THE WHITE PALACE OF THE WEST
by Wanita A. Zumbrunnen
"To J.C. Dietz and others: Penitentiary established
at Anamosa. Drink at my expense!, C. R. Scott." This telegram arrived
in Anamosa at five o'clock on April 11, 1872, the afternoon before the
official announcement by the Fourteenth General Assembly of a bill to build
the Anamosa Reformatory or "the white palace of the West," a
turn-of-the-century name derived from the building's imposing cut-stone
interior. The construction of a new correctional facility was first suggested
in 1868, when the State Prison Visiting Committee reported that the Fort
Madison Prison was no longer large enough to handle Iowa's needs. Two years
later, Governor Samuel Merrill recommended to the General Assembly that
a new penitentiary be built in the northern part of the state. McGregor,
Charles City, Marshalltown, and Anamosa were considered as possible sites.
The person most responsible for the eventual choice
of the prison location was Senator John McKean of Anamosa. A native of
Pennsylvania, McKean moved to Jones County in a two-horse wagon at age
19 with his brother, James. They pitched a tent in Scotch Grove township,
camped in the woods during the winter, and in the spring fenced 40 acres
of land and built a small frame house made mostly of local material. Later
McKean returned to Pennsylvania to complete his education and then read
law at Anamosa until he was admitted to practice in 1861. Elected state
representative in 1866 and senator in 1870, McKean was known for his "honesty
above bribery" and as "an able and influential legislator."
During the 1870 General Assembly, McKean called
attention to the Governor's recommendation by presenting many petitions
signed by citizens of Linn, Jones, and other northeast-Iowa communities
for the establishment of a penitentiary near the stone quarries at Anamosa.
The Davenport Gazette, the Dubuque Times, and the Dubuque
Herald also favored an Anamosa location. The Oskaloosa Herald reported
Anamosa's rapid population growth, from 1,000 to 5,000 in five years, and
claimed this was a "healthy" factor in locating the institution.
And in its February 3, 1870 edition, the Anamosa Eureka listed the
advantages that Anamosa offered: many quarries, much stone, no heavy freighting
required, abundant timber, water power -- the Wapsipinicon River, and a
railroad -- the Dubuque Southwestern. Another inducement was announced
in a speech by McKean to the Senate -- Anamosa was prepared to donate 160
acres for use as a farm on which to raise food.
McKean devoted much of his address to comparing
the Iowa prison system with the financially self-sustaining correctional
institution at Joliet, Illinois. Each prisoner at Fort Madison cost the
state $100 per year. The Iowa prison required $20,000 of taxpayers' money
yearly to cover the difference between expenditures and receipts derived
from the prisoners' labor. The reasons McKean gave for the unprofitable
labor were the location of the prison, the type of work the prisoners performed,
and the hard contracts under which they worked. He cited Sing-Sing Prison
in New York and the prison at Columbus, Ohio as examples of institutions
located near stone quarries where prison labor was successfully used to
cut down construction costs. He then produced a letter from the state geologist
attesting to the excellence of the stone near Anamosa and made a strong
case for the need to located the additional facility near a quarry where
prison labor could be used. McKean also mentioned the profits made by commercial
stone cutting and by the use of Anamosa stone in the construction of other
state buildings. For the latter, he gave the proposed new capitol as an
In spite of McKean's efforts, the Iowa legislators
failed to agree on a bill. Not until the 1872 General Assembly, when a
second report of the Visiting Committee described the crowded conditions
of Fort Madison and the extreme difficulty of enlarging its facilities
because of its unfortunate location, did the legislators take action. The
Committee, comprised of Senator Samuel McNutt and Representatives Olwen
Mill and John Minino, closed its report with a strong recommendation: "We
believe that the best interests of the state, in the matter, require that
steps be taken during the present session, for the erection of a new prison
at some point in the state where there are extensive quarries of good rock.
Let such a site be chosen, and the surplus convicts at Fort Madison can
be employed in construction of the new building. Let the penitentiary be
located on such a site and the state need never be at the mercy of contractors
for the prison labor. The establishment thus situated will be not only
less expensive to the state, but may be made entirely self-supporting.
