Boonville’s Reformatory for Boys: 1941-1957

Hey y’all. This took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m really pleased with the result. Here’s part II of the Missouri Training School for Boys saga. Part I can be found here, and I’ve also started a Patreon Page for KatyTales. Thanks to Erica and Erin for proofreading. Also thanks to Boyfriend who was very nice and only made fun of me and my research, like, one time.

The early 1940s passed the Boonville reformatory quietly, if not peacefully, although three superintendents had come and gone within six years. With each new administration came new promises of change and reform, but rumors about Boonville still persisted.

Then it was 1947, and John C. Tindall, forty-one, signed on to become the superintendent at Boonville’s notorious state reformatory. He was idealistic, progressive and energetic, and had thirteen years of administrative experience with the United States Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri.

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Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 28, 1948.

Tindall wasn’t naïve. He knew the previous superintendent, Leroy Munyon, a political appointee by Governor Phil Donnelly, had been asked to resign by the state board of training schools for misconduct. He knew the reformatory was grossly underfunded and there were near-constant escapes. He had heard rumors about the Boonville’s conditions through his work in Springfield, but assumed they were exaggerations.

“They told me stories which seemed unbelievable,” Tindall said via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Even though I discounted a lot of it, I was shocked.”

At first, Tindall wanted nothing to do with the institution. But after a call from training school director Louis J. Sharp and pleading visits from board members, he accepted the role of Boonville reformatory superintendent without visiting the premises.

He arrived in Boonville on October 1, 1947, and was initially puzzled by the beautiful landscape. The hills were still bright green from summer and the trees around the institution were changing colors in the fall sunshine. There was no fence — the buildings looked more like a university than a reformatory.

“No college campus I had ever seen looked more pleasant or peaceful,” he said. “But when I got closer, I could see that the buildings, big, old and ugly, looked more like old apple bins than a home for human beings.”

As Tindall pushed open the door of one dorm and stepped inside, his jaw dropped. It seemed like the horror stories he’d heard down in Springfield had not been exaggerations after all—there was something radically wrong with the reformatory.

“Such filth and squalor as existed in the cottages is hard to conceive,” he said. “If it were not for the groups of dejected, miserable boys standing in corners you would have said the place had not been used in years.”

The reformatory was beyond disgusting. Dust rose from every corner, and the rickety beds were filled with lice and bedbugs. Torn up newspapers and magazines were scattered everywhere. The toilets were broken, and their contents leaked onto the floor and seeped into the rock walls.

The dorms were segregated by race in accordance to Jim Crow laws at the time, and the black cottages were, if possible, even more dismal. In one dorm, a long iron pipe was secured in the basement where drops of water dripped slowly onto the floor. This was where the inmates were meant to bathe.

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Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 9, 1947. Tindall’s description of the dorms are even worse.

Worst was the smell of the Reformatory—it was nearly unbearable. Tindall described it as the “odor of habitual filth:” a combination of old sweat and dirty bodies.

It was clear his work was cut out for him, but something needed to be done, so Tindall decided to stay in Boonville. He moved his young family to the superintendent’s house on Morgan Street and set to work, keeping a journal to record his experiences.

As he began his tenure at Boonville, he learned other disturbing facts about the reformatory. The boys had only one set of clothes, and sometimes worked without coats in the winter. There weren’t any towels, so forty of them used one rag to dry themselves. There were no toothbrushes or toothpaste, and the food was often crawling with cockroaches.

Sanitation issues aside, Tindall was most worried about the violence. Because of staff shortages, guards used older inmates to keep the younger ones in line. They were known as lieutenants, or “Dukes,” while the younger kids were known as “Sanks” – short for sanctified. At best, the Dukes were thugs who were friendly with the guards and often allowed special privileges like roaming the grounds at night, drinking whiskey or taking Benzedrine. At worst, they were tyrants who beat the hell out of smaller kids and forced them into a kind of indentured servitude.

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Tindall’s journals were turned into a first-person story (complete with Archie-esque illustrations) in Everyday Magazine, a special section in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. This is from the February 8, 1948 edition.

