Thursday, July 3, 2014

Allen County’s Jail Flats

by Tom Castaldi

Allen County’s first jail was a two-story hewn log structure that was enclosed by a board fence located on the southwest corner of the courthouse square in downtown Fort Wayne. One witty fellow noted that this jail was but, “an asylum for the felon, exhausted from hot pursuit, until he availed himself of a little repose and then made sure his escape” through a hole in the wall that was easily made by removing a log. Destroyed by fire in 1849, the jail was immediately replaced.

This second jail briefly housed two notorious area horse thieves, Laertes Dean and George Pierce, but the jail was promptly broken into by their compatriots and the two men escaped. In the following year, three more inmates escaped by burrowing through the wall into the adjoining cistern and out. Eventually, after several prisoners escaped, it was determined that a better jail was needed.

Annoyed at such episodes, Allen County built a new, more substantial jail in 1852 across Calhoun Street from the present jail complex, giving the area around North Calhoun Street the name “Jail Flats.”

When Benjamin Madden and George Keefer confessed to the murder of John Dunbar, in April of 1855, both were tried and sentenced to hang. They were brought from the jail, two ropes attached to cross beams overhead, and both paid their debt to society with their lives.

A larger jail was constructed in 1872. In the compound of this jail in 1883 the last public hanging of a condemned prisoner took place when Sam McDonald, who had murdered his friend, Louis Laurent, was hanged before a crowd of two hundred and fifty curious observers.

The present jail was built in 1981 and the new Allen County Criminal Justice Center, continuing the tradition of a county jail in “Jail Flats,” erected on the northwest corner of Superior and Clinton streets was dedicated in 2004. (Editor's note: this building is now the Rousseau Centre.)

Originally published in Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – May 2008 No. 43

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history

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