We most earnestly recommend this subject to the attention of the General
On April 12, 1872, the Fourteenth General Assembly
approved an act "to permanently locate and provide for the erection
and control of an additional penitentiary" at Anamosa. Three commissioners
were chosen to select the exact location, receive bids for and purchase
"the best and most eligible quarry" of stratified stone near
the Dubuque Southwestern Railroad and the Wapsipinicon River. Fifty thousand
dollars was appropriated to cover the initial costs, but the purchase price
of the quarry was not to exceed $15,000. Public notice was to be placed
in the Anamosa Eureka or Anamosa Journal. The act also provided
that no bid could be accepted until the state had secured a deed for 70
acres of ground, free of expense, on which to locate the buildings.
A comment in the Eureka indicated that
in Anamosa the outcome of the bill had been in doubt: "Of course there
is no little rejoicing among our citizens that the bill, so nearly 'laid
out' in burial outfit yesterday, has finally passed." However, in
its later comments on the passage of the bill, the Eureka reported that
"the whole field had pretty much been abandoned to Anamosa for the
intervening two years had made known the superior advantages of this point
for a building of such character and the bill passed with comparative ease...Our
members in both houses seconded by the presence and cooperation of B. F.
Shaw, C. R. Scott, J.C. Dietz, G. W. Field, H.C. Metcalf and other leading
citizens worked well for the measure and we have the result. Thus far we
record its history. Eventually it may become as noted a prison as any on
the continent...Let us hope it will be better conducted than are most and
that it will reflect credit and no disgrace on the state."
To plan and implement construction of the new
correctional facility, the General Assembly provided for a board of commissioners
to which William Ure of Fairfax, F. L. Downing of Oskaloosa, and Martin
Heisey of Fort Madison were appointed. Each member received $5 a day plus
expenses. The Board first met at the Savery House in Des Moines on April
23, 1872 and elected Ure president and Downing secretary. Later, on May
7, the Board met at Anamosa where, despite rainy weather, the party was
transported across the muddy Buffalo Creek by a couple of smart livery
teams to inspect several quarry sites. Then the tired, wet, but congenial
group eagerly attacked a banquet provided by Mr. R. N. Fowler at the Fisher
House; a banquet not only welcoming the commissioners but also honoring
Senators McKean, P. G. Bonewitz, and John Tasker for their efforts in behalf
of the penitentiary project.
To learn more about the physical requirements
of a penal institution, the Board decided to visit prisons in nine eastern
states and Canada. On the tour they thoroughly examined prison grounds,
buildings, and other accommodations and asked for information regarding
discipline and treatment of prisoners. After returning to Iowa, the Board
again met in Anamosa to consider locations for the prison and the quarry.
It chose a site it considered to be "well drained" and "healthy"
in a basin surrounded by higher land. Choosing a quarry was more difficult--seven
quarry owners had offered their property for sale. To aid in the decision,
the commissioners consulted David Graham, an authority on the "qualities
and capacity of quarries near Anamosa." After careful consideration,
he recommended a tract of 61 acres with a Dubuque & Southwest Railroad
right-of-way through the southern part. The land belonged to Dr. N. G.
Sales, and on June 12, the Board voted two-to-one to purchase it. The citizens
of Anamosa agreed to donate the land between the tract and the corporate
limits of the city if the commissioners would recommend to the 1874 General
Assembly a payment of $2,500 for an additional five acres, a condition
the Board accepted.
With the site chosen, the next step was to choose
a building plan for the prison complex. The Board examined blueprints submitted
by L. W. Foster & Company of Des Moines, selecting the one they "deemed
most suitable" for future enlargement (by extension or wings) while
still preserving the symmetry of the design and having sufficient capacity
to confine and employ 500 prisoners. Maintaining the right to alter the
plans if necessary, the Board paid $2,500 for the initial drawings, and
agreed to pay an additional $1,200 when the ground and elevation plans
were finished. Also the Foster Company was to receive $10 per day plus
expenses for supervising the construction.
