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Kentucky’s maximum security prison has admonished its inhabitants to abandon hope, for more than a century


by  Bill Cunningham




It was an anniversary of sorts.  There were no brass bands, no dainty teas, no grandiloquent speeches.  The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville was 100 years old last year, and the large bastille of stone quietly slipped into its second century without fanfare or celebration.


          In the untamed days when pathfinders were leading early settlers into the vast and rugged western portion of Virginia, law and order was a personal concern.  The area that became Kentucky was governed by the criminal code of the Old Dominion, but as a matter of practice the code had a very limited influence.


          Whether a malefactor was hanged most times depended upon the character of the accused and the temper of the crowd, rather than the formal dictates of law.


          With Kentucky statehood in 1792, came a more meaningful attempt at establishing and enforcing some type of uniform criminal sanctions.  Jailhouses and stockades sprang up but no prisons.  With no penitentiary in which to incarcerate the more serious offenders, the Commonwealth adopted a very practical if draconian approach.  It simply made the death penalty the punishment for most felonies.


          Capital offenses included such relatively minor crimes as perjury, forgery, destroying a will and larceny.  Needless to say, with such extreme penalties being extracted there was little need for prisons in which to stow felons.


          That changed in 1797, when Kentucky revamped its criminal penalties and all but did away with the death penalty, reserving it for only one crime – murder.


          Almost immediately there was a need for the first Kentucky prison, which was constructed in 1799 in Frankfort near what was then the governor's mansion.


          Our penal system received little attention the next 80 years.


          By 1875, the prison was a disgrace.  The unheated bathhouse contained only two large tubs in which several prisoners bathed together in the same dirty water.  The prisoners suffered from a terrible diet of clammy cornbread and salted meat, much of it rancid.  Rain-soaked clothing of the inmates often froze stiff in the unheated cellhouse.  Frostbite and respiratory diseases were common.  Punishment for inmates was harsh, brutal and inhumane.


          This festering sty of squalor and suffering was terribly overcrowded.  Many inmates died from “natural causes”.  It was, in the words of a prominent politician of the day, Kentucky’s “black hole of Calcutta”.


          Upon this scene of human misery arrived one of Kentucky’s more unusual and resourceful governors – Dr. Luke P. Blackburn.


          Blackburn was born in Woodford County in 1816, and studied medicine at Transylvania College.  He was practicing medicine in New Orleans when the Civil War began and he spent the war years administering to the suffering citizens and soldiers of the Confederacy.


          He returned to Kentucky in 1873, and helped wage war against the yellow fever epidemic that swept the South in 1878.  His selfless and courageous efforts made him a hero to many Kentuckians and though he was completely untutored and inexperienced in politics, he was pressured by pro southern Democrats into running for governor in 1880.  He won by an overwhelming margin.


          Upon moving into his official residence in Frankfort, this humanitarian chief executive was appalled at what he saw across the street in the penitentiary.  The new governor quickly began to use his pardoning power to help reduce the prison’s population, offering his first act of clemency on the day of his inauguration.


          Within the week, seven more inmates had been freed because of poor health.  By the time the legislature convened in late December, 52 prisoners had been pardoned.


          Throughout the state, a loud and bitter outcry arose against Blackburn for his action.  There was scathing editorials in local newspapers and citizen demonstrations.  Undaunted, the courageous chief of state laid for the legislature a bold and imaginative plan for prison reform.


          Soon legislative committees were making official inspections of the Frankfort prison.  Their grim reports shocked the conscience of lawmakers and voters.  Slowly the tide of opinion began to turn in favor of Blackburn and his plan for prison reform.


          The governor’s legislative package included many correctional principles implemented years later such as strict classification of offenders and “halfway” houses for prisoners moving back into a free society.  Most important to the immediate need, however, was the appointment of a three-man commission to select a site and receive plans for a “branch penitentiary”.


          A pivotal member of the commission was an old friend of Blackburn’s and a colorful hero of the Confederacy – General H.B. Lyon of Eddyville.  After visiting several sites, the commission narrowed the choice to Bowling Green and the general’s hometown.


