The Jail Of The District

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 20, 1911 [pt. 2, p. 6]

July 1 the care of the jail will pass to the District Commissioners from the supervision of the Department of Justice, which has had charge of it since March 1872. Capt. T.H. McKee, the warden appointed by the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, then will give way to L.S. Zinkban, the superintendent of the Washington Asylum. The support of the jail in the early days was furnished by the Levy Court of the District, the corporation of Washington paying one-half. Until 1864 it was under the immediate charge of the marshal, who appointed the jailer and guards. The State Department had its oversight until 1821, when it passed to the Treasury, and in 1864 to the Interior Department, the warden at the latter date becoming a presidential appointment. In March 1869, the wardenship was transferred to the Supreme Court of the District, but the reports were still to go to the Interior Department, and on the reorganization of the Department of Justice, in 1872, its supervision went under the superintendent of prisons of that department.

As is well known, the present jail of the District is on reservation 13, fronting 19th street between B and C streets southeast, and is a substantial red stone structure erected about forty years ago by the government. In this reservation are the almshouse, hospital and other buildings under the care of Mr. Zinkhan. The jail occupies the northeast portion, and between it and the Eastern branch are the detention camp and potter's field.

Under the act of 1864 the Secretary of the Interior was directed to select a site and construct a jail with a capacity for 300 prisoners at a c sot no exceeding $200,000. Little was done under this act, but in June 1872, $300,000 was appropriated for such a structure, and on he plans of the supervising architect of the Treasury the building was constructed. The whole cost was about $500,000. One hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars was placed on the District. Before the plans were finally adopted Chief Justice Cartter and the supervising architect visited all the noted prisons in the country and improved on them.

Building Is Secured
When in 1801 the judicial control over the territory of the District passed from the Maryland courts to the newly appointed judges, William Kilty, James Marshall and William Cranch of the Circuit Court, accommodations in the basement of the north wing of the Capitol were furnished and a jail became a necessity for the confinement of prisoners. A small brick structure in the square between New Jersey avenue, South Capitol, B and C streets southeast was used for jail purposes for a few months and later a brick building in the alley north of C street between 4-1/2 and 6th streets was so used until early in 1804. This was known as McGuirk's jail, from the fact that James McCuirk was confined here prior to his execution for the murder of his wife in 1803, which execution took place near the Peace Monument. Under Marshal D.C. Brent, one Keenan was the jailer.

A permanent building was proposed in 1802, an appropriation being made therefore by Congress. The site selected was just north of the tool house in Judiciary square, and a brick building two stories in height was erected at a cost of about $12,000. Here, until 1840, not only the prisoners charged with crime were confined, but dangerous lunatics, fugitive slaves, unfortunate debtors and, at times, violators of the corporation and the militia laws. It was early found necessary to improve the sanitary conditions, and for about twenty years the inmates, other than the debtors, were deprived of a place for exercise, for here was no inclosure around it. About 1825 some of the ground was walled in and the interior improved, bettering the conditions generally. The jailer and his family occupied rooms in the west end.

The unfortunate debtors had the privilege of going outside in the daytime, the prison bounds being 1st, B and H streets northwest, and it is said that one of them took advantage of this privilege to marry into the jailer's family. One day the debtor happened to meet the daughter of the jailer as she was shopping, and after a few minutes' conversation a marriage license was secured and they were married. The debtor reported at the prison with his wife before the day expired and peace was made with the parents.

Executions on Common
Several executions took place from this building, usually on the common north of the square. Corporal punishment under sentence of the court was administered at the whipping post near the building, and the lash was sometimes used on white culprits. Runaway slaves were often sold at the door at public auction.

The grand jury reported often on the inadequacy and condition of the building to the courts, and through the latter an appropriation was finally obtained to erect a new structure. The site then chosen was the northeast section of the square, 4th and G streets, and on the plans of Robert Mills, the architect of public buildings a jail was erected. Messrs. F.P. and R.H. Stanton, then bricklayers of Alexandria, and afterward members of Congress from Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively, did the work. This, in comparison to the old jail, was a fine prison, but in time it became too small. It was of brick, three stories in height, and its color gave the popular name of the "blue jug." The original cost was $31,000, but for the erection of a wall, blinds to the windows, etc., $10,000 more were required. Robert Ball, the jailer, moved the prisoners from the old structure to the new in 1840.

An attempt was made immediately after the old prison had been vacated to establish an insane asylum in the District for the lunatics here, and those of the army and navy. This class, who had been confined previously in the jail, needed more care, and the marshal was authorized to provide for them in other places, and he selected one of the institutions in Baltimore. Early in 1842 the Medical Society of the District petitioned for the building as a national hospital, and in August of that year Congress appropriated $10,000 and directed the commissioner of public buildings to fit it up for the accommodation of the insane of the District and of the army and navy.

Declared Unsuitable
In 1844 it was decided it was unsuitable as a place for an insane asylum, and by the act of June 15 of that year its use was granted to the medical faculty of Columbian University, now George Washington University, for an infirmary and other purposes, and for a few months it was in operation as the Washington Infirmary. In 1853, under an appropriation of $20,000, two wings were added, also a third story, more than doubling its accommodations. In April, 1861, the United States took possession of this building, the first soldier patients being those of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, who had been wounded on their passage through Baltimore, April 19. November 3 of that year it was completely destroyed by fire.

As before stated, the jail was under the control of the marshal until 1864, when the wardenship became a presidential office. By the act of March, 1869, the office was placed at the disposal of the Supreme Court of the District, and March 15 Gen. John S. Crocker was appointed.

The jail soon was found inadequate. It required constant care to keep it in a sanitary condition. Therefore, a new site was selected and the structure erected on reservation thirteen.