FOCUS ON HISTORY: Markers kept prisoners from straying


Back in 1840, jail limit markers were established throughout the state including Montgomery County after a ruling from the Court of Common Pleas.

“They were introduced to provide a person who was in jail for a civil action the ability to leave the jail to work, visit family or to carry on other business,” said former Montgomery County Sheriff Michael J. Amato.

Individuals locked up for bad debts, for example, could get a job close to the jail, as long they stayed within the limits of the stone markers. The prisoners left the lockup at sunrise and had to return by sunset. It was a 19th century voluntary version of electronic bracelets for non-violent prisoners.

Amato said county supervisors set the boundaries of the markers, which could not exceed one mile in each direction from the jail. Montgomery County had eight markers. Amato had one of the markers installed near the entrance of the current jail on Route 5S in Fultonville. The marker is still there, according to current Sheriff Jeff Smth.

“The last time the markers were used was about 1913,” Amato said. “I think that we might be one of the only counties with jail limit markers left.”

Amato has done research on the history of local jails. In 1772, Tryon County was created during the British colonial era. Johnstown became the county seat of the sprawling jurisdiction that covered much of Upstate New York west of Albany County. A jail was built in Johnstown that year and the building still stands, although no longer used as a jail.

At the end of the Revolution in 1784, Tryon County was renamed for patriot General Richard Montgomery and in 1836, the county seat was moved to Fonda. There was such an outcry from the people of Johnstown that they were granted their own county, Fulton County, split off from northern Montgomery County in 1837.

By 1838, a jail and courthouse had been built in Fonda at a cost of $30,500. The jail was located where the Department of Public Works facility is today, behind the Old Courthouse. 

In 1881, that jail was destroyed by fire. According to a newspaper account, the fire was started at 3 a.m. by inmate Patrick Claffey, described as a “desperate character,” jailed for breaking into a store in St. Johnsville. Sheriff William Scharff was awakened and found it impossible to put out the blaze. The 22 prisoners were safely removed to the courthouse where they were “strongly guarded” until they could be taken to the jail in Johnstown.

A new jail was built in Fonda and occupied in late 1882 at a cost of $40,000. “Although secure, the jail is free from dampness and has plenty of light,” stated an article in the Mohawk Valley Democrat. The state closed that jail because of poor conditions in 1911 and again inmates were sent to Fulton County. In 1913, a jail was built adjacent to the Old Courthouse at a cost of $55,000. 

This building was used as a jail until 1997 when it was shut down because of state requirements. Amato recalled a 1996 flood in Fonda helped convince county officials of the wisdom of relocating the county jail from its location near the river in Fonda to the present facility on higher ground in Fultonville. The current jail was built at a cost of $14 million. 

Among artifacts Amato displayed during a talk years ago was an old set of jail keys and a sharp wooden letter opener carved by an inmate in the 1920s, a recreational pastime that would be frowned upon today.

Categories: Opinion, Opinion

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