“The boys tried to break out last night!”

Lavinia Goodell, November 6, 1877

In the late 1870s, Lavinia Goodell was a frequent visitor to the Rock County jail, which was located on the Rock River, down the hill from the courthouse.

Rock County jail, c. 1880

After Judge Conger appointed her to represent a number of criminal defendants, Lavinia came to the conclusion that with proper education and spiritual direction, many of the men could be reformed. Since no one else seemed interested in such a project, she undertook it herself.  She took a personal interest in the prisoners and called them her “boys.” (Read more about her jail school here.)

In late 1877 Lavinia visited the jail several times a week. On November 5 she trekked there through deep snow and then couldn’t get in because John Albright, the turnkey, was not there. She spent two hours waiting for him to come back but he did not return, so after speaking to her boys through a hole in the wall, she left in disgust.

That evening some of the prisoners attempted a jail break. Lavinia’s diary entry for the following day reported: “Went to jail where found great excitement. Boys tried to break out the night before and had attacked Albright. Sutton and Sullivan not among them. I went in and taught as usual.”

The story was front page news in the Janesville Gazette.

Janesville Gazette, November 6, 1877

Lavinia recounted the incident at length in a letter to her cousin, Sarah Thomas:

I packed off for the jail. Splendid walk…. Found the jail folks in considerable excitement. The boys tried to break out last night…. [Albright] left the middle door unlocked, as he generally does. Before he had time to lock the inner door Dorsey sprang at him, caught him by the throat & threw him down – held him with his hand over his mouth. C. (the new man – counterfeiter) sat down on his chest & Van Neff held his legs. Rogers, Hyatt & Barclay made … to get out with an iron bar they had secured from one of the cell doors. They got into the hall way that leads to stairs & tried to break down the door jams & the iron bar that secures the other door but failed. John Dunn (who was outside) rushed off to get help tho’ the boys had secured Albright’s pistol and threatened to shoot Dunn if he stirred. Mrs. Colley got Mr. P.’s revolver & stood outside ready to shoot the first one that got out. Helen stood by her. Dunn soon came back with about half the men & boys in Janesville at his heels, whereupon the boys, not having been able to break out … were put to bed without further trouble.

Lavinia did not let the incident deter her from conducting her usual lessons and she “went in & acted as if nothing had happened.” She was very relieved that her “boys,” Sutton and Sullivan, were not part of the misadventure. As she told Sarah:

Sutton, Sullivan & Barnes (the murderer) took no part in this effort to break out but remained each in his private cell – central & non-combatants. I was immensely relieved to find that my “fellers,” as Albright calls them, were not concerned in it. It has caused A. & Mrs. C. to regard them & me with renewed favor. Indeed they spoke quite tenderly of them. The combatants got only bread & water for breakfast. The others the usual fare. They were all out in the corridor but John said they would be locked in their cells when Mr. C. [the sheriff] returned (which would be this noon) & kept there & get only bread & water & Dorsey & Norton, who are supposed to be the ring-leaders, will probably take turns in the dark cell. Mrs. C. said she heard them talking afterwards & learned that it was their intention – if necessary – to kill Albright & her. It has made quite an excitement.

Sullivan may have intimated that he had known about the attempted jailbreak but chose not to tell Albright. Lavinia said:

I wonder Sullivan didn’t report it to [Albright] to make capital for himself for he must have known of it. It is my private opinion that … [Sullivan] was mad at John being away [the previous day] & not letting me in & so was willing to let him “rough it.” [Sullivan] said yesterday that “John went away on purpose” & they told me Sunday that John had told them they wouldn’t get any more lectures & they were very indignant over it. I shant mention this theory to John, however I took the opportunity to be very sympathetic & said to John I hope I have reinstated myself in his affections.

Lavinia hoped that her boys’ behavior “had made it much pleasanter both for themselves & me.” And she decided they deserved a break from classes. “I thot there was as much excitement now [they] couldn’t study much & so have given them a vacation till after their cases are tried, only I shall go there Sundays. After a break, Lavinia continued her jail classes throughout the time she lived in Janesville. NK

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diary, November 5 and 6, 1877; Letter from Lavinia Goodell to Sarah Thomas, November 6, 1877; November 6, 1877 Janesville Gazette. Photo of jail courtesy of Rock County Historical Society.

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