Recent events at St. Louis’ City Justice Center raise the question: “How did we get there?” The act of detaining suspects evolved over the millennia as the period they are held before a trial has increased. Enlightenment principles were used to establish the idea of “humane confinement” in the United States. The history of St. Louis has also seen an enviable number of jails that have mirrored the evolution of American criminal justice and the reaction to past abuses.
The first major reform in St. Louis justice was to ban public humiliation such as the display of criminals in stock. This came with the annexed Louisiana Territory into the United States. The first photograph of a serious prison was soon taken. It was a basic structure made of stone, located at the southeast corner of Sixth and Chestnut. It is conveniently located just one block away from the Old Courthouse. It wasn’t ideal.
Nine prisoners escaped from jail in violation of the Niles National Register on July 29, 1840. By 1844, executions by hanging were taking place there. Another newspaper article reported that Josh Brown and John McDaniel were sentenced to death. The jail’s lock problems were so well-known that they made it to New Orleans. The Times-Picayune reported a burglar had broken the lock and quietly walked out of his cell. The absconder was caught by a prisoner on his way to work. He recognized him and took him back to jail where he was kept in an iron safe.
Even though the Workhouse was opened, it was obvious that a larger jail was needed to house a city of 300,000. This figure was based on the 1870 census. Thomas Waring Walsh designed the new Municipal Courthouse. It was named the Four Courts in honor of the Dublin landmark. Robert Walsh, the future brewery architect, was fathered by Walsh. He had also designed many other landmarks throughout St. Louis including the preliminary plans for St. Francis Xavier is located on the campus at St. Louis University. At the time, there were no architectural firms that “specialized in” jails.
Walsh’s new design was created to counter the old dark, cramped, and cramped spaces. The belief that natural elements could have a curative effect upon “disobedient”, and “maladaptive” members were similar to the Thomas Story Kirkbride-inspired buildings within the mental health sector at the time. Four Courts’ front was a dramatic Second Empire opera-stage stage that opened onto the half rotunda behind the jail’s cells. The curved structure was surrounded by a rectangular wall that provided an exercise yard for prisoners who were awaiting their trial in the attached courthouse. In the yard was also the gallows, where the sheriff would oversee the hangings. If invited, they would be sent a letter with black borders if they were able to witness executions in the Four Courts jail yard.
The requirements for the office of jailer for the Four Courts prison were laid out in Chapter 21 Article III of 1901’s City Charter. American citizens must be the head jailer. The mayor appointed him and he was approved by the city council. He was paid $1,500 per year. A deputy would be appointed by the head jailer, who was paid $1,000. A clerk was paid $600. Chief cook, $600. Assistant cook, $480. Second assistant cooks were paid $360 each. Each guard was paid $720. There were 24 of them, including three women. All staff was paid every month. It seems that women were paid the same as men. The jail did not house children under 15 years of age.