Countys old stone jail
has a storied past
still shrouds story of first female jailer
who took over for her murdered husband
BEDFORD, Ky. (May 2008) uring the early decades
of the 20th century, it would have been somewhat unusual for a woman
to hold an elected position. Perhaps even rarer would have been an elected
female serving as the jailer. But not only did Trimble County, Ky.,
have a female jailer at its historic stone jail, her first prisoner
was the very man who murdered her husband.
2008 Madison &
Indiana Editions Cover
The story of Trimble Countys first female jailer,
Pearl Mahoney Williams, is just one of the fascinating accounts of woe
and misfortune that have been woven into the legend of the old stone
jail. But her story is so unusual that today a plaque hangs in the Trimble
County Courthouse hallway in Bedford recounting her experience.
The first jail built in the country was erected in November 1837, just
months after Trimble County was formed. According to Trimble County
Historical Society records pieced together by longtime member and former
president Donna Stark, the land for the jail was deeded to the county
by resident Alvah Chase for $1.
At that time, there was a pond situated on the land, which was also
the site of the first county courthouse. William McClellan was paid
$3 to work on the pond. Once it was filled in, a log jail 32x16 feet
and 10 feet high was built. There was a brick veneer on the jail.
Trimble County resident and local historian Steve Smith said the county
paid Jack Pryor $302 to build the jail. Pryor was Bedford, Ky.s
At some point, prior to the U.S. Civil War, a stone jail was erected
in the same location as the log jail. A second stone jail, the one that
stands today in Trimble Countys Courthouse Square, was erected
in 1868 and a second floor was added in 1899. The current stone jail
has much of the same stone as the first stone jail. The jail is on the
National Register of Historic Places.
Williams story begins in 1927, when her husband, James Rollie
Williams, was elected as the Trimble County jailer. One Sunday morning,
Williams had arrested a drunk, Chester Martin, and was attempting to
put him in the jail. Martin, who had been put in jail numerous times
for violence and drinking, swore he wouldnt go back. A blazing
gunfight erupted between Williams and Martin right in the middle of
the courtyard. Williams was shot in the forehead and died.
Although she was pregnant with her 10th child at the time, Pearl Williams
took over the job of jailer until her husbands term was completed.
Her first prisoner was Martin. Pearl was then elected on her own for
two consecutive terms.
In March 1934, she committed suicide.
Local lore has it that she went into the garage
and mixed herself up a potion. A 2001 book entitled Pearl,
written by her granddaughter, Lauren Rose, states the lady jailer committed
suicide because she listened to her own daughters rape by her
uncle and did nothing to stop it. Apparently, it was Roses mother
who had been the victim and recounted the incident to her. That account
has raised much controversy with townspeople and other family members
who dispute it, said Trimble County assistant director Betsy Tweedy.
Rose noted in the book that her grandmothers large brood of children
went to live with various other relatives after her death. The book
is available at the Trimble County Public Library.
It is not clear why, in 1837, the newly formed county needed a jail,
but Smith suspects it may have been to house slaves who had been caught
trying to escape their masters. I suspect the jail was used more
than anything for runaway slaves, he said. It would have
been a concern at that time.
Indeed, one of its first inhabitants may have been abolitionist and
former slave Henry Bibb. He was born in 1815 to a slave woman named
Mildred Jackson, a mother of seven who worked on an Oldham County plantation
owned by Willard Gatewood. Bibbs father was State Sen. James Bibb,
although he never met him. As a child, Bibb saw each of his brothers
and sisters sold to different slave owners and he, himself, was hired
out to various slave holders.
During his teen years, Bibb married another slave woman, Malinda, and
they had a daughter named Mary. When he was in his 20s, Bibb was moved
to a plantation in Bedford, Ky., to be with Malinda.
Bibb escaped the farm and went north in December 1837. But he returned
for his family in June 1839. His first two attempts to free them failed,
and after a failed third try in 1839, the family was imprisoned in a
workhouse in Louisville.
