Every city, town or village has a story to tell and Marion in southern Illinois is no exception. Whenever we visit somewhere that is new to us we like to explore and find out as much as we can about the place, not only about the present but also the past, and the best place to learn about the history of Marion is undoubtedly the Williamson County Historical Society Jail Museum and Library. Every floor in this building is packed with interesting memorabilia and artifacts. The jail itself has a story of its own which can be seen here in Jail Time
The past and present are defined by the mix of buildings in the Town Square vicinity, some of which date back to the early 1900’s. While many of these buildings have been well-maintained, some, like the old offices of the Marion Daily Republican newspaper have fallen into disrepair.
The Marion Cultural and Civic Center has undergone extensive renovations but I was happy to see that they had preserved the old entryway inside the new lobby.
This memorial in the Town Square tells another story about the terrible destruction that Marion suffered during a tornado, one of the largest in Illinois history, that touched down in 1982, killing ten people and causing close to $100 million in damages.
It’s interesting to see the different styles of architecture in this city of some 17,800 inhabitants, from the stark lines of the First Baptist Church to the more ornate exterior of the Carnegie Library and even a touch of whimsy as evidenced by a mural painted on the side wall of a local artist co-op that tells its own story.
For more on The Weekly Photo Challenge at The Daily Post go to Story
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!