The Murfreesboro Post, June 1, 2008
Editors note: With the new Juvenile Center coming online this month, the original Rutherford County Jail will no longer be used for a detention facility.
We thought it was appropriate to touch upon some of the facts that made the old jail historic.
1. By an act, Aug. 3, 1804, John Hill, Frederick Barfield, Mark Mitchell, Alexander McBright and Peter Legrand were appointed to select a central site for a seat of justice for the new county. They were to receive by purchase or donation 40 acres of land upon which they were to erect or cause to be erected a court house, prison and stocks. The above named board selected a site within the forks of Stones River for a county seat. The town was regularly laid out having about 150 town lots and a Public Square on which was erected a good brick court house which stood till 1835. The town was named Jefferson.
2. A whipping post was also erected on the corner of the public square in Jefferson for the punishment of graver offenses. Samuel McBride, the sheriff, demanded of the court a suitable jail for prisoners in his possession. Jefferson’s first jail was a log structure and prisoners would escape when their friends wiggled the bottom logs out of the way.
3. Punishment was inflicted by standing in stocks, by the whipping-post, the branding iron, imprisonment in jail and sometimes by clipping the ear. Persons were made infamous by branding the mark indicating the crime of the guilty one, as T for thief, M for murder. These punishments were not inflicted as marks of brutality by the court, but were looked upon as marks of justice inflicted.
4. October 17, 1811, the Tennessee Legislature appointed Charles Ready, Hugh Robinson, Hans Hamilton, James Armstrong, Owen Edwards, Jesse Brashears and John Thompson commissioners to select a permanent seat of justice for the county. The commissioners were entertained by William Lytle, where the vote was taken on his proposition to donate 60 acres of land south of Murfree Spring Branch to the commissioners. Two acres of ground near the center of the seat were to be reserved, on which were to be built a courthouse and stocks and another nearby lot was set aside for a jail.
5. On moving the county seat to Murfreesboro a new jail was built by the commissioners of Murfreesboro on College Street, a little north of the present jail. This building was of brick, two stories high and was erected by Mr. Dickson. This building was used as a jail until 1852, when it was sold to businessman William Spence for $700.
6. In 1819 a man named Thurman was tried for horse stealing and found guilty, and according to the law and custom of the time was condemned to be executed. The day was set and the time arrived. The prisoner was seated on his own coffin and driven in a cart to the place of execution, near where Soule College once stood on North Maple Street. People thronged the place where the Rev. Robert Henderson delivered the funeral sermon pointing out the evils of a sinful life. Thurman’s hands were tied and the sheriff, U.S. Cummins, was adjusting the noose when Daniel Graham, secretary of state, appeared and stayed the proceedings by reading to the sheriff a reprieve for the prisoner who was remanded back to jail.
7. In 1848 Sarah, a slave was executed by order of the court. The execution was performed by Sheriff J. M. Thompson, for which the court allowed him the sum of $12.50; other allowances, for grave, coffin and gallows, amounted to a total of $26.25. She was the only woman ever executed in Rutherford County.
8. On October 4, 1850, J. Lidsey, W.H. Helms, B. Clayton, J.E. Dromgoole, N.W. Carter and John Burke were appointed to a committee to investigate the needs of the county in regard to the jail. The committee reported the old jail was past renovation and that a new one was necessary. The contract for this new jail, located at the corner of West Main and Front streets, was let to Thomas J. Bulgett September 11, 1852. The total cost of the building was $7,984, with some unfinished work on the outside.
9. In the fall of 1886, the jail was destroyed by a fire of mysterious origins. There were several prisoners incarcerated at the time. Three of them died when rescue attempts failed. Two of the prisoners were accused of attempting to derail Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad passenger trains, twice, south of Murfreesboro. Following the fire, prisoners were held in Nashville until a new jail was completed in 1887. Two of those prisoners, John Hall and Burrell Smith, were convicted of the murder of Maj. H.S. Pugh, who operated a small grocery. Hall and Smith were to be the last convicts to be legally executed in Rutherford County in 1880. The gallows for the public execution was erected on the jail property near the West Main bridge.
10. Ultimately, the jail located at the corner of West Main and Front streets was replaced with the structure that still stands there. It served as the county jail during the administrations of Hall McNabb, Robert Goodwin, Craig Snell and Truman Jones.A federal class-action lawsuit forced the construction of the new Rutherford County Detention Center on New Salem Highway. The Rutherford County Adult Detention center is a primary holding facility that confines pretrial male and female inmates as well as sentenced. The detention facility operates its own kitchen and laundry facilities and provides medical services, a library, a law library and outdoor recreation area for use of residents.
11. Jailbreak! Perhaps the most famous incident regarding the Rutherford County Jail was the 1862 jailbreak orchestrated by Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest and 1,300 Confederate troops. Forrest had been charged by Confederate high command with dispersing the Federal garrison at Murfreesboro. Forrest planned on celebrating his 42nd birthday on July 13, 1862 by recapturing the strategically important town. Forrest’s mission took on new urgency when his troops arrived in Woodbury about midnight on July 12. The Woodbury square was filled with women who begged Forrest to free their men, who were being held in the Rutherford County Jail. The men were suspected of killing Union foragers and some of them faced execution. Forrest promised the women their husbands and sons would be home by dusk on the following day. True to his promise, Forrest and his men captured the Courthouse, jail and depot and accepted the surrender of the Union garrison. He was rewarded a generals star for what was his first independent action of the Civil War.