During our visit to Marion in southern Illinois a few weeks ago we got to see the old jail cells at the Williamson County Historical Society Museum, housed in the former county sheriff’s residence in Marion.
The jail on Van Buren Street was built in 1913 and was in use until 1971. It was capable of holding 87 inmates which included facilities for housing 6 women prisoners. The county sheriff’s residence was in the same building and was separated from the jail by 13 inches of concrete and two steel doors. Some of the more notable prisoners housed there were those involved in three violent conflicts during the 1920’s.
In 1922, eight of the men who were arrested for their part in the Herrin massacre, a deadly riot between union and non-union coal miners in which 23 people were killed, were kept at the Van Buren Street jail. Union supporters supplied them with food and entertainment during their incarceration.
Later in the 1920’s the jail was again in the spotlight when the Ku Klux Klan took control of the Marion Law Enforcement League and hired S. Glenn Young to conduct bloody raids on local bootleggers. This action sparked violence among Williamson County residents which escalated until state troopers were called to the jail to restore order and prevent prisoners from being lynched by angry mobs.
When the Shelton Brothers Gang and their rivals, Charles Birger’s Gang, both heavily involved in bootlegging, became embroiled in a deadly war in the 1920’s, many of the gang members were kept at the Marion jail. Fourteen received life sentences for murder and Rado Millich, one of Birger’s gang, was the last man to be hanged in Williamson County in October 1927. The execution took place in an alley just outside the jail. Birger only spent one night at the jail after being arrested for murder. He was released when he claimed that he had acted in self-defense.
It was quite a warm day in September when we took a tour of the cells and it was easy to imagine the stifling conditions that must have prevailed in the heat of summer in these cramped quarters. In the early days of the jail it was agreed that the sheriff’s wife would cook meals for the prisoners which would be passed through barred windows from the kitchen to the cellblock.
The cells were only a small part of the museum but easily the most memorable. It is said that some of the members of the Historical Society have reported hearing strange noises while working in the museum and standing in these grim surroundings it’s easy to imagine. I wouldn’t want to be there alone at night that’s for sure!