Tag Archives: Alfred

Old Alfred jailhouse saw inmates come and go

A jail with porus walls

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.

The merry dancers of Massabesic

Cavorting for God

The would-be Town of Alfred, Maine was known by its Indian name, Massabesic, when Simeon Coffin arrived in November of 1764. The Wabanaki name, roughly translated, means either “land of much water” or “ponds with many suckers,” depending on which translation you believe. It was part of the vast tract of land that Saco mill man, William Phillips, had purchased from the Indians in the 1660s.

The area was known by its Indian name because there wasn’t another white man within seven miles. Indians were still the only inhabitants of Massabesic. Their wigwams were situated on the land between Massabesic Pond and Bunganut Pond. One family’s wigwam sat high atop a hill between the two ponds.

Local historians didn’t write much about what happened to the Indians of Massabesic, just that after Coffin arrived they “soon disappeared.”

Simeon Coffin was a Newbury shipwright. He had been commissioned to build a ship on the Merrimac River that year but the purchaser went bankrupt and Coffin was left financially embarrassed. He had struck out into the Maine wilderness to find a new home. The Indian wigwam already standing on the Massabesic hilltop suited him well.

Simeon’s father and two brothers joined him in the spring of 1765. Within the year, several other families had also settled nearby. The first sawmill in town was built in 1766 and the first school in 1770.

John Cotton arrived from Durham, Maine in 1781 and married Simeon Coffin’s daughter, Eleanor. John Barnes came with his family from York a short time later. Barnes and Cotton would play an important role in the future of the little wilderness settlement.

A religious awakening was occurring at that time in New England — against what was called “antichristian bigotry.” Towns were required by law to hire a Congregational minister, whose salary was to be paid by the citizens of the town. A growing number of poor settlers preferred to be preached to by unaffiliated, volunteer preachers whose beliefs and practices tended toward the radical.

In Gorham, where John Cotton had come from, followers were called “come-outers” or “new lights.” In Massabesic, they were called the “merry dancers” for their wild midnight reveling.

Dr. Parson’s wrote in his History of Alfred: “One of their practices was to hoot the devil, as they called it, in which they would march around the Shaker Pond, raving like maniacs. Barnes would wear a baize jacket over his clothes, a wig upon his head, with a cow’s tail attached to it, and Cotton an un-tanned cow hide, and in these garbs would scream woe! woe!! woe!!! audible in the stillness of evening nearly the distance of one mile. After this they all took to intoxicating drinks, and for months were hardly ever sober, and in their midnight revels were guilty of revolting practices. Barnes’ explanation of his conduct in hooting the devil, drinking to excess, and indulging in indecent and immoral practices was that they were a sort of carnal slough through which he was doomed to pass, preparatory to spiritual regeneration.”

The merry dancers began building a house for public worship in the summer of 1786 but it was never completed. Twelve rough-hewn, 12-inch square timbers were raised but left open to the sky.

The North Parish Congregation had also been organized in 1780 by Rev. Daniel Little of Kennebunk and Rev. Mathew Merriam of Berwick, but most of the congregation was swept away by the merry dancers. Barnes and Cotton went to great lengths to disrupt every religious meeting held by Congregationalists. At one point the ministers had them taken outside and tied to a tree for the duration of the service. A Congregationalist meeting house was built in 1784, but there was no minister settled there until 1791. The Town of Alfred was incorporated in 1794.

John Cotton traveled to Enfield, N.H. in 1793. There he became acquainted with the teachings of Mother Ann Lee, the leader of a small religious sect called the Shakers. Cotton was moved to convert to Shakerism by an experience he had after confessing all his sins.

His life-changing experience was described in “A Concise History of the United Society of Believers called Shaker” by Charles Edson Robinson. Cotton was seated with his host one morning after breakfast. They were discussing the teachings of Mother Ann when suddenly “he was raised up from his chair by an all controlling power and spun round like a top for the space of half an hour, when he was whirled through the open door and down to the waters of Mascoma Lake, some rods distant, and then was whirled back again with the same force and landed in the same chair he was taken from.” He perceived this to be his Shaker baptism and proof of its authenticity.

He rushed back to Maine to share his revelation with fellow merry dancer, John Barnes. Shaker doctrines were quite a departure from the midnight reveling they were accustomed to. Alcohol was forbidden as was any physical interaction between members of the opposite sex. Shaker sisters and brothers were considered equals but kept separate to avoid temptations of the flesh. Merry dancers converted nonetheless.

The Shaker Society of Alfred was organized in March 1793 under the charge of John Barnes. The following year another community was organized at New Gloucester, Maine.

The Shaker Community in Alfred grew in the 19th Century, at one time encompassing more than 50 buildings between what is now called Shaker Pond and Shaker Hill. Their numbers eventually dwindled and in 1931 the 21 remaining members left to join the Sabbathday Shakers in New Gloucester.