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Madison Monday

Madison Monday: Scary old jails and shiny new cupolas

By August 29, 2011No Comments
There were a lot of things going on in Madison and the surrounding environs this weekend. The Pope John Summer Festival was happening up on the Hilltop. I didn’t go, but I love a festival with a beer tent. Down the road in Vevay was the Switzerland County Swiss Wine Festival. My husband, not exactly what you’d call a big fan of NASCAR, won a bright orange Jeff Gordon hat at the Swiss Wine Festival one year. It’s one of his prized possessions.

In Madison, our courthouse re-opened for business. Probably the biggest thing that’s happened in Madison in, I don’t know, 50 years or so, was the burning of our courthouse. The beautiful cupola on top had just been restored to full beauty in preparation for our bicentennial celebrations (we hit 200 in 2009). Well something went wrong, and by that evening, our cupola was in flames. You’ll be surprised to know that when the courthouse caught on fire, I was drinking beer. Though on the way to the bar to drink beer, I did do a double take at the smoke coming out of the top of the cupola. But the beer was waiting.

Anyway, in Madison we don’t give up so easily. So what if your courthouse burns right before your bicentennial? We can build it again. We can build it better. And we did.

The lovely folks at the courthouse were giving free tours on Saturday, along with some musical entertainment outside. You could do things like walk into the Superior Court judge’s office and interrupt her while she was eating her lunch. Really. That actually happened. They preserved the clock face from the old cupola, half restored and half not restored to symbolize our resolve to rebuild, but also because it’s really cool to see what fire does to a clock face. It was interesting to see the great work someone did restoring all the old records that were stored in the courthouse. These records obviously go pretty far back. The one in the picture is from 1811. Most of the damage in the courthouse wasn’t from the fire so much as the water from the sprinkler system. And a lot of folks, including emergency responders, worked to get a lot of these records about before they got damaged. But a lot had to be freeze dried and restored.

By far the coolest part of the tour was the old jail. The new jail sits on the alley between Main St. and Second St., and I walk through there pretty frequently. The prisoners used to be able to see out of the teeny little windows, but they’re blocked out now. I’m not sure if the prisoners themselves did that or the jailers. But attached to the new jail is the old jail. And when I say old, I mean old.

The walls of the prison are limestone. By the time the old jail shut down, by court order in 1972, there were windows. But no windows for the first 30 years or so of the jails operation. And I can’t imagine these windows brought in that much light. So as you look at these pictures, the first thing you should know is that I was using the flash, so everything is much, much darker. You can see graffiti prisoners wrote on the walls. The incredibly heavy iron doors into the prison itself and the individual cells. The ‘grub hole’ at the bottom of each cell door where guards would slide in food for the prisoners. A huge chain link on the inside of a prison cell where prisoners would get chained up inside the cell if they were especially bad. And the kind of hole in a block of cement that served as a toilet for 30 or so prisoners.

I cannot believe that this place is not open for tours all the time, because wouldn’t you like to see something like this yourself? Sure, it’s not quite Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which housed Al Capone and other gangsters, and is a classic example of the panopticon design that Foucault loves so much. But it’s still pretty amazing, and if what our high school student tour guide told us is true…that there were prisoners housed in the jail as late as 1972–and juveniles, at that–that’s quite a story. I’m sure we could find many more stories to tell. At Eastern State Penitentiary, Steve Buscemi is the voice for the audio tour. Perhaps we could get Woody Harrelson? He went to Hanover just up the hill for a while.

And of course, here’s the glory shot. Our brand new cupola, shiny and new again. You can’t keep a good town down.  For even more pictures of the courthouse and the jail, like You Think Too Much on Facebook.

Other pictures of the jail and courthouse:

Another page from the 1811
deed of records
The inside of a jail cell, with
fake prisoner in a cot
This would be the toilet

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