Sentenced to History

A climate-control system was installed to preserve the graffiti created by prisoners on the walls of the northside cell block.

Many tree-shaded homes on Butternut Street in the village of Lyons date back to the 19th century. Attached to one such house in this peaceful residential area is the old Wayne County jail, used from 1856 to 1960. Today, the jail is managed by the Wayne County Historical Society as the Museum of Wayne County History.

Years ago, the building at 21 Butternut St. combined the sheriff’s residence with prisoner housing. This type of living arrangement was not unique during that time period, but Wayne County’s jail is exceptional in that it has survived, says Executive Director Larry Ann Evans.

Rooms have been converted into galleries filled with displays interpreting the county’s earliest times to the present. The bleak jail cells, mainly empty and unchanged, remind visitors of the home’s unique past.

Jailbirds

Inmates in the old Wayne County jail found themselves behind heavy iron bars in one of 24 cells in two cellblocks. These were two-tiered until 1948, when a new ceiling in the north block created a second floor to accommodate women, always in the minority of the prison population. Prior to the division of the cellblock, some females like Georgia Sampson, accused of killing her husband in 1892, were kept in bedrooms of the house. In the basement kitchen, the sheriff, his wife and family routinely prepared prisoners’ meals.

“Our jail is quite likely the largest historic county prison in New York State,” says Evans. The author of A Jail Among Us (2010), she knows many stories of the inmates, and the brave acts of law-abiding sheriffs who brought them to justice. In fact, she is a descendant of Sheriff Jeremiah “Jerry” Collins, whose 50 years with the sheriff’s department included the capture of the notorious train robber Oliver Curtis Perry in 1892.

Today, near life-size figures of some former occupants stand inside the cells facing visitors. The likeness of a former museum director serves, ironically, as a stand-in for William Fee, whose conviction of the murder and rape of a young woman in 1860 led to his execution in the jail. Pointing out an enlarged replica of a ticket issued to view the hanging, Evans says it’s not clear if they charged for tickets, if there was a lottery or if tickets were just given to 200 prominent Wayne County residents. The crossbeam that supported the noose remains in the cell along with a chair, one of two fabricated from the wood of the gallows.

Graffiti drawn by criminals on the cell walls, probably during the 1940s and ’50s, includes several cartoon-like figures, crosses, an old automobile and autographs like “Killer Roy was here.” Today, their preservation is a priority. A climate control system installed a few years ago has slowed deterioration of the walls caused by humidity. Evans is seeking to conserve these rare drawings through available grant funding.

Across the threshold from the south jail cellblock, visitors see where the sheriff had his office. Cases are filled with “tools of the trade,” like a burglary kit from Big Ed Kelley’s gang, the knife that Rose Alloco used to stab her daughter’s father-in-law, and Oliver Perry’s gun. The room is now adapted as a sitting area where visitors can relax over coffee.

“The first thing that kids say is ‘Oh, it’s so cool,’” says Evans, referring to the numerous school children who visit the old jail each year. “Once they go inside a cell, they say, ‘It’s so small in here.’” Evans says she typically directs the youngsters’ attention to the bucket in the corner that served as the inmate’s bathroom. “They don’t like that,” she laughs.

The museum capitalizes on its jailhouse identity through special events like a popular “Haunted Jail” event in October. There’s also the “Jailbird Antique Festival” in early May, and “Lock up and Jail’em,” a fundraiser that allows the general public to be “inmates” for a day. The inmates then contact friends to get pledges for their release.

Ghostly encounters

Is the old jail haunted? Evans doesn’t even hesitate before answering with a resounding “yes.” She and coworkers have heard mysterious voices, and had uneasy feelings in the building. Earlier this year, an episode for the SyFy Channel’s Haunted Collector was taped there. Prompted by the unsettling experiences of a Geneva descendant of William Fee, the television program’s hosts visited the Lyons jail to investigate paranormal activity.

“Jerry Collins must have been channeling through me,” laughs Evans while standing in the sheriff’s office where her great-grandfather and other lawmen investigated everything from forgeries to murders. Evans herself provided information that led to the apprehension of a criminal who stole a Civil War sword and jacket from the museum a few years back. The thief was arrested thanks in part to the quick thinking of Evans and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. The museum has since installed surveillance cameras.

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Upcoming Jail-Themed Programming

Mason Winfield’s Haunted History Ghost Walk
When: Every Saturday in October at 7 p.m.
Where: Starts in front of the Wayne County Courthouse
Admission: $15 adults, $10 kids 7 to 11, under 7 free
Led by: Karen Schwab, manager of the Wayne County History Museum

Haunted Jail & Cellblock Terror
When: October 25 & 26 from 6 to 9 p.m.
Where: Museum of Wayne County History
Admission fee: $4 per person
Extras: Refreshments served to those who make it through

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The Museum of Wayne County History

Location: 21 Butternut St., Lyons, NY
Three Floors of exhibition space: Pottery & Clyde Glass, the Military Room, the Women’s Gallery and a Child’s 1856 bedroom
Guided tours: Available daily. Large groups are requested to call in advance. A two-story carriage house is also available to tour, weather permitting.
Admission: $4 adults, $2 students and Wayne County Historical Society members are free
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Phone: 315-946-4943
Website: waynehistory.org


by Laurel C. Wemett