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Chicago House of Correction
Life Span: 1872-1928
Location: 26th and California
Excerpted from: The House of Correction of the City of Chicago, A Retrospect, 1923
HALF A CENTURY AGO there was erected on the western outskirts of Chicago, far beyond what was then the populated part of the city, a small group of buildings, consisting of an administration building, a cell house, a boiler room and a workshop, that were to replace the old down town prison known as the “Bridewell.”
This was pursuant to an order passed by the Common Council, as it was then called, granting the necessary authority for the erection of the buildings, in conformity with “An act to establish Houses of Correction and authorize the confinement of convicted persons therein,” passed by the State Legislature, approved April 25th, 1871.
The site chosen as available happened to be one typical of “Checagou,” as the old French explorers spelled the name, imitating as nearly as they could the pronunciation of the Indian term for the little trading post and which, according to authorities, signified “wild onion” with some tribes and “skunk” with others. At any rate the surrounding territory, even at the time when the first Bridewell buildings were erected, was alive with skunks and raccoons. The vegetation consisted chiefly of prairie grass and leeks, or wild onions, with occasional patches of scrub trees and bushes. In the rainy season the adjacent “Mud Lake” became an immense swamp, being on the eastern end of the water shed of the Desplaines River, and was literally alive with muskrats. In season it was a paradise for the snipe hunter or for rabbits. The Superintendent and some of the officials could stray away from the institution a short distance and return loaded with game. The terminus of the nearest one-horse street car line was far away.
What a transformation took place in comparatively few years. The vast institution of today is in the center of a thickly populated district, surrounded by boulevards and spacious grounds, passed by electric street car lines and railroads, easy of access by Elevated and far within the boundary line of the city.
Partial view of Bridewell Prison
West 26th Street and California Avenue
The construction of the House of Correction was made necessary by the insufficiency and inappropriateness of the old Bridewell, founded in 1852, For the information of those who are unacquainted with the etymology of the word “Bridewell,” which term is still frequently used in speaking of the institution, it may here be stated that it is derived from an ancient castle in London, so called, favorite palace of King Henry VIl, erected near St Bride’s well, a spring of supposed miraculous powers. In 1553 Edward VI gave his father’s palace of Bridewell to the city of London for a workhouse, and formulated the system of municipal charity. It later became a temporary prison or house of detention, with which use its name is especially familiar, in old views and maps it appears as a castellated building of some architectural pretensions.
The name has become a generic term for a house of correction or lockup, and the gothic castellated style of architecture is generally adhered to in places of detention to this day. The terms “Beanery”‘ and “Bandhouse” are occasionally used by the inmates and their friends, or by police officers, in referring to the Chicago institution, but the proper and official title is, as stated, the House of Correction. The institution was opened on the 10th day of August. 1871, by the transfer of the city prisoners from the Bridewell to the number of 130 men. women and children. It was customary at that time and for quite a number of years afterwards to commit children of tender age to the House of Correction. There were received from August 10th, 1871, to December 31st, 1871, inclusive, 1,825, and discharged during that period, 1,719, leaving at the end of the first year 236 inmates, the population of the city at that time being slightly over 300,000.
Although, as stated above, the institution was officially opened on August 10th, 1871, it was not until January 15th, 1872 that the system in vogue in the old Bridewell was changed to that now existing. Formerly its affairs were principally managed by the Comptroller of the city and the Bridewell Committee of the Common Council. The Superintendent received from the city a salary and a per diem price for boarding its inmates. All other expenses were also paid by the citv, and there were no receipts from the labor of the inmates.
The new system, the one still in force, provided for the management by a Superintendent under direction of a Board of hispectors, consisting of three members besides the Mayor of the City, who is ex-officio a member of the Board. The Board of Inspectors appoint the Superintendent, who has full charge of the management of the institution and they select all assistants and employees. Since the Civil Service Law went into effect, the positions created by the Board of Inspectors are filled by eligibles certified by the Civil Service Commission. The members of the Board are appointed by the Mayor subject to approval by the City Council. Their term of office is for three years, appointments being a year apart, but they frequently succeed themselves through reappointment for long periods.
The original Board of Inspectors appointed by Mayor Roswell B. Mason, who was ex officio chairman, on September 15th, 1871, consisted of Hon. John C. Haines, Louis Wall, Esq., and Col. C. G. Hammond. This Board offered the position of Superintendent to L. R. Brockway, Warden of the Detroit, Mich., Reformatory, who, however, declined acceptance, being prevailed upon to remain in Detroit. Mr. George Mansur temporarily was in charge of the institution. The Board then appointed Mr. Charles E. Felton, who was prior to this appointment the Warden of the Buffalo, N. Y., Penitentiary for nine years, as first Superintendent of the House of Correction, and he took chiarge of its affairs on tiie 15th of January, 1872.
