By Jasmine Willis
LYONS — The story of murder, vengeance, betrayal, crime, and hate can be found frozen in time on the cell walls of the old county jail.
It is out of fascination or perhaps fear of our own mortality that we visit these halls once walked by criminals, murders, robbers, and even sadder the innocent accused of such crimes.
The Museum of Wayne County History is housed in the old Wayne County Jail and Sheriff’s residence that opened its doors in 1856 and closed them in 1960. For over a century this jail served to keep the residence safe from the horrid and the obscene.
In 1823, Wayne County had its first sheriff, Thomas Armstrong, and a year later their first jail in the basement of the courthouse. It was a terrible state of affairs with only three cells, a dungeon- type atmosphere, and a small room for debtors. Several problems occurred with this layout as there were hordes of criminal offenders waiting trial such as drunks, the insane, debtors, murders, robbers, and the like. There was no order within the tiny basement jail, so overtime the new jail was constructed. The new jail that remains on Butternut Street is a time capsule for the whole county. It not only has an intriguing look behind the curtain on century old jails, but it offers history on the town’s other accomplishments and pioneers.
Wayne County Museum Director, Larry Ann Evans, and great-granddaughter to Sheriff Jeremiah Collins runs the place now. Collins was the one who worked the longest at the jail (1907-1909,1913-1915,1931-1933) He held the office three times and his work spanned 51 years in Wayne County Jail. Collins had some famous cases in his time.
During his time nineteen men and one woman were convicted of murder; one of them being the first electrocuted at Auburn Prison, John Johnson. Johnson had a checkered past serving 10 years for burglary in 1885, and another eight in 1892. He wouldn’t finish those terms since he killed one fellow convict and wounded three others.
With the hundreds of criminals coming into the jail during Collins time not a single one escaped on his watch.
The most remembered and cruel of cases is that of Oliver Curtis Perry, the famous train robber of the day. Perry was caught by Collins in 1892 and housed in the Wayne County Jail.
The most well-known fact of the jail’s rich history is an inmate named William Fee. Fee was the only man ever hanged in the Wayne County Jail. William Fee was accused of rape and murder of a young woman in 1859 on the Montezuma Turnpike. The trial only took three days to convict him of this heinous crime. Fee was later brought to the gallows, which was in the cellblock of the jailhouse. There were one hundred tickets sold, and two thousand more assembled outside for the first and last hanging in the county jail. Fee maintained his innocence right to his last breath on March 23, 1860. To this day the beam he was hung from sits on display at the museum. Many still believe he was innocent.
Evans is the keeper of the stories within the jail now and has written a book “A Jail Among Us” to talk about the sheriffs and criminals that once stood within these walls. The Wayne County Historical Society works to preserve what is left of the county’s legacy at the historic jail.
Mikayla Mayo, Wayne County Museum volunteer gave Jasmine’s Corner a tour of the famous jailhouse, which is on the New York Haunted Trails list.
There is original artwork from the inmates still on the cell walls as a reminder of what life was like for them here.
“The jail was open for 104 years and has a lot of history. We have the exact images of the prisoners painted on the cells they were kept in. We don’t have an exact image of our most famous prisoner, William Fee, so we went by a description of him. He is one of our most known criminals for the rape and murder of a local woman,” Mayo said. “He was hung in the cellblock on March 23, 1860. He was the only one executed this way here. That kind of thing had never happened before, so they sold out all of the tickets. More and more people were coming in and had picnics outside as they witnessed it.”
Mayo talked about the other famous prisoners whose images are found painted on their cell doors. There were a few female prisoners like Rose Alloco, an Italian Immigrant who was held for the murder of John DeBadts. Alloco’s daughter, Katherine, was married to DeBadts’ son, Adrian, and once it was said Katherine was being molested by her father-in-law Alloco took a knife and stabbed him to death. She served 13 years at Auburn Prison.
Dorothy Debuse, another female criminal shot and killed her husband after an argument. She was only given three years at the State Institute for Women in Westfield State Farm.
Mayo said that if the crimes were really horrific, they would not be held in county jail long before going to prison.
“The women were held in the upstairs cellblocks away from the men,” she said. “The guards would use a lever outside of the door to unlock and lock the cell doors so that inmates could walk around. The other side of the jail has two levels of cellblocks. It housed some other famous criminals like Oliver Curtis Perry, who was a well-known train robber. He was found hopping from train to train and brought in by our director’s great grandfather Sheriff Collins. The story goes that as he was in jail, he became a very religious man. He was told he would never see the light of day again, so he took two nails and stabbed them in his eyes, so he would be blind. He was taken to a mental hospital after that.”
“We had the Big Ed Kelly Gang up in the top level. Edward “Big Ed” Kelly, Henry King, and Fred Schultz were captured after an attempted robbery at Knapp’s Bank of Sodus and the murder of watchman Edward Pullman. We also have George De Lue who was held for grand larceny,” Mayo continued. “Dan King is another famous one at our jail. He had about seven kids and one day he was home early. He answered the phone and it was a guy on the other end asking if the husband had left yet. He went into a jealous rage and killed his wife in front of his children. King went to jail willingly and confessed the crime to the sheriff. He never regretted killing her. The children were all taken off to foster care.”
Mayo said the actual murder and crime weapons and mugshots can be found on display. The display that shows the life of the sheriff holds these items of actual evidence in a glass case.
On Aug. 23 there is a fundraiser for the museum that will be in 1950s style. Along with this event will be a new exhibit. The previous once focused on medical history.
Mayo is working on her medical degree and helped with the previous exhibit. She finds all the history of medicine to be morbid and fascinating. One video showed the Radium Girls. This was horrid as radium was being used in everything from skin cream to drinking water from 1917 to 1927.
“These are the kinds of things we used to do to ourselves in the medical field,” she said. “This is all the stuff they used to believe in the medical field. I want to be an Emergency Room doctor, so I am interested in a lot of this stuff. The Cannibal Cures were fascinating as they believed magic would stop it from happening. I’m fascinated with what the dentists used to do when people were too young to have dentures. They would take dead people’s bones and mash them into the gums, so that people could have teeth again.”
Upstairs are many other significant historic artifacts on display such as Griffith and Eliza Cooper, Quakers who were known for helping on the Underground Railroad. There is a display that focuses on the powerful women of the area such as Ann Collins, mother to Evans, who was a well-known artist, Antoinette Blackwell, the first female ordained protestant minister, The Fox Sisters, who were known for promoting spiritualism, Mildred F. Taylor, known as being one of the first female politicians, and more.
Lyons is perhaps most known for its investment in the peppermint oils, and had a well-known building still standing. The H. G. Hotchkiss Peppermint Building is also a historic museum.
Another fascinating thing on display at the museum is actual crime-scene photos drawn out in pencil from the famous bootlegger murder of Jasper Hall.
For more information on the museum visit http://www.waynehistory.orgIt is located at 21 Butternut Street in Lyons. It can be reached at 315-946-4943. The tours are Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.