Other problems were with the staff themselves. Higher-ranking officials were often political appointees and had no experience; other employees were underpaid and brutal. There was a constant shortage of guards, and the ones that stayed were described by Tindall as positively sadistic.

He attempted to fire the nastiest employees, but sometimes couldn’t prove anything: the guards wore gloves to prevent skinning their knuckles, and constantly lied. He would find that inmates with a misdemeanor had been lashed 100 times instead of the 5 reported, or that the funds intended to give the boys more than one set of clothes were instead spent on a new fishing pond. In one instance, he gave a puppy to each company to raise as a pet, but the guards forbade the boys from feeding it, content to watch the dog slowly starve to death.

Tindall began to install some reforms as superintendent: for starters, he fed the inmates better food, using the produce and animals the inmates grew instead of selling it. He gradually began removing privileges instead of allowing corporal punishment. He hired more teachers that would help the boys learn a trade, and was planning to add high school classes. He started rudimentary psychiatric treatment for the boys, estimating that at least 20 of them needed to be transferred to a mental facility. He fixed the plumbing system and forced employees to clean out the filthy, stinking dormitories.

He thought conditions were improving. Maybe they were.

And then, in January 1948 a fifteen-year-old prisoner named Rolland Barton was murdered by two other inmates.

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Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 20, 1948

The training school was already a political powder keg. The state board of training schools, a six-person, unpaid committee, despised Governor Donnelly for appointing his own minister, Leroy Munyon, as superintendent at Boonville without their approval in 1946. Donnelly himself was furious they had fired Munyon a year later for refusing to eliminate corporal punishment. He used the murder of Barton to ask for the resignation of all board members and director Louis J. Sharp, citing their incompetence.

In retaliation, Tindall released his personal journal and began talking publically about his experiences. The St Louis Post Dispatch formally released excerpts of his diary on January 29, 1948.

Tindall’s journal was well-kept and descriptive, sometimes examining the conditions he found and sometimes detailing his experiences with staff and inmates.

“C complained of being beaten by M. C examined. He had been kicked in the groin, must get rid of Mr. M.”

 “A boy ran from G Company. He had been beaten by two other boys, they were putting pressure on him. Moved him to another company.”

 “How do they expect me to keep them in when there is no way to keep them in at all?”

His final entry in the journal was this: The wolves are still after me. The Boonville bureaucrats are demanding my scalp. They expected miracles to happen and me to straighten out in three months a stinking political mess that has existed 50 years. They consider the boys criminals and that kindness is the wrong kind of treatment. They think they should be starved and beaten without mercy.”

Public Outcry

After Tindall released his diaries to the press, citizens of Boonville had a meeting in the courthouse, demanding a resolution. More than 200 boys had escaped that year alone, leading to some members of the community to sit outside their houses with shotguns, waiting for escapees. Any sympathy they had for youthful offenders was long gone – Boonville was caught in the middle of a political scandal beyond their control, and many felt powerless against the state-run school.

The meeting was orderly, but emotions were running high, especially when George Overstreet, chief engineer at the Training School, asked that the citizens of Boonville, “kept their noses out.”

“He’s out of order!” shouted an unidentified man in the back of the courtroom. “These boys are a menace to the community, and it’s up to us to call attention to the trouble. It’s time for us to take action!”

“There was never any attempt by the citizens to dictate policy by the school,” added Winters Martin, local attorney. “We just want the boys kept in so they won’t be a menace to the community.”

Many were dissatisfied with Tindall’s progressive attitudes, including G. Warren Winn, who was the reformatory physician. He didn’t like that Tindall treated the inmates as “little gentleman,” and was especially concerned about the influx of runaways.

“It has been proposed that older boys be removed but that won’t solve it. I have seen a boy at school stabbed in the heart by a 12-year-old. I have seen two guards with skulls fractured. One of our citizens was kidnapped and taken 200 miles towards the state line of Arkansas, but was spared because the boy liked his daughter. If we can’t get enough officers, what do we do? A wall?”

“The school should have an electrically charged fence. That’s the way they did in those concentration camps,” C.S. Duncan, a former state senator, suggested. “Of course you don’t have to leave it on all the time.”

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Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 30, 1948.