It may be stated here in parenthesis that the term “warden” is generally applied to the manager, or overseer, of a penitentiary, jail, hospital, or asylum, sometimes also of a college. The manager of a House of Correction is usually termed “superintendent.” In fact, the laws of most States, including Illinois, so provide.
The office of Inspector of the House of Correction is one of honor only, there being neither salary nor emoluments connected with the position.
Although it has been customary for some years past to select two members of the Board of the same political faith as the reigning administration and one of the opposite political party, the institution has, with this single occasional exception, been remarkably free from political influence. It has been the practice of those in power to totally ignore partisanship in appointments. There have been only seven Superintendents in fifty years. The members of the Board of Inspectors have rarely been changed except by the filling of vacancies caused by death or voluntary resignation. Many of the employees in supervisory positions have been in the service for a long number of years. If the administration of the institution’s affairs has been successful, it is largely owing to that fact. The seven Superintendents have all been men of the highest standing in the community, efficient, energetic and of exceptional ability, several of them penologists and criminologists of national and international fame. As in the olden days seven roads led from different directions to Rome the great “eternal city,” so the seven Superintendents of the House of Correction, although differing in characteristics and methods, have all contributed their share in making this institution the greatest of its kind, not only in the United States, but presumably in the whole world.
Early Constructive Operations
Reverting now to the early history of the institution, it should be stated that the original buildings, erected in 1871, proved to be inadequate from the very start, and with the rapid increase of the population of the city and the proportionate increase in the number of arrests, the management was confronted by the. serious problem of finding room for the proper housing of the inmates. An additional difficulty presented itself in properly segregating male and female prisoners in the single cell house then existing. Appeals to the Common Council for sufficient appropriation to erect a separate building for female offenders, were for years unavailing, owing in part no doubt to financial conditions after the great Chicago Fire in October, 1871, and the necessity of rebuilding so many public institutions and making other civic improvements. Finally sufficient funds were appropriated to enable erection of a separate building with the assistance of the brick manufactured in the institution and the labor of the inmates. The additional cell house was erected just north of the one originally built, and it may be mentioned in this connection, that at a later period (in 1904) these two buildings and an additional cell house of 1897 were joined by connecting construction to form the great wing now known as the South Cell House.
It would lead too far for the scope of this article to categorically enumerate the many improvements and additions in detail leading up to the present magnificent complex of buildings stretching for several blocks in a practically unbroken line along California Avenue (Marshall Boulevard) from 26th Street to “Mud Lake” (west fork of south branch of Chicago River, emptying into Drainage Canal near Kedzie Avenue) and the ramifications westward from the main Administration Building, as also the separate buildings within the great walls, not visible from outside the enclosure and the extensions of the heating, lighting, power, water and sewer systems.
The more important constructive operations may, however, be briefly referred to, stating as a prelude that the original buildings still form part of the main frontage, the pleasing style of architecture of the original administration building having been adhered to in erection of later and more spacious buildings. The original buildings referred to had a frontage of 448 feet, They were remodeled for a time into a residence for the Deputy Superintendent, the Physician and the Matrons. Later on they were again remodeled and at present are occupied by such officials and employees the nature of whose duties necessitates their dwelling on the premises. The officers’ dining room and kitchen are also here situated.
Erection of Main Administration Building and Wings
In 1886 and 1887 the City Council granted an appropriation of f 125,000 toward the construction of an additional cell house of three hundred cells and an administration building, the amount of $166,090 having been asked for. The additional |41,000 was granted subsequently. The plan suggested by Supt. C. E. Felton and approved by the city engineer, Mr. S. G. Artingstall, was carried out in full. The prison constructed was really much larg-r than the estimate would cover, but the cost was not larger than anticipated for ihe proposed structures, as a large portion of the labor was executed by inmates and the cut stone and brick supplied by the institution.
Exterior view of Bridewell Prison
West 26th Street and California Avenue
The plans submitted by the city engineer and which, as stated, were adhered to in all details, provided as follows:
The proposed changes would require the construction of two structures of similar architectural design to the present building, uniting with it at its northerly end— the center one being larger and more imposing than either of the others and to be used chiefly for administrative purposes. The first or central structure should project 103>^ feet in front of the easterly line of the present female prison and be two stories high, in rear of which should be a rotunda (octagon), 75 feet by 75 feet, and three stories high, and a wing adjoining same at the westerly end, as hereinafter mentioned, for kitchen, etc. The second structure should be in appearance almost a duplicate of the present House of Correction, but larger, and united to same by aid of the central structure above described. This would make, as designed, a facade of nearly 1,050 feet, 950 feet of which would be used as prison. There should also be constructed three wings extending west—one to connect with the rotunda in the center of the mail building and bein§ 50 feet wide by 295? feet long, and to be used for kitchen, storerooms, chapel, school room and other purposes; and two wings to connect with prison, one in rear of its northern end and the other midway between same and the structure last above described, each of such wings being 50 feet wide by 308 feet long and to be used as prisons.