          The people of Lyon County were excited at the prospect of the prison being located in their county seat.  The railroads were overtaking the river market upon which Eddyville had depended through the years as its main economic asset.  The community saw the prison as a much needed industry and pledged money and land for its construction.


          The Eddyville location, high on a hill overlooking the Cumberland River, was ideal, according to the architects hired to advise the commission on site selection.  The tract adjoined the Paducah-to-Louisville railway and was within 2,000 yards of the river, 116 feet above its low watermark.


          The area was a healthy region, conducive to agricultural endeavors and blessed with a bountiful store of natural resources – coal, iron, brick clay and building stone.  Perhaps most important to the minds of law-abiding citizens, Eddyville was remote from the population centers of the state.  It was considered good planning to have convicted felons as far removed from the mainstream of society as possible.


          In 1844, after Blackburn had left office, the legislature appropriated funds for the branch penitentiary at Eddyville.  Construction began in October of that year, when the first inmates arrived to make up the bulk of the labor force.


          The inmates were assisted by 30 Italian stonemasons, who hewed the large stones from limestone slabs dug from a quarry within 300 yards of the construction site and transported over a small gauge railway built for the purpose.


          The state had purchased 87 acres for $4,000, of which $1,400 was donated by the citizens of Eddyville.  The prison itself was to cover only 10.5 acres with the remaining land to be used for farming and garden plots for prisoners.


          Slowly the massive limestone structure began to rise upon the hilltop, dominating the horizon and posing like a brooding monster over the peaceful river valley.  It took on the appearance of a large medieval fortress.


          The “Castle on the Cumberland” was completed officially in 1886, at a cost of $275,000, a pittance compared to today’s prison costs.


          Before the mortar had hardly dried and inmates began filling up its cavernous confines, a large sign was placed about the front entrance:  “Abandon Hope, All Ye That Enter Here.”


          As a practical matter, construction of the state penitentiary has never been completed.  Work on the outside walls was being done as late as September, 1889.  Number 4 cellhouse, which balanced out the south wing of the castle, was added in 1904.  Between that year and 1935, when No. 5 cellhouse was erected to complete the housing area of the penitentiary, numerous workshops as well as other buildings went up and down on the prison yard.


          So it has gone, down through the years – old hospital down, new hospital up; old cannery down, new water tank up.  Even today, the skyline is punctuated by a giant crane as the new No. 6 cellhouse is being built on the site of the old leather factory, which has been razed.


          As the penitentiary’s physical appearance has changed, so has the way of life within it.


          There were once women prisoners at Eddyville.  As best as can be determined through ancient records, they were “imported” early on to do the cooking.  The female recalcitrants apparently lived outside the walls of the main prison near a “cook shack,” where the meals for the inside population were prepared.


          Early living conditions for the convicts were far from the humane designs of Governor Blackburn.  An 1897 legislative investigation produced alarming revelations.  Twelve-year-old boys were being incarcerated at the prison.  Corporal punishment, including lashings at the post, was inflicted regularly.  Sometimes permanent injury such as broken bones, was sustained.


          The mortality rate was shocking.  In 1896, there were 35 deaths from natural causes.  A year later, 27 prisoners died.  The main cause of their demise was sewer gas, which languished in the damp and squalid basements of the cellhouses, where long-term prisoners were confined without proper ventilation or exercise.


          Other fatal maladies included diarrhea, typhoid fever, malaria, syphilis and pneumonia.  Interestingly enough, suicides were relatively rare during those grim times.


          Perhaps the most interesting cause of death recorded in the old Death Book, which is still actively kept, was that of convict Bill Alex on July 1, 1894.  The entry lists the cause as “drowning”.


          One might assume that this death occurred in the treacherous currents of the adjoining Cumberland River during an unsuccessful escape attempt, but that assumption might well be false.  For while conditions in the prison were dreadful for most convicts, some trusties (prisoners granted special privileges or responsibilities because of their good behavior) virtually lived the lives of free men.


