Earliest Murfreesboro jail was intact in 1811

April 2, 2018, The Daily News Journal, Susan Harber

The ‘old’ Rutherford County Jail was located at 400 West Main Street, on the northwest corner of West Main and North Front Streets.

I am so fascinated by our county jail system and the exceptional inner workings of our local law enforcement. My Uncle Leon Fox labored as a deputy (1959-1961) in a Murfreesboro jail under Sheriff Bill Wilson.  I remember later visiting my uncle in the 1970s as a young girl.  We toured the individual cells firsthand, and I was wide-eyed to see this system close and personal.

To begin, the county seat of Jefferson (18031811) heralded our first primitive jail.  A brick courthouse was built in the public square.  On the south side lay a crude log jail, stocks and whipping post.  Guests in this jail could free prisoners by easily jacking up the corner of the insecure structure.

With brawls becoming a common dilemma, Sheriff Samuel McBride (1804) petitioned for a prison.  The second sheriff to follow was Matthew McClanahan.  Well known Smyrna businessman Lee Victory, a friend of my dad Paul Rogers, later stated that logs from the original Jefferson jail were built into his own longstanding smokehouse.

Abner and Cader Dement (brothers) forged a strong frontier presence in maintaining safety in the community and were respectable citizens.  They directly signed the historic petition to establish Rutherford County in 1804 and were the first official residents in the county.  Abner was sheriff in Rutherford County in 1817 and lived on 816 acres in Lascassas.  At the time of Murfreesboro Mayor David Wendel’s mayoral term (1819), he sought new political structure.  Murfreesboro was organized into a mayor and alderman and an annual election for sheriff.  Wendel’s forbearance for a formal “officer for the law” was a large step forward in protecting citizens.

From the Daily News Journal, July 19, 1987.

There were kind acts of benevolence during the earliest chapter of a law-abiding community.  Fred Becton, minister of East Main Church of Christ, was dismayed on being shunned by other religions, who locked their doors and refused to share their premises in a time of dire need.  Becton wrote in an 1832 journal “Sheriff Crockett of Murfreesboro kindly offered us spacious room in the courthouse to worship.”  By August 1832, the church membership had doubled to 21 members within the courthouse.

With the establishment of Murfreesboro as county seat in 1811, a first jail of two stories was constructed on West College Street.  The building was sold in 1852 for $700 to William Spencer.

A second jail was built for $8,000 by Thomas J Bulgett.  The jail was used as an incarceration facility by the Union during the Civil War.

This 1987 photo is from the collection of former Rutherford County Commissioner Mike Liles of the current jail at 940 New Salem Pike.

A third jail was built in 1887 on West Main Street and Front Street, followed by a new jail in 1962 that sat on the same side of West Main but toward the square.  Bill Wilson was the abiding and hard-working sheriff.

In Smyrna, the first mayor was Joseph Engles (1869-1875), who identified himself as Justice of the Peace.  In January 1870, Engles’ first order of business was to build a police station and elect two police officers.  His first constable of Smyrna was J.W. Hight, while John Adkerson was deputy sheriff.  By 1913, another notable Smyrna sheriff was James Espey of Espeyland.

Rutherford County experienced a high degree of law and order during the Civil War.  On July 13, 1862, a turbulent raid in Cannon County by the Union forced six arrested Confederates to be hauled into the jail in Murfreesboro.

Nathan Bedford Forrest then entered the picture with a plan to catch the enemy by surprise while sleeping. While pretending to arrive for duty with the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, no shots were fired.

In darkness, Forrest moved down East Main Street with his Texas Rangers and attacked the Michigan Federals at Oaklands.  Forrest then scurried straight to the courthouse for a 12-hour standoff to free prisoners awaiting a public hanging.

Surprisingly, the Union set the jail on fire.  In response, Forrest and his soldiers used an ax to force entry through the courthouse doors.  All prisoners, including a Baptist minister, were freed.

There were dark days in maintaining justice in Rutherford County in an early chapter of time.  What caught my attention was a Feb. 20, 1880, execution that proved the last one on record.  Prisoners Burrell Smith and John Hall were hanged for murdering Maj. Robert Pugh.

The hanging was a carnival event with advertising on the gallows.  A grandstand held hundreds of residents, who had purchased their seats.  Refreshments were on hand.  Seventy-five guards led the prisoners from jail on West College Street to the execution on Lytle Creek.  The Tennessee Supreme Court up-held the verdict in an incredible manner.

Moreover, a lynching tragically occurred in Rutherford County in 1908.  In 1947, a second lynching was fortunately prevented by the Rev. Herbert Covington, who sat firm in a chair at the jail entrance in Murfreesboro passionately dealing with a mob to stand for reason.

On March 14, 1911, Chief of Police Joe Arnold and Sheriff Jep Hall were dropping off inmates when a duel erupted, and both men started shooting at each other.  Hard feelings magnified over time between the men and resulted in Hall being shot twice, while Arnold perished.  In the end, Hall claimed self defense.

In Rutherford County, there have been two electrocutions in our state that include John Henry Wallace in 1927 and Albert Duboise in 1947.  Both lost their lives for murder charges.

From 1976-1978, the jail in Rutherford County held 72 inmates as full capacity.  The average number of occupants was 25-40.  Around 30 prisoners were sent to the Tennessee State Prison from our county every year between 1973 and 1978.

Today, plans are forthcoming for a newly renovated $55 million Murfreesboro Police Department on North Highland with 125,000 square feet.

Law and order in Rutherford County has been ever-present since the origination of Rutherford County.  The story begins with a jail in Jefferson that allowed prisoners to easily escape to freedom.

The end of story for criminal offenses in Rutherford County is not complete; yet, much progress has been effectively set in motion by our leaders of the past 214 years.

Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@hotmail. com.

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