The preceding contemplates a prison of sufficient size, with sufficient divisions, and with all the appointments necessary for the pioper classification and care of about 1,700 inmates. A large part of the work of construction— the unskilled labor part—can be done by inmates.
The buildings referred to, with but slight alterations and occasional repairs, still exist in their entiretu.a. monument to the architectural beauty and durability of construction of the time.
The transportation of offenders to the House of Correction for forty years from its inception, that is from 1871 until 1911, was by omnibus drawn by a four- horse team. This vehicle, popularly known as the “Black Maria,” made daily gathering trips to the Harrison Street, the Desplaines Street and the Maxwell Street Police Stations, the other Stations sending their quota of offenders to these three gathering stations. When too late for the bus, and in emergency cases, offenders were taken by patrol wagon directly to the House of Correction.
During the year 1908 there was an appropriation of $40,000 made for construction of a new cell house on the most modern lines. The West Cell House is 50 feet wide by 250 feet long, containing a main floor and three galleries. There are 334 cells in all, each cell is 7×9 feet, has a window 2×4 feet and is equipped with a water closet and a lavatory. Every cell receives the sunlight sometime during the day.
In the summer of 1920, at the request of Superintendent Joseph Siman, the boys transformed the old John Worthy farm into a ball park. This required considerable work on their part but they enjoyed the outdoors and took to the work with a spirit that soon changed the rough weed-covered field into a good baseball diamond. The following year a large back-stop of cement, iron pipe, and wire mesh was constructed. There are two regular teams, one of which plays an outside team every Saturday. During the week shops who have a team of their own, can apply for an open date for the ball grounds and fight it out on the diamond with their opponents in the presence of a smaller group of spectators.
Report on Brick Yard and Quarry
In the southwestern section of the House of Correction grounds two industries are operated that are practically unknown to the general public.bThey are of great value both to the Institution and to the taxpayers of the City of Chicago. These industries are the Brick Machine and Yard and the Stone Quarry and Crusher.
Their value to the Institution is due to the fact that they furnish a large percentage of our inmates with healthful outdoor employment and the taxpayer is benefited, due to the fact that the brick and stone manufactured in these industries are sold to the City of Chicago, saving the City thousands of dollars annually.
The brick machine has a capacity of 40,000 brick per day; the clay for the feeding of this machine being stripped off the top of a section known as our stone quarry. It is loaded in cars, hoisted up an incline and then dumped by inmates into the brick machine. This machine molds the clay into brick form and cuts it off to the proper length. After cutting, it runs along on a belt and is loaded from this belt into barrows, by inmates who wheel it out to a section of our yard known as “runs”. These runs have a capacity of 250,000 brick. Here the brick are stacked until dry. They are then wheeled into our new kiln shed which has just been completed by the inmates of the Institution under supervision of our Superintendent of Construction. This kiln shed is 60-ft. x 300-ft. in length and has a capacity of 1,600,000 brick. It compares favorably with any kiln shed in Cook county. The brick are set in arcti form in the kiln shed in kilns of varying sizes and are burnt by inmates under the supervision of our Supervisor of Brickyard, who has had years’ of experience in the manufacture of brick. A large percentage of this brick is used by the Sewer Department, the Water Pipe Extension and the Construction Division, in new and repair work performed by these departments.
The Stone Quarry, under the supervision of the Supervisor of Quarry, has reached a depth of 100 feet, from which tens of thousands of yards of stone have been quarried. The stone is blasted and broken up into small sizes; it is then loaded on cars that hold about 1½ yards, pushed onto an elevator and hoisted up to the stone crusher proper. The cars are removed from the elevator and dumped by the inmates into large crushers; these crushers crush the stone into various sizes, which slide down chutes to a conveyor belt which elevates the stone to screens. These screens separate the stone according to size and it then runs from tne screens into chutes and into the proper bins. These bins have a capacity of 2,100 cubic yards.
A large percentage of the stone crushed is used by the City Asphalt Plant and the different City Wards for street work and by the Construction Division in building and repair work. It is claimed that the stone manufactured at the House of Correction is harder and more durable than any other stone quarried in the vicinity. Our yard track system is so situated as to enable us to load brick directly from the kiln and stone directly from the bins. These tracks lead to the railroad track scale. The loading facilities give yielded a brick yard and crushed stone yard that compares favorably with any in the immediate vicinity where many of the larger yards are located.
