man looking out a window at us. I turned, but saw nothing so I assured the group that the building was vacant.

While attending an Elkton Historic District Commission hearing on a developer’s plan for adaptive reuse of the historic structure, motion after motion dragged on. With the commissioner’s debating weighty legal, procedural and technical matters, an old deputy sheriff lightened things up a little by sharing some testimony about strange late night occurrences.

Back in the 1960s, in the middle of long Cecil County winter night when one elderly jailer, Elwood Racine, guarded seven prisoners, while the other deputy patrolled the county on the graveyard shift, the road-man got an urgent radio call.  The turnkey needed help as someone was freely roaming the cell blocks but all the prisoners had been accounted for and securely locked down for a quiet peaceful night in the old lockup from another era.

Deputy Smokey Elliott locks the cell block in the old jail sometime in the early 1970s.

But something was wrong in the cell blocks; someone was roaming around. When the backup arrived, they both heard the footsteps echoing through the cell blocks. They were sure a prisoner had managed to release himself from a cell.

Now ready for a jailbreak or some other kind of trouble, the officers grabbed those big keys and cautiously opened that heavy steel-barred door, the one that secured the prisoners in the cell blocks.  A careful search failed to find anything on that quiet 1960s night as the handful of detainees slept soundly or wearily looking around, trying to figure out what the racket was about.  During that security check the caution men couldn’t find anything wrong.

Periodically those heavy footsteps would start again on other quiet Cecil County nights as if someone was descending the metal steps going down to the main cell block. At other times the officers would hear those heavy iron-barred doors slam shut.  These sorts of unnerving things occurred often enough, but those two lawmen never did find anything on those dark, lonely nights in the post Civil War-era hoosegow.

The officers got used to those bumps in the night so they would shrug it off, assuming it was a ghost of a prisoner who had breathed his last in the old prison as he met the hangman’s noose or that it was some other unsettled spectral type of thing.

Do ghosts lurk inside the vacant brick and granite jail on North Street in Elkton? There are some true believers with some dramatic experiences.

A recent photo of the old Cecil County jail.


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