To be fair, not everybody felt this way. The Boonville League of Women Voters thought Tindall was doing a good job with the amount of funding he had received and urged the state for more money; Mike Angelo, director of the Chamber of Commerce, had called Tindall personally to assure him the businesses of Boonville supported his administration. In a rare interview, most reformatory inmates picked at random said Tindall had done his best and improved their own morale.

Editorials were published in both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Star and Times, often critical of both Donnelly and the state board of training schools. Many of these writers believed Tindall was truly helping Boonville’s troubled institution.

However, there was one uniting factor nearly everybody wanted the reformatory moved. Most wanted it closer to Jefferson City, where there was Algoa and the state penitentiary. The Boonville “school” had outlived its usefulness, and no reform measures – no matter how well-intentioned – could erase fifty years of terrible administration.

The State Response

Governor Donnelly had heard enough. The newspapers had been constantly running Tindall’s incriminating diaries, and the ousted members of the state board of training schools were vocal about their anger with his administration.

On January 31, highway patrol cars carrying the governor and armed officers drove to the reformatory. Donnelly fired Tindall in person, who left peacefully. The highway patrol removed seventy-one of the “most violent” inmates, and transferred them immediately to the state penitentiary in Jefferson City. Then, they fired most of the remaining staff at Boonville and took over the premises.

Donnelly named a state trooper, W.S. Barton, as acting superintendent while they found a suitable replacement, and the highway patrol was instated as temporary guards until they could find better staff. From the state’s perspective, it was now under control from a too-lenient administration; Tindall himself worried that armed guards would excite the inmates and cause them to act tougher than they really were.

Tindall also reported hearing about two escapees caught by state police were forced to remain “on the line,” where they were told to stand on a specific area and not move. They were not allowed to sleep or have food or water, and remained there from Sunday until Tuesday.

Barton denied the occurrence.

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Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 1, 1948.

Meanwhile, it was chaos in Jefferson City. Donnelly’s political opponents charged that he had grossly overstepped his bounds when adding the State Highway Patrol; Donnelly replied that as the governor he had the right to call in whatever means he saw fit.

Members of the now-fired board said that Donnelly was a classic example of political mishandling and backroom deals. Donnelly pointed fingers right back – if the state board knew how bad Boonville had become, why hadn’t they done anything about it?

In the long run, fault didn’t matter. The reformatory had finally made its way to the public eye, and there was such outcry the Missouri government was forced to take action, conducting a special senate investigation about the conditions at Boonville. Politicians on both sides of the aisle pledged immediate reform and radical change, but there were some who were not so optimistic.

“I predict under whatever new administration the governor puts in at Boonville, the iron curtain will descend,” said former board member Thomas Neil. “The people will get no information on actual conditions there, but they will be told by the Governor and his appointees…”

Reforms are Passed

The conditions at Boonville and the subsequent investigations led to a few reforms within the system.

Eventually, the state senate passed a bill to give the state board of training schools more power over each individual schools – this would have included the Negro Girl’s School in Tipton and the Industrial Home for (White) Girls in Chillicothe. The bill provided indeterminate sentences for offenders, and permitted that children under the age of twelve who committed crimes be under the guardianship of the State Division of Welfare. It also gave more money to the badly underfunded schools.

After his firing, John Tindall moved back to Springfield, where he eventually died at age 90 in 1997. He had only lasted four months as Boonville superintendent and was relieved to move back to his hometown, but expressed regret that he hadn’t managed to stay longer at the reformatory. He truly thought that Boonville had been “headed in the right direction” under his administration.

“I guess it was too big a job for one man,” he said. “I lost. But there’s one thing I accomplished. I’ve aroused the people of the whole state to the conditions there. The people will never again let it become the stinking, corrupt, political mess it has been for so many years.”

The reformatory was able to build new dorms, and in 1951 Governor Forest Smith said “much progress and improvement” had been made to Boonville. It seemed as though the institution was finally shedding its notorious past.

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Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 3, 1952.

Or maybe not.

In the late 1950s, a young social worker named Dave Barrett (who eventually became the Premier of British Columbia) toured the Boonville reformatory while earning his master’s degree in social work at St. Louis University. He never forgot what he saw there.

