As fall sets in and Halloween approaches, it seems an appropriate time to highlight a historical site in downtown Frederick that possess a complicated past. Situated on the 400 block of W. South Street stands the former Frederick County jail. The site features a large and impressive brick structure with a deep setback that dwarfs the surrounding domestic 19th century architecture. The property now houses the Rescue Mission, a faith-based organization which provides various programs to aid people who live in poverty and homelessness or suffer from chemical dependency. Today, the building is seen as a beacon of hope that serves those in need. However, it was originally designed as a place of confinement and punishment.
It should be noted that the existing building, which was constructed in 1876, is not the first jail built in the city, nor the first jail on the site. The first jail was constructed in 1753, near the original court house on Council Street. Later, in 1775, a Tory Jail was constructed on East Second Street. The old Hessian Barracks, off of S. Market Street, was also used as a prison.
History is vague on when the first jail on the current site was built. However, we know that by the early 1830s South Street was commonly referred to as Jail Street. A city map drawn in 1841 by F.Paurer first documents the prison, but the 1854 Pittar Map shows more details. The facility is clearly defined by a wall enclosing a large yard with the jail and separate Sheriff’s house. There appears to be very little development around, suggesting that the jail was outside the downtown core.
According to research performed by Paula Reed and EdieWallace, the jail also served as a point of sale for the slave market. Indeed, when looking at the Frederick Town Herald, a weekly newspaper that ran between 1802 and 1832, advertisments for “Sheriff’s Sales” ran frequently. Many auctions would include a listing of enslaved people, often unnamed, who were available for purchase. The jail also appears to have served as a holding cell for captured people who had escaped from slavery. Local newspapers from the era often posted awards for “runaways,” with instructions to bring them to the jail. Presumably, this type of activity continued until the Civil War.
By 1874, plans were underway to replace the fort-like jail on South Street with a new facility, which still stands today. Baltimore architect Frank E. Davis (1839-1921) was hired to design the new jail and construction was completed in 1876 at a cost of $72,000. The most dramatic change from the previous design is that the large Sheriff’s house was prominently located at the front of the property, a design that may have been influence by the fact that W. South Street was developing into a residential neighborhood. An impressive residence, in both scale and detail, with the jail hidden behind a massive brick wall may have fit better into the new urban streetscape.
Once complete, the building was considered “a solid and substantial structure.” It included important features that were in-line with the prevailing ideals of prison reform of the era. The three-story jailhouse was comprised of two wide corridors, which were often referred to as the east and west wings. Prisoners were assigned to a wing based on the type of crime they committed. Generally, prisoners were also segregated by gender and race; with women occupying the third floor of the facility. This was considered an improvement over the “old system” which was still in full force in much of the country during the last quarter of the 20th century and is often characterized as the crowding of prisoners no matter their crime, age, or gender.
Still, the jail must have been a daunting place to be imprisoned. Several executions have been documented. In total, four prisoners were publicly hung inside the existing facility. Jacob Engelbrecht, a local resident, documented his observations of these public events. For example, on Nov. 11, 1881, Felix Munshower was hung despite declaring his innocence. His death was quick and took place in front of 700 people. Other executions attracted even larger crowds, which could be accommodated with the aid of a tall scaffold to allow viewers to observe the event from outside the prison walls. It may surprise some that the last public execution in downtown Frederick occurred as late as 1922.
In 2015, the former Frederick County Jail was designated a local Landmark by the mayor and Board of Alderman of the city of Frederick.