          During the day, these privileged few ran unrestricted throughout the town.  They gathered coal from the train depot a mile away, fetched the prison water from a nearby spring, shopped for groceries and picked up the mail at the post office.  They also fished and swam the river.  Bill Alex may have drowned in that manner.


          Under one of the old cellhouses lies a narrow tunnel which leads back into the hill.  This was “the dungeon.”  There, in solitary darkness, unruly prisoners were chained to the walls, while they contemplated their wrongs.


          There is no better way to depict graphically the environment of this 19th century prison and the penal philosophy of its administrators than to quote directly from the journal entry of Warden Louis Curry for October 7, 1889:

          “Prisoner Wheeler requested an audience with me.  Wheeler, even by prison standards, is an odious creature…Upon granting him an interview, it was his request to obtain a Bible.  The very idea that such a vile creature should hold God’s work was quite repugnant to me.  I ordered him back to work, without further ado, and requested the keepers to retain a close scrutiny at his doings.  One false step and Wheeler will know the true meaning of prison.  A Bible indeed!”


          A new and significant dimension was added to prison life in 1911 – the installation of the electric chair.


          James Buckner from Marion County was the first to die by legal electrocution on the hot and steamy night of July 8, 1911.  One hundred and sixty-one others have been executed since then.  The last was Kelly Moss in 1962.


          On July 13, 1929, starting at 12:24 a.m. and continuing to 2:22 a.m., seven men were electrocuted, the most ever to die there by electrocution in a single day.  In the early morning of March 8, 1955, a father and son were put to death only minutes apart.


          A solemn and eerie procedure accompanied each execution.  Shortly before midnight, the warden, a physician, a minister, news reporters, guards and invited guests would meet at the warden’s office.  The group would then march solemnly, in single file, to death row to carry out the execution.


When No. 3 cellhouse was occupied solely by black inmates, the occupants would hum and sing spirituals as the grisly ordeal was carried out.


          Today, the electric chair is still there, newly strapped and waiting for its next victim.  There are 25 inmates now residing and awaiting their fate on death row.


          Like all prisons, Eddyville has had its share of riots and internal disturbances.  From the very beginning, there have been numerous minor skirmishes between disgruntled inmates and “keepers”.  Usually these outbreaks occurred in the dining hall and were caused by dissatisfaction with the food.  Usually they were quickly subdued with the knocking of heads and a good lashing at the post.


          By far the most serious uprising occurred in October, 1923.  Inmates Tex Walters, Lawrence Griffith, and Harry Ferland had two pistols smuggled into the prison through the efforts of Tex’s wife, Lillian, and a former convict.  An ill-fated escape attempt was made, resulting in the death of three prison guards.


          With their escape route blocked, Walters and his confederates retreated to the main dining room where they barricaded themselves.  What followed was a rather untidy bit of military maneuvering.


          About 50 members of the state militia were called in to lay siege to the building.  They were bolstered in their efforts by 39 prison guards.  During the first eight hours of the siege, the embattled convicts fired about 100 shots.  Throughout most of the first night, the encirclement of militiamen and guards laid down a blanket of fire against the dining room’s outer walls.


          The next morning an organized assault was made upon the dining hall, under cover of heavy fire from the militia.  Gas grenades were shot into various sections of the entire building.   One exploded on the ledge of the laundry, setting it afire.


          Constant machine gun fire was directed toward the target during the next two days and nights.  A decision was made not to dynamite the building as previously planned.  On the third full day of the attack, a makeshift pipeline was laid across the prison yard behind two armor plated shields built for the occasion.  Ammonia was then flushed in upon the hapless defenders.


          Finally, under heavy barrage of bullets and hand grenades, another charge was made by the state forces.  It was conducted with a grand and dramatic flare, the leaders bravely yelling, “Over the top!”


          This time they broke through and found all three inmates lying dead on the dining room floor.  They had been so disposed for three days, and at their own hands.  A defiant suicide note found near one of the victims proclaimed, “You didn’t kill us, all killed ourselves”.