Alfred became a half shire-town in 1802. A log jail was built there the following year, which according to an 1833 legislative report, proved to be “grossly insufficient and unsuitable for the purposes for which it was built.”
A new, more secure jail made of stone was clearly necessary by the time Alfred became a full shire-town in 1832. Even though four successful escapes were recorded between 1831 and 1834, taxpayers were vehemently opposed to the required expenditure of $7,737.12. A stone jail was built nonetheless.
The 1834 jail was not adequate for long. Alfred became the principal shire-town for York County in 1860, and by 1869 legislators were lobbying for funds to build another new jail at Alfred. The project was finally approved by the Legislature in 1872, providing the construction could be completed for less than $30,000. To that end, authorization was granted for the contractors to use “any and all materials” of the 1834 jail to build the new jail within budget.
The brick jail was just nearing completion in March 1873 when Louis H.F. Wagner was arrested for the famous double murder at Smuttynose Island. Wagner was incarcerated at Saco and then at the Cumberland County jail in Portland while his quarters at the new York County correctional facility were being readied. He was finally transferred to Alfred on April 29, 1873, as the first inmate of the new jail.
On a Wednesday evening in June, not quite two months into his stay, Louis Wagner and two other inmates walked unnoticed out the front door. A reporter for the New York Times went to Alfred to see for himself how the prisoners were able to escape from the brand new modern jail.
“As I approached the building, prisoners could be heard laughing and singing inside,” wrote the reporter. “I entered, and a dozen prisoners flocked about me. They are all at perfect liberty to roam about the corridors. They have no handcuffs and, seemingly, no restraint.”
The locks on the cell doors had been ineffectual since they were installed. One of the prisoners demonstrated for the stunned reporter that all the cells could be unlocked simply by sliding any narrow strip of wood into the lock.
“Such being the case, the jailer makes no attempt to keep the prisoners in their cells,” revealed the big city newsman.
Two special guards were stationed less than 20 feet from Wagner’s cell. They had been assigned to guard only him, but for several days before his escape, Wagner had cleverly desensitized the guards by repeatedly hiding himself only to pop out of his hiding place, laughing when they summoned the warden.
On the night Louis Wagner, William McCarley and Charles Harrington escaped, Wagner put on quite a performance for the guards, convincing them that he was feeling quite ill and planned to confine himself to bed all evening. By the time the guards took their posts at 9 p.m., Wagner was already gone. He had fashioned the likeness of a man huddled under the blankets on his cot with a short broom and a stool from his cell. It was hours before the guards noticed that the “man” wasn’t moving and when they did, they were reluctant to call the warden for fear the murderer would make fools of them again.
The prisoners had made their way through a scuttle in the jail, up through a ventilator and onto the roof with the intention of lowering themselves down a rope of blanket strips. Noticing a skylight into the warden’s quarters, they decided instead to remove a pane of glass and reach in to unlock the large window. Once inside, they quietly made their way down the stairs and walked right out the door.
Wagner was recaptured by a farmer in Farmington, N.H., three days later. Unaware of the $500 reward on his head, he had been driven by hunger to the farmer’s kitchen door.
The axe-murderer was transferred to the Maine State Prison in Thomaston, where he was later hanged for his crimes. The locks on the cell doors at the Alfred jail were disassembled and sent to Boston for repair, but escapes were frequent throughout the 100 years the building served as the York County House of Correction.
The last escape from the old brick jail took place in September of 1974. The familiar story appeared in the Lewiston Journal.
“Four young inmates escaped from York County jail Friday night. The men apparently forced a section of the ceiling and climbed out through an air duct to the roof and then used blankets to lower themselves to the ground.”
The death of an epileptic inmate from untreated seizures on Sept. 27, 1975, was the catalyst for a riot that closed the old brick jailhouse for good. The 15 inmates ripped out sinks, bunks and electrical wiring in every cell, causing significant damage. Forty law enforcement officers, including state police and firefighters with hoses, quelled the riot. All the inmates were transferred to the Cumberland County Jail and the cellblock at the Alfred jail was closed by order of the court.
The old jailhouse was deemed unfit for prisoner habitation but it was used for a number of years as York County’s first homeless shelter before being auctioned in the year 2000. It still stands on Route 111 in Alfred, as a somber reminder of the darker side of our history.