The old Ozark County Jail (part 2)

Wayne and Doris Sayles stand by the jail door they bought several years ago at a local garage sale. It is the original door from the stone jail and was used for a while in the next jail that was included on the top floor of the Ozark County Courthouse that was completed in 1939. A local resident bought the door from the county in an auction on the courthouse steps when the jail was moved into the “new” Ozark County Sheriff’s Office. It was restored to its original position in the jail. The bars to either side of the door are not original.

Doris Sayles points to one of the many names and messages scratched into the concrete wall that was added to the interior of the old stone jail. Doris points to the name “Billie the Kid,” obviously someone’s attempt at a little humor.

One of the bars of the old stone jail’s back window was partially torn out of the wall in an attempted but unsuccessful jail-break – probably near the end of the jail’s days since it was never repaired.


In part 1 of this journey back in time, we discussed some of the background and motivation for building a new county jail at Gainesville in the early days of the 20th century. The construction details are vague, but we do know that the land was acquired and an “improved” stone building was erected between 1907 and 1908. Although undoubtedly an improvement over the older wooden structure, the new facility was clearly not an architectural masterpiece.

What we see today is a simple, square, one-room building made of stone hewn by hand and concrete that likely was added in later years. Several prisoners in the early years of use were able to escape by burrowing under or through parts of the original stone wall. At some point, this weakness was lessened by pouring 12-inch-thick concrete walls around the inside of the building. Even that did not end the jail-breaks, but it certainly made them more difficult.

There was no plumbing nor electrical services and very little temperature control in the old jail. One large entry door on the west side of the jail and three small windows with iron bars and lattice barriers provided the only aeration. Inside the jail, a wall of iron bars and door separated the prisoner enclosure from a small utility area where the jailer could conduct any necessary business. This workspace had a chimney and would allow a small wood or coal stove for temporary use. Prisoners did not have access to this area, and the jail did not have full-time staff. Since there was no provision to close or seal the windows, aside from hanging blankets over them, the conditions during inclement weather were obviously hard on prisoners. There were, of course, no showers or TVs, no cell phones and no privacy. The only toilet facility was a bucket or similar temporary device. 

Fortunately, most of those arrested were released on some sort of bond, and the jail was not typically overpopulated. Those arrested for serious felonies were usually held without bond and often were transferred to more secure facilities. The circuit court records for this era are preserved today in the Ozark County Courthouse.

An article in The Albany (Missouri) Capital dated June 11, 1908, reports the incarceration of two men in the Ozark County Jail on murder charges. One of the prisoners confessed that “it was easier to kill the old man than to work for a living.” One could imagine that citizens of the day might have had very little concern for the comfort of those who were charged and confessed to this crime.

In May 1911, a local farmer was adjudged insane by the Ozark County Court and was being held in the jail awaiting transportation to the state asylum. A few days later, he committed suicide by hanging himself with bed sheets in the jail cell.  Another mentally ill person being held in the jail while awaiting transfer to a sanitarium in 1932 committed suicide some 30 minutes after being placed in the cell. Sheriff Lyman Stevens had initially searched the man and found a razor but did not find the knife he used in taking his own life.

A prisoner charged with embezzlement escaped from the county jail in December 1912 and was recaptured two weeks later in Springfield after being recognized by an acquaintance, Charles Harlin, on the train. According to the West Plains Journal, he was returned to Gainesville by the Ozark County Sheriff “and will be closely watched hereafter by his captors.” 

Another prisoner escaped from the jail in 1916 by digging his way through the stone wall. A $25 reward was offered for his capture. Yet another prisoner escaped in July 1924 when he “removed a few stones from the wall of the jail and stepped to freedom.” Reporting this event, the Ozark County Times suggested that the jail is “kind of a free boarding house, where the guests do not remain long, but move on for fear of wearing out their welcome.” 

Perhaps the interior concrete walls were poured following this 1925 embarrassment.

When one hears of a “jail break,” it normally is assumed that somebody broke out of the jail. However, in March 1925, robbers broke into the Ozark County Jail and stole a dozen or more gallons of moonshine and a copper wildcat still that was locked inside. The robbers were careful to lock the door behind them when they left. 

Sheriff Walter Endicott believed the thieves entered with a key that had been lost earlier by Deputy W.W. Luna. Three months later, the Douglas County Herald reported that Sheriff Endicott and Prosecuting Attorney Rogers of Ozark County were in Ava and arrested a man and his wife for the crime. The wife admitted their guilt, and the two were reportedly transferred to the very jail they had visited earlier. One has to wonder how that would work in the case of male and female prisoners in that jail at the same time.

Several notorious were criminals incarcerated in the Ozark County Jail from time to time. In the next and final part of this journey, we’ll look at a couple that made national headlines.


Ozark County Times

504 Third Steet
PO Box 188
Gainesville, MO 65655

Phone: (417) 679-4641
Fax: (417) 679-3423