After two years in the workhouse, Bibb was sent to Louisiana and by
1842 had managed to escape north again. After finding that Malinda had
been sold into prostitution, Bibb decided to dedicate his life to helping
other slaves. He began lecturing on slavery and became one of the best
known African American anti-slavery activists. He eventually remarried
Mary Miles of Boston, and they later moved to Canada. Bibb helped establish
Canadas first African American newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive.
Bibb died in 1854.
Noted Underground Railroad researcher Diane Perrine Coon, who has done
extensive work on anti-slavery activity throughout the area, said it
was at some point around 1839 that Henry Bibb was actually housed in
the Trimble County Jail, which at that time would have been the log
When he was first caught and jailed for escaping,
he was chained to a tree at the local blacksmiths, said
Coon, of Louisville. Later, he was moved to the jail, where he purportedly
told two other runaway slaves how to escape to Canada.
Two slaves, King and Jack, came to the window at the jail to find
out how to escape and get to Canada, said Coon. Apparently,
they made it.
Bibb was not the only abolitionist housed at the jail. According to
Coon, African-American Elijah Anderson, called the Superintendent
of the Underground Railroad in Madison, Ind., spent time there
before being transferred to the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort,
Ky. Anderson, a free black man from Virginia, moved to Madison around
1839. He was credited for bringing close to 1,000 fugitive slaves across
the Ohio River to Madison.
With a $1,000-price on his head and targeted by a pro-slavery mob, Anderson
moved his operations north to Lawrenceburg, Ind. He would take large
groups of runaway slaves up to Cleveland, Ohio. In 1856, while traveling
through Boone County, Ky., Anderson was caught by a Pinkerton agent,
who brought him to Carrollton, Ky.
He was accused of helping a slave owned by Gen. William Butler escape.
He was tried, but there was not enough evidence to convict him. He
was literally standing on the steps of the Carrollton Courthouse, having
just been released, when a Trimble County sheriff re-arrested him,
It was during his stay in the Bedford stone jail that he was convicted
of helping runway slaves. It was the testimony of Madison slave
catcher Right Ray that convicted him, said Coon.
He was sentenced to 10 years at the state prison. On the day of his
release, Anderson was found dead. Many believe he was the victim of
Female abolitionist Delia Websters history is also tied to the
little stone jail in Bedford.
Webster, a teacher from Vermont, moved to Kentucky and in 1844 helped
Methodist minister Calvin Fairbank transport the slave Lewis Hayden
and his family to Ohio. Hayden went on to become a prominent abolitionist
and businessman in Boston.
Webster and Fairbank were arrested and imprisoned in Kentucky. Webster,
because she was female, was pardoned and released after serving just
a few weeks at the Kentucky State Penitentiary.
by Don Ward
stone jail sits in the courthouse square
in Bedford, Ky., but it
is no longer used to
house prisoners. Today,
it houses only legends
of years past.
In 1852, she and several others, including John Preston,
purchased a farm along the banks of the Ohio River for $9,000 in Trimble
County. It has been reported she secretly continued to assist runaway
slaves, although her reputation, livelihood, and property were under
The Preston Plantation (as the farm is called) was the plantation from
which Eliza, one of the slaves in Harriet Beecher Stowes
Uncle Toms Cabin, was supposed to have escaped from after
running away from a cruel master.
In March 1854, Webster was imprisoned in the Trimble County Jail. Reports
said it was a cold, late spring and there was still snow on the ground
that year. One night while she was in the prison, the temperature fell
below freezing, and authorities finally consented to light the jails
stove. Unfortunately for Webster, there was no vent, so the jail was
warm but smoke-filled. Authorities at the time later admitted they wanted
her to be uncomfortable. She was freed in April of that same year. She
moved to Madison and sold the farm.
Today, the little stone jail is not used to house prisoners. Trimble
County Judge-Executive Randy Stevens said it was during the early 1980s
that the state decided the jail no longer met state standards.
The last few prisoners in the jail were arrested for public intoxication
during the annual Madison Regatta, he said. Today, it is
used for storage, but people frequently come by asking about it.
It is not open for public touring.
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