West 26th Street and California Avenue
Robinson Fire Map
March 7, 1929 – Cook County’s new $7,500,000 courthouse and jail at Twenty-Sixth Street and California Avenue is opened for public inspection as more than 600 business people and members of civic organizations sit down to lunch in the building’s dining room, an event sponsored by the Association of Commerce and the Chicago Advertising Council. The jail, intended primarily for the use of prisoners awaiting trial, is a state-of-the art facility. Each of the 1,302 jail cells will have running water and mattresses that are three inches thick. It is estimated that 2,000 people inspect the cells and the new courthouse, which contains 14 courtrooms, a grand jury room, a jury summons and waiting room, an arraignment court, a law library, and officers for sheriffs, clerks, the state’s attorney, and a social service department. The facility is scheduled to open on April 1. Today, with an occupancy of over 10,000 inmates, the jail is the largest single-site prison in the United States. It stands on the site of the former John Worthy Reform School. The former reform school and today’s courthouse are pictured above.
New Courthouse and Jail
Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1929
The new Cook county jail—without barred windows—proved to be an easy place to escape from yesterday when one of the guards violated a rule and walked into an ante-room carrying his keys without another guard being present to watch from the outside. As a result six prisoners, one of them at least known to be desperate and to have made threats against officials, are at large and the police are hoping that no one will be injured in an attempt to recapture the men.
The officials responsible for the operation of the jail immediately declared after the escape that it was the lack of barred windows which allowed six men to batter down a 16 inch steel window sash, step out to the wall and jump to liberty.
Blame Acts of Guards.
Those responsible for the building of the jail without barred windows said that had the guards obeyed the rules it would have been impossible for the prisoners to reach the window. It was pointed out, however, that not one window above the first floor is protected by bars.
The windows off the warden’s office and around the general offic es on the first floor are all barred.
The prisoners who escaped are:
Earl McLean, under two charges of burglary. He is reported to have been the ringleader of the plot.
Louis McKenzie, under three robbery charges. He was convicted of one charge last week and at the time threatened to get even with Assistant State’s Attorneys Abe Johnson and Owen West if he should ever be liberated. He was tried under the habitual criminal act, but the jury failed to sentence him for life. He was found guilty of robbery with an indeterminate sentence of 1 year to life.
Louis Stanek, alias Louis Cerny, under a robbery charge.1
John Russo, awaiting trial for murder.
John Sissully, under indictment for five charges of robbery.2
John Lazarski, also waiting trial for robbery.3
The escape occurred shortly before 10 o’clock, the hour for the opening if the Criminal courts.
The men were all quartered in the section known as cell block 2B., which is the second floor cell block on the south. Guard Fred Knepper, 2444 North Harding avenue, who is 57 years old, 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 138 pounds, called out for the inmates of his block who needed medical attention. Among those who responded were Stanek and Lazarski and two other inmates not in on the escape plot.
Started for the Basement.
The men were placed in the small ante-room, which leads to the chute going to the physician’s room in the basement. They were told to go through the opened door to the basement. Instead they waited until Knepper violated the rule—a thing he had done before, he later told Warden David Moneypenny—and went in to close the opened door. Under the rules, Knepper should have summoned another guard before he entered the small barred ante-room.
As Knepper walked into the room Stanek and Lazarski jumped from behind the door and overpowered him with ease. They took his keys and also charge of the cell block.
They locked up the guard in one of the cells they had just made vacant and then let the four others in the plot out of their cells. They then repaired to the window, battered it open with a wooden bench and climbed to the wall less than a foot from the window ledge. They walked the wall—which shuts off the Bridewell from the jail, to the front of the jail building, jumped into the soft snow and ran away.
A guard in one of the Bridewell watch towers saw the men escaping and fired several shots at them. He missed. He called his supervisors in the Bridewell and they in turn notified the jail that the prisoners were walking away.
Warden Montgomery then started a search through his supposed escape proof jail and found the guard locked up. Sheriff John E. Traeger was summoned and he questioned Knepper, who was given his job on Jan. 17, replacing another guard. The appointment was said to be political.
Anton Cermak, president of the county board, said that an investigation would be made, and was one of those pointing out that if the rule was not violated bars were not needed. Sheriff Taeger spoke of the lack of guards and money, but admitted the violation of the rule made the escape possible.
LEFT: Unbarred window makes escape possible. Window in cell house No. 2, block B, which fugitives smashed with bench which they found near it.
RIGHT: Where six prisoners made their escape. Old Bridewell wall (in center), which was scaled by fugitives while Bridewell guard fired upon them. The guard says he is certain that he wounded two of them.
1 Louis Stanek was recaptured December 23, 1929.
2 John Sissuly was recaptured on February 15, 1930 in Detroit.
3 John Lazarski was recaptured on February 15, 1930 in Chicago.