The drawings called for a 636-by-933-foot structure
of cut stone. In the center of the front was to be the warden's house,
50-by-60 feet and five stories high, the last story to be a tower rising
111 feet above the base. Behind the warden's accommodations would be the
guard house and, in the rear, a guard's rotunda. Opening off the rotunda
on both sides would be cell-rooms, each 52-by-190 feet and each containing
248 cells. In the rear of the rotunda was located the dining room, and
over that the chapel, schoolroom, library, and hospital (an area connected
to the center building by an enclosed corridor). All the rooms were to
be well-lighted and fully-ventilated. Surrounding the grounds would be
a 22-feet high wall, 6-feet thick and the base and 4-feet thick at the
In August 1872 limber was purchased from Curtis
Brothers & Company and the W. G. Young & Company of Clinton to
build a high stockade around yard space and temporary buildings at the
prison and the quarry. Under the supervision of Heisey, work on a transitory
cell building began on September 9 with hired labor. But work progressed
slowly until the middle of October when Ed Holt, "master mechanic
and builder of the first class," took over. By December 13, the north
wing was enclosed and temporary wooden cells installed. At that point,
major construction work was suspended until spring because appropriations
were exhausted and the weather made construction work difficult. The expenditures
so far included 64 iron cell doors purchased at a cost of $3,000.
In an attempt to deal with the depleted finances, the Board of Commissioners made several recommendations on March 7, 1873. First it resolved to incur no further expense until the meeting of the next General Assembly. Then, to pay for the ongoing cost of employees and guards (the Board was determined to make the prison operable as soon as possible), it recommended the quarrying and selling of stone commercially. On
April 7, 1873 work began in the quarries with
About a month later, on May 13, 20 men were transferred
from Fort Madison to Anamosa. John Barlow, prisoner No. 1, was 5-feet-5
3/4-inches tall, weighed 130 pounds, had a light complexion, sandy hair,
a beard, and dark brown eyes. His other distinguishing features included
a thumb missing on his left hand and a tattoo of a woman dancing with a
garland over her head on his right arm. He and the other "convicts"
were joined by No. 21, the first man sent directly to Anamosa after receiving
a sentence in Jones County (No. 21's name was not revealed in the 1910
history of the county from which the information is taken, because his
name would disgrace his living relatives.)
Twelve of the men were put to work at the quarry,
while the rest labored in the prison yard, grading grounds and doing other
such work. Only one, the single mechanic in the group, knew how to cut
stone. Construction plans were slowed considerably because the prison lacked
sufficient staff to teach and assist the prisoners. However, two of a group
of convicts who arrived from Muscatine County of September 5 could lay
stone. The convicts began to construct the walls that would surround them
in the future, and on September 30, started work on the first permanent
building. Prisoners No. 7, D.J. Wie, and No. 14, Ed Sheridan, laid the
first stone. This large two-story building was later used as dining-room,
chapel, library and hospital.
Besides the problem of untrained labor, Heisey,
who was elected Acting Warden by the Board, had difficulty supporting each
prisoner on the $8.33 allowance provided by the state. This amount, based
on a scale developed at Fort Madison, did not take into consideration the
Anamosa institution's lack of bedding, clothes, and provisions, all of
which were available at the old prison. Soon there was a $6,000 debt --
a result of building expenses, guard and employees salaries, and the inability
to sell enough stone to cover these costs. However, Heisey considered the
grading and the stone work done by the prisoners worth at least $1,000,
so the actual indebtedness was less than $5,000.
The prison officials also found it difficult to
adequately guard the men working at the quarry. On Monday afternoon, June
2, 1873, three prisoners disarmed a guard and escaped. C.C. Hardin (serving
seven years for robbery), Charles Hatfield (serving two years for burglary),
and Andrew Costa (serving two and a half years for larceny) had been loading
flat cars in two groups of six men each, with one man guarding each group,
when they jumped the guard, took his gun, and disappeared into the dense
undergrowth in a northeasterly direction. The Sheriff, the Constable, and
15 to 20 citizens quickly started in pursuit. That night a heavy rain hindered
the search, and although a $300 reward was offered, nothing was seen or
heard of the men until a year later. On July 23, 1874, the prison received
word that one of the men, Costa, had been recaptured. A former Fort Madison
guard W. Roberts was sitting in his meat market in Moberly, Missouri, reading,
when he was interrupted by a man inquiring: "Have you any bologna?"
