Virtual Walk Through History

Stop 3:  Jackson County Jail

The historic Jackson County Jail, now the home of Art Presence at 216 North 5th Street, stands on the site of three previous jails, each with its own fleeting, and sometimes haunting, history.   The original jail was built in the 1850s, probably at the same time as the original courthouse.  While all we know about that building is that at least one prisoner was able to escape1 (the beginning of a trend, as we shall see), we can imagine that when it was replaced, it was not in much better condition than the first courthouse, described in Stop 1 of this tour.

The second jail structure was built in 1875, a sturdy brick building reinforced with “4,000 pounds of iron spikes for strength.”  Seven inch thick wooden planks lined the masonry walls and separated the cells.2   While these improvements didn’t stop the escapes,3 they may have contributed to a sense of hopelessness on the part of inmate Tong, a Chinese resident of Jacksonville who had been jailed on a charge of sluice robbery. 

On May 16, 1880, Tong hanged himself in his cell.  The jailor, Captain Cator, had left the jail to “procure some opium” for Tong, and while the jailor was gone, Tong set fire to his bedding, tore newspapers and arranged them in Chinese characters on the walls of the jail corridors and cell, and hanged himself.  A translation of the Chinese characters showed they were a declaration of his innocence.4

In February of 1886, condemned murderer Louis O’Neil, complained that a Chinese ghost was keeping him awake, and the night watch guarding O’Neil also complained about the ghost.  The ghost was described as “lively” and as moving things around the cells.  Both guards claimed to have heard the ghost, and a committee of five citizens was called upon to investigate the claim.   They barred the cell with “mesquite,” and sealed it with wax and a private stamp.5 Perhaps mesquite had some paranormal properties we are unaware of today; the hauntings abated after O’Neil was hanged in March.6

A mere three years later, the Jackson County Jail burned to the ground, killing three inmates in the process, including one who was due for release the next morning.  It seems the jailor, who was supposed to sleep at the jail, had chosen to spend the night on the third floor of the U.S. Hotel, sampling some of the wares of the “hostesses” who resided there.7

The third Jackson County Jail, constructed after the fire, boasted a concrete floor and a corrugated iron ceiling.   Five 5-ply steel-plated jail cells slept four inmates each in hammock beds.  At the end of the corridor separating the cells, a one seat “privy” and a cast iron wash sink served sheriff and inmates alike. 

This building saw some action that would be considered amazing even today.  While people continued to break OUT of the jail,8 in 1894 a Jackson County judge was indicted for breaking IN.    Judge McNeil was scheduled to transfer a jail inmate, declared insane, to an asylum.  However, Sheriff Sylvester Patterson was absent, so Judge McNeil broke IN to the Jackson County Jail to take custody of the prisoner.  Judge McNeil was convicted of breaking and entering and fined $15 plus costs.  Apparently that was the end of the matter,9 which is a real shame because inquiring minds want to know.  A 1907 Grand Jury report on jail conditions specifically noted that there was no separation of male and female prisoners, nor of prisoners and insane persons, in violation of “common decency.”10 One wonders whether it was those conditions, if they also existed in 1894,  which inspired Judge McNeil to break in.

By 1910, this jail was deemed by the Jackson County Commission to be too small and “antique.”11 It was torn down to make way for the current building, completed in 1911.  Designed to house twenty-five prisoners, heavy iron cages lined the first floor; two reinforced cells and padded cells were constructed on the second floor.12

Photo credit: Historic Jackson county Jail -Jacksonville Heritage Society, see, supra., Note 2.











