Jail bars no match for a boy with a dollar in 1871

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The Portage County Jail, a two-story stone structure next to the courthouse on Main Street in downtown Ravenna, usually didn't handle any more than a dozen or so prisoners, and most, with an occasional exception, were minor offenders.

Seven inmates were lodged there on the evening of Friday, Aug. 18, 1871 -- six men and a boy. All but two were from Trumbull County, the out-of-towners serving their time in Ravenna because the jail in Warren couldn't accommodate them.

By morning, only one inmate remained behind bars, much to the dismay of Sheriff Otis B. Paine and the jailer, R.W. Buck.

What the Portage County Democrat described as a "jail delivery" was blamed on the carelessness of Jailer Buck, whose record for jail security was questionable. But the boy jailed with the men also played a big role in the inmates' freedom.

The five prisoners from Trumbull County included Edward Carr and George Parker, who were jailed as horse thieves; Thomas Small, in the words of the Democrat, "a big burly fellow who whipped his wife," and Calvin Seldom, "who coveted a valuable shot gun and in a paroxysm of emotional intensity stolen the same." The boy, William Ryan, also was from Trumbull County; he was described as being 12 to 14 years old, behind bars for "pilfering a small amount of money."

Also jailed were George Smith, who burglarized a Garrettsville home, and John Cline of Ravenna, "who was doing penance for his appetite for strong drink."

According to the Democrat, the boy had been abused by the adult prisoners and was allowed to remain in the jail yard or the jailer's dwelling area during the day. He was locked up with the men at night.

The jail, which dated to 1840, included living quarters for the sheriff and his family, or the jailer and his family. It was customary for the sheriff's wife or the jailer's wife to serve as the jail matron.

Because of the excessive summer heat, Jailer Buck was in the habit of not putting the prisoners in their night cells until about 9 p.m., "an unreasonably late hour," the Democrat observed, but a "humane, if not vigilant" practice, given the weather.

As the sun set on the evening of Aug. 18, the prisoners were in their cells, and the dwelling part of the jail was vacant except for William Ryan. Buck's family had retired to their quarters at an early hour because Mrs. Buck was ill.

The lack of security evidently gave the boy free rein in the jail. The other prisoners had given him a dollar -- close to $20 today -- in exchange for his cooperation in securing their freedom.

The boy moved a chair to a cupboard where he knew the key to the outer door of the jail was kept. He removed the key, which gave him access to the inner door of the jail, which he also unlocked. The prisoners took their leave through a kitchen door, heading away from the downtown area through an alley near Spruce Avenue.

They ran west to Sycamore Street, then followed the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad tracks south. By 1 a.m. the following morning, they were spotted on Infirmary Road, about three miles from Ravenna.

The inmate left behind, John Cline -- the man with an "appetite for strong drink" -- was in bed when the jailbreak occurred. He came out to Main Street, crying "Buck, Buck" at the top of his lungs to arouse the jailer, who evidently had been asleep in his quarters.

Buck hustled Cline back into his cell. There was no sign of the other prisoners.

The jailbreak was the third to have occurred on Buck's watch, the Democrat reported. "In each case, the escape is to be attributed to his want of appreciation for the responsibility for the position," the newspaper commented. "Sheriff Paine owes it to his official position, and to himself personally, to depose him for his charge of the prison."

A telegram was sent to Warren, alerting Trumbull County authorities to the escape, but only one of the prisoners who fled into the night was found. That was William Ryan, the boy who had earned a dollar for freeing the inmates. He had made his way home to Warren, but returned to Ravenna a few days later after his mother and a deputy sheriff advised him to go back to Portage County.

Jailer Buck was on hand to greet the boy. "He indulged in a fearful act of swearing and confined the penitent to prison," the Democrat reported.

The hapless jailer was punished, too. The jailbreak cost him his job.

The stone jail served Portage County until 1960, when a new courthouse was built, with a jail located on its upper floor. The old jail was razed shortly afterward.

The jail atop the courthouse remained in use until 1995, when its prisoners were moved from the center of the county seat to the present justice center on Infirmary Road in Shalersville.

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