Before he could answer, the man turned, darted out the door, and started
off at a brisk walk. Roberts, recognizing the man as a Fort Madison transfer
to Anamosa, notified the Marshall. Caught and returned, Costa was sentenced
to an additional year.
Two other prison breaks occurred in the first
few years of the institution's existence. In August 1873, Morgan Holmes,
convict No. 3, escaped, but was soon recaptured by the Sheriff of Buchanan
County. (The Sheriff received a reward of $50.) Two years later, three
more prisoners escaped. Carelessly shackled convicts James Tracy and George
C. Williams overpowered two guards when they returned from work with a
quarry gang of 25 men. Taking the guards' weapons, the two prisoners crossed
the river and headed south while other guards fired at their retreating
backs. In the confusion another prisoner, David McCarl, managed to slip
away also and was not recaptured.
Tracy and Williams' capture at Tampico, Illinois
almost ten days later, is an interesting story. Shortly after their escape
Tuesday evening, they committed various minor "depredations"
in the vicinity of Mechanicsville. The following Sunday, they struck one
of their old haunts near Clinton, a "house of ill fame". By Sunday
night they reached Prophetstown, broke into a store, and fitted themselves
out in "two first rate suits of clothes each." Also at some point
they had their hair cut all around (prison regulations required the hair
sheared close on one side to discourage escape attempts). Monday night,
while in Tampico, they robbed a jewelry store, entered several homes, stole
silverware and a wallet. The wallet was found the next morning near a corncrib,
minus $15. Because of rain, the robbers were easily tracked from house
to house and, finally, to the railroad tracks.
"Four citizens, probably those robbed, got
a handcar and started in pursuit. Mile after mile they sped on and still
the tell-tale footprints preceded them. Finally, twelve miles southeast
of Tampico, the pursuers overtook the two men, passed a short distance,
then stopped and ordered them to halt. Refusing, Williams drew a revolver
on the man who gave the command and snapped the trigger but failed to discharge
the weapon. The citizen reciprocated his good intentions with interest,
firing on Williams instantly, the ball striking off, but of course knocking
him down. The capturers at once sprung upon the rogues, relieved them of
weapons and tied them with ropes." The revolver Williams used was
the same one he took from the guard when he escaped. Williams had pulled
the trigger on an empty barrel; four charges remained. The $15 and the
silverware was retrieved, including napkin rings, which Williams had managed
to slip under the end of a railroad tie.
The men were taken to a jail in Morrison, Illinois,
where an interrogation by an attorney elicited quasi-truthful answers from
Where have you been working lately?
Near Anamosa, Iowa.
What was the name of the man you worked for?
His name was Martin Heisey.
How long were you in his employ?
Nearly a year.
How much a month did you get?
We never made any definite bargain.
Have you drawn any pay?
Only what clothes I needed.
Did you settle with Mr. Heisey when you left?
No, Heisey was not there at the time.
However, when he learned that he and Williams
were the key suspects in a murder near Tipton, Iowa, Tracy became considerably
agitated. His attorney, noting his alarm, asked if he hadn't recently escaped
from the "hands of justice". Tracy answered yes and gave all
the particulars of the escape.
Although Heisey and a deputy left for Tampico
immediately after learning of the capture, the Sheriff of Whiteside County
declined to turn over Tracy and Williams without requisition papers, which
were in transmission. As a result of his refusal, Tracy and Williams managed
to break jail by lifting a heavy flagging and digging under a foundation
wall. A little over a month later, in the middle of December, Tracy was
recaptured and sent to the Joliet prison for a few years. Then he was transferred
to Anamosa to serve the 25-month balance of his three-year term. Nothing
further was ever heard of Williams.
Considering the lack of security measures, it
is surprising that during the first two years as few as seven prisoners
escaped. Besides the opportunity provided by the quarry work, the prison
compound itself invited escape attempts. The 16-foot board fence was originally
two feet taller but, because of high winds, it had to be lowered.