“The prisoners, who were all kids, were crammed together with no privacy and inadequate toilet facilities,” he said, forty years later. “There were no services to prepare the kids for the day when they left the institution. The staff seemed to be doing their jobs, but with little sensitivity. It was just a dumping ground.”

In spite of all of the political drama and promised once-and-for-all reforms in the 1940s, it seemed like the reformatory had begun to sink back to its old ways—at least after the press lost interest.

There were still sanitation issues.  There was still a version of the “Duke and Sank” system. There were still escapes, and Boonville citizens remained afraid of the inmates.

It seemed as though the reformatory was there to stay.

Well, there you have it – Part II. Crazy, right? Good thing it’s all true, and you can view sources for yourself here. I’ll be working on Part III soon, which will be from the 1950s to the closure of the reformatory in the 1980s. If you have experience with the institution during this period (especially if you lived there or worked there), shoot me an email at my NEW and OFFICIAL katytalesblog@gmail.com.

Harvest House Mystery, Part II

The post is in relation to a previous story about the St. Joseph Baby Cemetery. If you haven’t read the original article yet, click here.

There’s a new update on the St. Joseph Baby Cemetery – and it’s all thanks to a KatyTales reader.

Two weeks ago, I had just finished the final touches on the Harvest House Mystery story and was ready to send it out into the world. After clicking “publish” that night, I woke up the next morning and checked my WordPress account to see how the blog post was doing. My jaw dropped open.

The stats showed that over one thousand people had read the St. Joseph Baby Cemetery story in under twelve hours. Over the next week, about four thousand people in total read the story. That’s about half the population of Boonville.

It. Was. Awesome.

The post also got some interesting comments. Although most were about the hospital itself – many of Boonville residents, past and present, were born there – one stuck out. It was from Judy Friedrich, who started very clearly that in fact the St. Joseph Baby Cemetery did not exist, or at least, not where we thought it was originally located.

After speaking with her via email, I’ve been able to learn a few more of the details. Friedrich’s parents lived in the house to the west of the St. Joseph Hospital – or what is now Harvest House. They moved there in the early 1960s after her father became maintenance supervisor of the hospital. Her parents lived in the house for more than ten years, and after the hospital sold the grounds her own growing family remained in the home. She lived in the home for more than two decades and raised her children there. It’s safe to say she knows the area well – and thankfully, was able to call me out.

“The property you are calling a grave site was where two large gas tanks were located,” says Friedrich.

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According to Friedrich, the tanks were there to provide gas in an emergency. The wire fence around the tanks was to stop visiting children from climbing on them. And the concrete slabs – what we thought were gravestones – actually supported the weight of the tanks.  The family mowed around the tanks until they were removed when the hospital relocated to Hwy B.

“I looked at these tanks for over twenty years trimming weeds and wishing they were not in my view,” says Friedrich.

Friedrich isn’t sure where the children are really buried. Records show there was an old grotto around the area that was used as a cemetery for former hospital nuns and priests. The grotto was destroyed after the hospital became unoccupied and the graves were moved to St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery.

This new information adds another complication to the story – Larry Long did speak to several sources around the area that confirmed the existence of an infant cemetery.  However, it seems likely that Friedrich’s story is the most accurate.

“The fact that I found a buried abandoned gas line in this plot seems to add credence to her story,” says Long. “I also found it odd that blank concrete slabs would be placed over the graves without even a hint of identification!”

Though Long (and myself) are both disappointed, we are also happy to be a part of correcting Boonville history. We’d like to send a big thank you to Ms. Friedrich for reaching out and helping solve a mystery.

Case closed…. For now?

If you have a story suggestion, a question or just want to say hello, feel free to comment below or email me at katytalesblog@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nimrod Rector House

Big thanks to Jim Hackman and Mitch Hackman for letting me trample around the Rector House property and ask them questions. And thanks to Caleb James for the story idea!

One of the oldest homes in Boonville is getting an extreme makeover.

The Nimrod Rector house, named by owner Jim Hackman, has withstood floods, a civil war – and is now getting updated for the 21st century.  Located on High Street and close to the river, it was built in 1829 and has received numerous renovations throughout its almost 200-year-old life. Hackman has now taken on the task of restoring the property and preserving the past.