As usual, jail breaks and escapes continued13, one occurring very shortly after the new jail was completed. F.T. Wolfley aka Marvin Sheppard escaped the first week of March, making use of a piece of cell “material” construction crews left inside to spring the bars.14 Another escape was a jail break by two inmates incarcerated with Hugh DeAutremont (Stop 2 of this Tour). Hugh didn’t leave when his two mates rushed Deputy Sheriff Liggett and made their escape.15

Hugh DeAutremont also was present in the jail when another buddy of his was married there. Chick Duane, reportedly an Army friend of Hugh’s, married Laverna Peters at the Jackson County jail, and Hugh acted as witness. Duane had been arrested for alleged sale of liquor. After the ceremony, a large wedding cake was shared among the party and their “guests.”16

Another escape involved John Lee Ragsdale, who murdered jailer Charles Bayse in the process by hitting him on the head with a flat iron. Ragsdale and a second prisoner then escaped. Ragsdale subsequently killed himself to avoid being recaptured.17

One of the higher profile inmates of this period (although it’s hard to top the DeAutremonts for notoriety) was W.H. Johnson, president of the Bank of Jacksonville, deacon and treasurer of the Presbyterian church and city treasurer. In September 1920, Johnson was arrested and jailed for perjury, presumably regarding the solvency of the bank. Later examinations revealed missing assets, including money belonging to Jackson County.18 The scandal apparently went so high up that it threatened to pull down the state superintendent of banks.19 Johnson eventually pled guilty, or planned to, once he recovered from the flu.20

A lesser known “inmate” of the Jackson County Jail was a batch of confiscated liquor being held there. The Medford Mayor ordered that it be turned over (To whom? Himself?) for medicinal use during the influenza epidemic. The governor was not amused and vacated the mayor’s order.21

The jail continued in service until the county seat was moved to Medford in 1927, and a new courthouse and jail were constructed there.22 The historic jail is currently the home of Art Presence, a gallery space featuring local artists and group events.

Photo credit: Hannah West, April 2018.












Be sure to check back next week when our Virtual Walk Though Jacksonville History continues with several local churches and their leaders!

1    Jenk Owens, a burglar. Oregon Sentinel, 30 Jan. 1858, p 2.

2    Historic Jackson County Jail – Jacksonville Heritage Society.

3    William Horton was able to escape by removing a door hinge, then just lifting out the door. Oregon Sentinel, 10 August 1867, p. 2. Charles Bassett, a notorious stage robber escaped in 1883. Hume, James, editor. Wells Fargo & Co. Stagecoach, Train Robberies: 1870-1884. Wells Fargo, 2010.

4    Oregon Sentinel, 19 May 1880, p. 3.

5    Oregon Sentinel, 13 February 1886, p. 3; 27 February 1886, p. 3.

6    Oregon Sentinel, 13 March 1886, p. 3.

7    The States Rights Democrat, 19 July 1889, p. 4; The Lebanon Express, 19 July 1889; The Daily Astoria, 14 July 1889; Historic Jacksonville “Haunted History Tour.”

8    Daily Capital Journal, 1 February 1897, p. 1; Central Point Herald, 21 October 1909; Oregon Statesman, 26 February 1902; Medford Mail Tribune, 26 November 1909

9    This break in was reported in The Dalles Chronicle on December 25, 1894, and in The Hillsboro Independent on December 21, 1894. No mention of this event could be found in any local sources of the time, and while reference to a county judge named J.R. McNeil was found in the Rogue River Courier on May 14, 1909, there is no evidence this is the same judge involved in the break in.

10    Central Point Herald, 4 April 1907.

11    Medford Mail Tribune, 6 April 1911.

12    See, supra, note 2.                 

13    Morning Oregonian, 10 September 1920, p. 2; Morning Oregonian, 5 February 1919; Sunday Oregonian, 17 July 1921.

14    Morning Oregonian, 26 March 1912.

15    Ashland American, 20 May 1927, p. 12.

16    Oregon Statesman, 17 April 1927, p. 1.

17    Rogue River Courier, 15 June 1917; Ashland Tidings, 14 June 1917; Ashland Tidings, 18 June 1917, p. 5.

18    Oregon Daily Journal, 12 September 1920, p. 1.

19    Oregon Daily Journal, 24 September 1920, p. 1.

20    Ashland Weekly Tidings, 6 April 1921, p. 3.

21    Oregon Daily Journal, 3 March 1920.

22    See, supra. Note 2.

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