Escape, parole, and serving time were not the
only ways out of prison. On December 11, 1873, the first prisoner died
at Anamosa. A memorandum in the prison records says: "This evening
at half-past five o'clock George Williams, known as No. 5, was taken suddenly
sick with paralysis on the left side. The doctor was sent for about nine
o'clock. Following another attack on the right side, Williams became speechless
and died at half-past ten o'clock….he was buried on an elevation facing
the rising sun at the prison farm, where is now the prison cemetery. Deceased
convicts whose bodies are not claimed by relatives and those not transferred
to medical colleges under the present law are buried in the cemetery side
by side in rows and their graves are marked with head and foot stones made
by the convicts."
The interest the community of Anamosa took in
the prisoners was not limited to escape attempts or death notices. The
State did not provide prisoners with secular or religious instruction,
but local citizens donated magazines and books and made further efforts
to help educate the inmates. On August 6, 1873 the teachers and friends
of the prison Sabbath School gave a picnic for the prisoners. "The
inmates of the prison were taken out under the shady oaks of the spacious
yard and were freed from all restraint, the arms of the guards being put
out of sight. A good number of friends, both ladies and gentlemen, were
invited and the teachers and those for whom the treat was especially intended,
pitched quoits, played croquet, engaged in running, jumping, talking, joking
and with the utmost freedom and to their heart's content. About five o'clock,
the tables were set under the shade and the men invited to take right hold
and make themselves perfectly at home...after the supper was concluded
cigars were brought forth...when the exercises were brought to a close
the prisoners warmly shook hands with their friends."
Attendance at the Sunday School was not compulsory,
but it was at a sermon delivered by each of the town clergymen in turn
so the "striped boys" could listen to the same preaching as the
rest of the community. Because most of them were jailed for committing
larceny and other lesser crimes, and because none of them seemed to be
of the "desperate" sort, it was felt that some of them could
become useful "ornaments of society". The discipline within the
institution was considered excellent. Only five cases of insubordination
had been reported. One young man, after he had served nine months for robbery
and had been offered the "citizen's suit," $5, and transportation
home, requested permission to remain until spring so he might finish learning
the stone-cutter trade. Anamosa granted his request, and he remained among
the detained, dressed in prison garb, earning two dollars a day for himself.
Calling the inmates "our prisoners"
the Eureka, on July 23, 1874, noted the local reaction to David
Nible, age 25 who, after serving a little over a year of a two year sentence,
was pardoned by Governor Carpenter: "Mr. Nible has been one of the
willing and trusted men of the institution and has for months past been
doing all the teaming for the prison, passing along our streets daily,
in the performance of his duties. He would very likely have been released
next February on account of good behavior, but his faithfulness has been
so marked that we are glad to learn he has been given his freedom."
At this time the prisoners were housed in the
one completed, barely habitable building, designed to become eventually,
the engine room. The pine-plank cells sat behind iron doors in four tiers.
Each cell contained three bunks, making accommodations for 42 inmates.
The south end of the building, used as a kitchen and dining room, provided
necessary space for offices and storerooms. The food consisted mostly of
beef, potatoes, bread, beans, mackeral and codfish, varied by vegetables
in season from a five-acre garden. On holidays prisoners received extras
such as pies, cakes, and cookies. In spite of the limited diet, the harsh
working conditions, the long hours and the primitive living conditions,
the men were in good general health and had positive attitudes. When the
General Assembly failed to make provisions for medical care, the Governor
instructed the prison to employ a physician-surgeon.
In March 1874 over $20,000 was appropriated to
meet the cost of operation over a two-year period. Although the amount
was comparatively small, the supporters of the bill felt a decided victory
hadd been gained in the establishment of the penitentiary as a permanent
state institution. Six years had passed since the Fort Madison Prison was
declared inadequate. Although much more time, labor, and financial support
was necessary to complete the physical plant, by 1874 a new penal facility
was successfully functioning at Anamosa. Now, over a hundred years later,
prisoners and citizens still share the same town, separated by the locally-quarried
stone walls of the "white palace".