Welcome to Franklin County, KY History

Kentucky State Penitentiary

1800 - 1937


In the late 1790's in Kentucky; you committed a serious crime, you were put to death. Minor offences were punishable by inflecting public humiliation and physical pain. Public whipping, branding of the hands and forehead usually was a deteriant to crime.  There was little need for more than a local jail to hold prisoners awaiting trial.

As the nineteenth century arrived the country began to see the beginning of a reform movement in criminal justice and Kentucky was no exception. Juries in many circumstances refused to convict obviously guilty offenders, claiming execution or humiliation was not an appropriate solution.  Depending on the severity of the crime, denial of personal freedom for a period time, became the new solution to dealing with crime.

The Franklin County jail was feeling this new trend in criminal justice.  Accused offenders were arriving in unusually large numbers to be held over for trial.  In 1798 the General Assembly passed legislation for the purchase of one acre of ground and $500.00 for the construction of a state penitentiary.  Commissioners were designated to select a location. Harry Innes one of the commissioners donated one acre of land at the corner of High and Holmes Streets. By June 1800, local contractor Richard Taylor, had erected a two story block building and a one story stone wall which completely enclosed the entire grounds.

In September 1800, John Hunter, became the first keeper of the penitentiary.  He served until 1806, when Samuel Taylor and John Glover took over to serve successive terms.  Andrew Miller served a short term as keeper in 1815. By 1816 he passed his position to William Starling, who served as keeper until 1819.  In the next few years the penitentiary would see many changes.  William Hardin, the next keeper obtained authorization in 1822 to build a smoke house inside the grounds and entered Franklin County's meat packing industry.  A penitentiary store was opened to the residents of Frankfort and Franklin County were they could purchase iron and leather goods made by the convicts.  Hardin's operating practices drew the attention of the General Assembly.  It was determined the goods produced by the prisoners were of poor quality and over priced.  The legislature turned to the private sector for management of the penitentiary.   And in 1825, Joel Scott, a Scott County cloth manufacturer answered the call. He was immediately elected keeper, by the General Assembly. Scott, purchased a tract of land on South Elkhorn, where he built a large stone house.  Under his management the penitentiary became a profitable enterprise for the state.  Joel Scott retired in 1834 and turned management over to Thomas S. Theobald.   Theobald shared Scott's view on physical expansion and by 1837 buildings, workshops and solitary confinement saw major improvements.  After material shortages and construction delays the stone twin towers that became the front entrance were complete.  
By 1844, the Keeper of the Penitentiary had become a very desired political position.  Newton Craig earned nearly $22,000.00 during his term as keeper from March 1844 through 1855. Jeremiah Weldon South came to Frankfort from Breathitt County to serve as Keeper of the Penitentiary.  He served two terms 1859-1863 and 1870-1880.  Check out his biography and photo.  In 1872 the penitentiary again saw considerable improvement.  The grounds were enlarged and an area north of the cell house was enclosed by walls to house women prisoners.

The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Frankfort continued to be the only maximum security facility in Kentucky.  In 1884, to relieve overcrowding in Frankfort, construction began on a second prison.  Located in Lyon County the Eddyville Penitentiary was completed in 1886.  The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Frankfort closed in 1937 and Eddyville Penitentiary remains today the only maximum security prison in the state.

History of Franklin County, Kentucky, by L. F. Johnson
The Kentucky Encyclopedia, by Kleber

Capital on the Kentucky, by Kramer


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