MONMOUTH, Ill. — History has a way of repeating itself, and that is certainly the case right now in Warren County, as officials struggle with the problem of a seriously outdated jail.
Since 1833, Monmouth has been the site of four different county jails — the very first one (made of logs and built on the site of the current Fusion Theatre) was used to house four members of Chief Keokuk’s band accused of murdering pioneer William Martin. Each of the first three jails was eventually declared unfit for human habitation. The second jail was built in 1840 on the west side of the current courthouse block. It was extensively remodeled in 1857.
The first “modern” jail was erected in 1882 on the site of the current jail, incorporating a home for the sheriff on the west side. It was expanded in 1894 with more cell space, a boiler house and a steam-heating tunnel connected to the courthouse. It was still far from secure, as several escapes were attempted — sometimes successfully, costing the county thousands of dollars to apprehend escapees.
By 1914, Illinois had established new statutes regarding prison conditions and it had become apparent that the Warren County jail was seriously out of compliance. Among the regulations were that debtors and witnesses could not be confined in the same cell with criminals and that minors had to be held separately.
In addition, the 1882 jail was in such terrible condition that the Monmouth Atlas editorialized that it must be torn down. It contained only six cells for men, and those on the second floor were often uninhabitable due to excessive heat. Only two toilets served the entire building, so buckets were used as “chamber pots” in the cells. Inmates were housed so far from the jailer that escape efforts could not be heard, especially with the women’s department between the men and the jailer's residence.
After a grand jury toured the jail in early 1915 and pronounced it completely out of date, the county board appointed a three-man committee to visit other prisons in Illinois and Iowa to determine a modern facility should look like. Unfortunately, most of the area prisons were as old as the Monmouth jail.
The state charities commission had visited the Monmouth facility the previous year and pronounced it on a par with other Illinois county jails. Its main complaint was that Monmouth prisoners were not required to change their clothing upon entering or to bathe once a week.
At a meeting of the county board in June 1915, the jail committee made its recommendations that a new jail costing $30,000 be built. The board chairman moved that he and a committee of six supervisors be tasked with securing plans for the prison. It was decided that the jailer’s quarters on the west would be retained and incorporated into the new building.
Plans were made to house existing prisoners in the city jail and in neighboring counties during construction. Sale of bricks and iron from the old prison would cover the cost of demolition.
Selected to design the building was J. Grant Beadle, a prominent Galesburg architect who had designed that city’s Central Congregational Church and public library.
At the end of June, the building committee and architect traveled to St. Louis, where they visited the Pauly Jail Manufacturing Company, which provided interiors for nine-tenths of the prisons in the country. After looking at a number of plans, two were selected as potentially suitable for Warren County. While in St. Louis, the committee also toured the city jail, which was 10 stories high and could house 400 prisoners.
Demolition of the old jail began in August. Because a new city hall was concurrently being built on the site of the old city jail, the cages from the city jail were transferred to a vacant store on the northeast side of the public square and some county prisoners were kept there. Others were transported to the Knox County jail.
Construction of the new jail continued throughout the fall and winter, and on Jan. 29, 1916, the Monmouth Atlas reported that the jail should be ready to receive prisoners by the following week. “The jail, from the outside, is a fine looking building,” the reporter wrote, “but those who have had the opportunity of taking a look inside say the exterior cannot compare with the interior.”
The entire interior was painted white, with seven coats of enamel coating the steel. When the board and architect accepted the jail the following week, the Atlas called it “one of the most modern prisons in the state and…a credit to Warren county. It contains everything necessary for a modern jail and is guaranteed escape proof. The company which manufactured the steel has gone as far as to offer a big reward to any man who can break out and the person who wants to take the chance will be permitted to take his own tools with him.”
The public was invited to a Saturday open house, where it was assured that the refreshments “will not be prison food.” Visitors were particularly impressed by the modern plumbing and that a separate area was set aside for women and children prisoners.
In late October, the chief deputy U.S. Marshal from Springfield brought a federal prisoner to Monmouth and was so impressed by the facility that he told the sheriff that he would recommend it be designated as the principal prison of the Fifth District, which included the cities of Springfield, Peoria and Quincy.
The marshal said that Warren County had “undoubtedly has the best jail in the entire district” adding that jails in larger cities were older and lacking in modern and sanitary conveniences.
There is no evidence that the Warren County jail was ever designated as the principal prison of the district, but it did serve the county well for longer than all three of the previous jails combined. Now more than a century old, however, it has far outlived its usefulness.
A new jail is desperately needed and a citizens’ advisory committee is currently studying the options prior to making a recommendation to the county board. The cost of a new facility will dwarf that of the 1915 jail, which in today’s dollars only cost about $750,000. Not only will a new jail need to be larger and much more technologically advanced, it will also have to be built under Illinois’ Prevailing Wage Act, which can increase the cost of labor for public buildings by 20 percent or more.
History does repeat itself, and though it may not happen immediately or be without pain, citizens will eventually be obliged to join earlier generations of Warren County residents and provide a modern replacement for their 104-year-old jail. Public safety and community pride demand it.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.