Prisoners overseen by county corrections before 1933 would have no doubt welcomed with open arms the current Claiborne Justice Center and its state-of-the-art jail.
The Old Jail, located just off Broad Street in Tazewell, is a symbol of early county corrections and a reminder of just how far we have come in dealing with those who break the law.
Today, inmates enjoy all the so-called comforts of home and are protected by certain statutes forbidding overseers from callous treatment.
From 1819 to 1933, county prisoners had little in the way of comforts as they sat inside the Old Jail awaiting trial or, in some cases, their death by hanging.
In those early days, hangings were performed via a door opening off the front of the second story of the structure. County folk would make a day of it, packing up a picnic basket in anticipation of visiting old friends while awaiting the public hanging of someone they most likely had known for years.
The one facing the final phase of his sentence had but a few steps to take, as he was led from his cell to the hanging door.
Certain hangings were performed at remote locations, however. The last public execution inside Claiborne County was held in 1875 in Academy Hollow, nearby Kentucky Road.
What began as a case of common assault, over an apparent dispute about a hog, quickly morphed into a murder case.
The doomed, Annanias Honeycutt, maintained his innocence to his last breath, claiming he had simply protected himself from harm inflicted upon him by the victim, Thomas Ausmus.
The murder case apparently drew quite a bit of attention from county folk. Reportedly, some 6,000 people attended the popular event, warranting the use of 50 guards to protect Honeycutt and two preachers to perform the last rites.
The Claiborne County Historical and Genealogical Society (CCH&GS) website recounts the event.
“The proceeding was opened by Reverend Billy Cruthfied with a reading from the Bible and a hymn, followed by a prayer and an hour long sermon about heaven and hell. Then Reverend Greer spoke. Honeycutt was asked to speak and he invited the crowd to meet him in heaven. The Sheriff put a black cap over Honeycutt’s head and face and adjusted the noose, the wagon moved forward leaving him struggling in the air. The body was cut down and his family took it home for burial,” reads the account, in part.
Information about the Old Jail can be found in ‘Goodspeed’s History of Claiborne County.’
“The first jail was completed at about the same time as the courthouse – 1804. It was used until 1819, when Josiah C. Ramsey, John Evans, William Graham, William Renfro, Robert Crockett, David Rogers and Reuben Rogers were appointed commissioners to erect a new jail. It was built with a double wall, the outside being rock and the inside frame,” reads ‘Goodspeed,’ in part.
The architecture is more fully described in ‘The Peoples History of Claiborne County, volume II.
“Originally, the stone foundation level served basically as the entry with stairs leading to the “Second” floor (brick section) which was the main facility. In the center of this floor was a single cell (“bull pen”) with steel bars; an open hallway was on each of the four sides. A jailer had a bed in one corner. The cell has apparently been removed,” reads the volume, in part.
In 2006, the Historical Society was handed the papers to the Old Jail, which is the oldest freestanding one in the state. Since that time, the members have worked tirelessly to bring the historic structure ‘up to snuff’ in order to maintain its historic register standing.
Quite a bit of work has been completed to the exterior. However, the interior will need about $100,000 in grant funds and donations to bring it back to as near its original state, as possible.
Carolyn Lambert, Society treasurer, says the members welcome any documentation that would help them to authentically restore the Old Jail.
Future plans include the creation of a plaza on the front side of the structure, allowing fundraising and other special events to be held. The one problem might be the closing of Spring Street, the alleyway that currently runs directly in front of the Old Jail.
According to Lambert, the actual property deed includes just two extra feet of grounds that run along each of the four sides of the building, further inhibiting plans to expand.
The Society is in need of volunteers willing to devote their time and energies to another successful Candlelight Tour, scheduled from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Oct. 21-22.
This year’s installment, “Ghosts of Prisoners PAST,” will surely give attendees a close-up and personal view of the state of county corrections during its infancy.
Membership has dwindled over the last years, prompting the Society to put an all-call out to those who might like to join an organization devoted to regional history and genealogy.
For more information, to volunteer or to make a donation, call the Society at 423-526-5737 or email at: [email protected]
Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.