Remodeling the Jail – 1879

By Stephen D. Bowling

For several years, efforts to remodel and repurpose the Breathitt County Jail have continued. Local organizations and the county have sought numerous grants to save the historical building since it closed to prisoners in 2005. Much work remains to the completed. The effort to reuse the native sandstone structure is just another story in the history of the Breathitt County Jail.

The conversion of the building to other uses pales compared to the remodeling that a group of “local builders” did to the jail in 1879. Jails have burned, and jails have been replaced with new, updated structures, but no other instance is known of the total remodel accomplished nearly 150 years ago. No local source is available for more details about the “work.” The only reference discovered to date is from the front page of The Cincinnati Daily Star on March 20, 1879. The article included the following information:

Beautiful Breathitt

The Old Log Jail Jerked All To Flinders

Special to the Star.

Mt. Sterling, Ky.  March 20.- A report, well authenticated, reached here that the Old Nick has been to pay again in Breathitt.  Several days since a body of desperadoes assembled in Jackson, and, after consultation, proceeded to the jail, built of logs, and beginning with the roof, proceeded to raze it to the ground.

They completed the work of demolition, after which they swore, by all the gods and goddesses of the Kentucky mountains, that another jail should never be built in the free county of Breathitt.  They also threatened to burn the Courthouse, and it is believed they will execute the threat before the time of holding the June term of Court comes around.

The excitement at the jail in 1879 was not the first issue within sight of the structure. The log jail was the scene of several significant incidents in the feud history of the community, including the assassination of Jailer Thomas J. Little and the assassination of Judge John W. Burnett in 1878. Many of the prisoners from the “Jason Little Affair” and other violent episodes of our past were guests at the “log hotel.”

The area around the location of the old Breathitt County Courthouse from an 1897 Sandborn Insurance Company map of Jackson. Notice the new, brick Breathitt County Jail (our fourth) had been constructed by the time this map was produced.

Jailer James W. Lindon’s reaction to the demolition of his jail in 1879 is not recorded. The minutes of the Breathitt County Fiscal Court failed to record the actions of the Justices of the Peace and the County Judge to rebuild and restore order. In short, the county appears to have taken this vigilante action in stride and just “kept on keeping on.” Within a few months, the logs had been restacked and reinforced with steel bands to prevent a repeat of the unstacking from 1879.

On May 17, 1938, forty workers from the Works Progress Administration started the demolition of the old brick jail. Workmen laid the cornerstone for the new building on the fifth jail on June 3, 1938.

Other jails would be constructed on the public square despite the mob’s best efforts and prayers to “all the gods and goddesses of the Kentucky mountains.” Many years later, a replacement jail was built of sturdy bricks near the corner of College Avenue and the alley that would become Jail Street in the 1930s. That structure would also see its share of violence, including the famed “Jail Raid” in 1921.

The fifth Breathitt County Jail was constructed by the Works Progress Administration from June 3, 1938, until it opened on February 24, 1940.

The current jail was constructed from 1938 until it opened on February 24, 1940, at the cost of $42,000 by the architectural firm of Frankel and Curtis. The building, made of local sandstone quarried on Frozen Creek, rendered the Breathitt County practice of disassembling the jail nearly impossible. The jail has remained one of the finest examples of WPA work in eastern Kentucky and is undoubtedly the most visible.

While work continues to complete the repurposing of the old building, we pause to remember the vigilante efforts of a wild mob who took the Breathitt County Jail apart years ago. Lawlessness to the degree perpetrated by those who spoke of the “free county of Breathitt” is unheard of today, thankfully. The remodeling of the Breathitt County Jail in 1879 remains a singular event in “Bloody Breathitt’s” long and almost unbelievable history.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Feuds, Jackson and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Remodeling the Jail – 1879

  1. Karen Stacy says:

    Calvin Wickliffe Lewis, my husband’s great-grandfather was a stonemason in Breathitt County. He cut the stone for this jail and Big Rock School, among others. His death certificate states he worked for the WPA.


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