EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is another article on Findlay area history adapted from a series written from 1959 to 1974 by the late R.L. Heminger, publisher and editor of The Courier.
By R.L. HEMINGER
(Hancock County’s first jail stood on a corner of the property where the present county courthouse is located. It was built 134 years ago (from 1964). In one of her interesting historical articles which appeared in the old Morning Republican in the late 1890s, Miss Florence Blackford, Findlay newspaper writer for a number of years, whose father, Jason Blackford, was a well-known Findlay attorney, tells of the old jail in much detail. This is the first of two installments, taken from Miss Blackford’s article.)
A jail, it would seem, was the first public building erected by Hancock County. At a meeting of the commissioners, held July 26, 1830, plans for a jail were considered and it was ordered that it be a one-story building 16 x 24 feet in size. The contract was let to Square Carlin for $450 and called for timbers of “white oak, 12 inches square.” Henry Shaw was employed by Mr. Carlin to do the work. It stood about 20 feet south of the courthouse, which was built 10 years later. (This was the courthouse which preceded the present structure.)
The jail had two compartments, one of which was known as the “debtors prison.” It was customary in these days to put in jail certain debtors. The building materials were all sawed at the old Henry Byal mill, three miles down the river. The building had a plank floor and a small square barred window at the west end. It had a shingled gable roof without eaves. The jail door was fastened with an immense hasp and staple and padlock.
The building was never an object of beauty, and in December of the same year in which it was built, citizens petitioned the commissioners to remove the unsightly structure from its location, but to no effect. It was well constructed according to the customs of the times but never was known to contain a man longer than 24 hours after he was jailed. It finally became customary to guard the jail whenever it had a prisoner whom it was desired to hold securely, the guards to receive no pay in the event the inmate managed to get out.
The old jail was used more for the confinement of insolvent debtors than for the safe keeping of criminals or the punishment of crime, so that it was not regarded in most instances as so disgraceful to make a temporary sojourn in the village Bastille.
The constables in those days were vigilant collectors and would chase a fugitive debtor and a stray horse with the same vigor.
Sometimes prisoners were given their liberty for a short time for personal purposes. When the argonauts of 1849 were taking their departure from Findlay for distant California in search of gold (a substantial number of local citizens banded together for this experience), the time was set for leaving and the place fixed at the northwest corner of South Main Street and West Main Cross Street in front of William Taylor’s store (later the location of the Ohio Bank and Savings Co., now Sky Bank). The adventurous travelers and their admiring friends, their horses and their wagons and their outfits were assembled. A prisoner for debt in the jail had some friends in the group and he was permitted to temporarily abandon his jail “cell” and bid farewell to his departing friends.
Once a Findlay merchant caused a man to be imprisoned for debt. The prisoner left his mark in the jail, to the dismay of the man who caused him to be incarcerated. He carved into the wall a short statement of a most derogatory nature with regard to the merchant. The epitaph remained conspicuous until the old jail met its final doom at the hands of an incendiary.
When the jail was not occupied by some victim of the constables or by some penitential ward of the state, the jail door stood wide open and venturesome boys would explore its dark interior with a great deal of awe.