‘It’s seen its fair share of Boonville history,” says Hackman.

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Front of the Rector house with Mitch and Jim Hackman

The house has close ties to the origins of Boonville: Charles Lucas and Asa Morgan were the first owners of the land where the Rector House now stands. Both are considered some of the “Founding Fathers” of Cooper County – in fact, they filed the paperwork to create the town of Boonville on August 1, 1817. They also offered to donate 50 acres of land to the state if Boonville was named the county seat. The state later accepted. (History of Cooper County by E.J. Melton, pg 37)

Although Asa Morgan would go on to influence the town of Boonville in later years (ever heard of Morgan Street?), Lucas was not so lucky. Three days after filing the legal documents to create Boonville, Lucas challenged famed politician Thomas Hart Benton’s right to vote. Benton brushed off the attack, replying, “I do not propose to answer charges made by any puppy who may happen to run across my path.”

Hot-headed Lucas challenged Benton to a duel on August 12, 1817. They met on a Mississippi sandbar known as “Bloody Island,” and shot at each other with pistols. Both injured, they agreed to a rematch on September 27, where Benton would strike Lucas in the arm and chest.

“Colonel, you have murdered me, and I never can forgive you,” said Lucas, 24. He later died of his wounds.

Asa Morgan was now the sole owner of the property. The land was then passed to Nimrod Rector, who built a log cabin in 1829. Later, renovations would be done around 1848, where a larger house would be built around the original wood, raising the structure to accommodate a large stone basement. The house would be occupied by residents up until the mid-1900s.

Jim Hackman bought the property in 2009, which included the now-named Rector House and a small area where another house once stood. He knew immediately that the house was something special – and when he bought the land,  he was able to receive the original abstract, which contains legal documentation of owners, property (including slaves) and recordings of the renovations during the 1800s.

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“Second” floor of the property. Notice the way the wood was placed – it’s slanted!

Much of the original “bones” of the Rector house are still intact, with old wood beams and handcrafted stones visible all over the property.  One brick found outside reads “St Louis,” so some materials were probably shipped west via Missouri river. In addition, the house was almost certainly built by slaves.

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Bricks made in St. Louis

Hackman has enjoyed uncovering the past through his work on the Rector House. At one time or another, the house included a kitchen, bathroom, basement, closets and living room, complete with a fireplace. In addition, former residents of the building have left behind interesting artifacts, including vintage artwork, old glass bottles and a wash tub.

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Remnants of wallpaper found in the home

Hackman plans to renovate the old house into a modern bed and breakfast. He envisions a multi-bedroom house – perfect for groups of bikers riding the Katy Trail, or even performers from the Isle of Capri Casino, which is located right across the street. He has also planted trees from his tree farm across the property, and hopes to use the small clearing next to the house as an event space. However, Hackman intends to keep as much of the original structure and build as he can.

“I think tourists will really be interested in this property,” says Hackman. “It’s definitely unique.”

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Got a question? Have an idea for a blog post? Want to challenge me to a duel on Bloody Island? Feel free to comment or email me at katytalesblog@gmail.com

Cruel & Unusual: The Cooper County Jail

“We tell a lot of stories about the jail…some of them are even true.” – Melissa Strawhun, Friends of Historic Boonville

The Cooper County jail, located at 614 E. Morgan Street, looks innocent enough. On one side, it is home to the offices of the Friends of Historic Boonville, where tourists can grab a map of Cooper County or buy a Big Muddy t-shirt. On the other side, though, emerges a darker side of the town’s history – and more than a few legends.

The jail was built in 1842 and held prisoners until 1978, making it the longest running jail in the state of Missouri. Although Cooper County originally held prisoners for all kinds of crimes,  by the 1970s most lawbreakers were sent to other local jails. Instead, those who spent the night in Boonville were typically booked for minor infractions, such as speeding, and the jail was eventually closed down for cruel and unusual punishment.

The two-story building once contained a large room called “the bullpen,” where slaves were held before auction, and a cell used specifically for women and children to keep them separate from other prisoners. Upstairs, the jail boasts a solitary confinement cell and four cramped rooms smaller than a modern closet.

It is hard to imagine anyone living in these cells and staying sane, and the preserved graffiti showcases the despair many prisoners must have faced. Names, dates and curses are etched into the walls, but a single phrase carved into a cell door  –  “This is HELL in here” – reminds visitors that the former prisoners of the Cooper County jail were human too.

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Terrifying

The Last Man to Hang in Missouri

At only 17 years old, Lawrence Mabry was accused of robbing and killing a resident in Pettis County. Although he has been portrayed as a young tough who deserved it – most notably in the 1983 folk song “Last Man to Hang in Missouri” by the late Bob Dyer – Mabry’s story was more complicated, and contributed to the ending of hanging as a corporal punishment by the state of Missouri.

Mabry was mentally handicapped. He could not read or write, and could barely form the letters of his own name. In Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803-2005, author Harriet Frazier shares a short anecdote: “He hoped to read the Bible while in jail awaiting his hanging; doing so was far too difficult a task for him. He said immediately before his death, ‘God is at my right elbow,’ and he surely intended to say, “God is at my right hand” (130).

The family of Mabry relentlessly campaigned to get their son’s sentence commuted, but were unable to convince a judge or jury otherwise. After spending two years in the solitary confinement cell, Mabry was hung by the neck on January 31, 1930. He was hanged in the sheriff’s barn, behind the jail, and few attended his execution. His punishment was hotly debated by the town, and the unease surrounding his death has seeped into the legends surrounding the “last man to hang.”

According to the Friends of Historic Boonville, “Mabry’s body hurtled through a sawed-out hold in the loft floor at 9:17 a.m. Simultaneously, the sheriff’s dog, Chief, in his pen near the barn-garage place of execution, began howling and continued howling for the next five minutes.”

Today, tourists can visit the “Hanging Barn” and see for themselves where Mabry took his last breaths. “Last Man to Hang in Missouri” is also occasionally played in town. Below is a recording from “The Wandering Fool,” covered by John Schneller.

Frank James

The most famous “guest” of the Cooper County jail was outlaw Frank James, brother of Jesse, who once spent a night at the Boonville jail in the 1880s.

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Frank James (picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

According to the Friends of Historic Boonville’s website, the official story is this: James was brought to the Cooper County Jail by Sheriff John Rogers on April 24, 1884, to answer a warrant for his arrest for a train robbery. Sympathetic citizens of Boonville raised his bond in a matter of hours, and the case was later dismissed for lack of evidence.

However, according to historical archivist Kathleen Conway, there’s more to the story:

The story about Frank James piqued my interest when we received the original bond signed by local residents that allowed James out of jail. In checking the date of the bond—it is after Frank James was pardoned by the Governor of the State of Missouri. But for some reason Cooper County decided to pursue him for robbery. Technically Frank James was no longer an outlaw when the county arrested him—so he wasn’t quite as notorious as we usually say in the tours. In the county records in the archives you see him called to trial and then a couple of continuances were granted. Eventually the case was dropped. Guess Cooper County was just too stubborn to let the case drop, even after the State had pardoned him!

Ghost Stories

Of course, no good jail is without its spooks. Interns and workers at the jail have seen shadows and heard noises. Items have disappeared and then have mysteriously returned; lights have gone out at odd times. However, these occurrences were always met with a disbelieving laugh – until October 24, 2015, when the Friends hosted paranormal investigators:

“The one really interesting thing that came out of the paranormal investigation we did occurred in the 3rd cell in the farthest hallway (where the 4 small cells are located). There was a lot of “paranormal activity,” such as flashlights been turned on and off when we asked if anyone was in there. Now, normally I would be questioning all of that… but last Monday, before the paranormal investigation, the Sheriff’s department brought in their new dog, Grimm, to take pictures of him inside the jail. That dog was totally freaked out by that same cell and wouldn’t go in…he sat by the door in the hallway and was waving his paw in front of his face like he was swatting something away……..” – Melissa Strawhun

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The fourth (and haunted?) cell

The Cooper County jail is located at 614 E. Morgan Street and is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m – 3 p.m. For more information, click here.

Do you have an interesting story or memory about the jail? Feel free to contact me at katytalesblog@gmail.com or leave a message below!