While most attention that can be mustered on jails focuses on the oddity of the 1889 Squirrel Cage Jail in Gallatin, some point to this jail’s predecessor with equal interest. David Stark, researching records at the county clerk’s office, offers the following information about the county’s “pit” jail.
The county pit jail was one of the first public buildings in Gallatin, MO. It was started soon after the sale of lots in Gallatin during the spring of 1838.
Philip Covington was superintendent of county public buildings, and he prepared the plan for this jail which was similar to the Ray County Jail in Richmond, MO. The contract for the pit jail was given to John Comer for $390 on May 25, 1838. Wilson McKinney backed the bond for construction at twice the contract amount. It was constructed on Lots 1 and 2, Block 4 West and 1 South, which is the northeast corner of the old Gallatin Motor Company building (on North Main Street). That year, 1838, was a bad year for construction in Gallatin. Early work was probably lost in mid-October by fire. Covington was replaced as superintendent by Lewis Dodd in December, 1839. Dodd advanced Comer $200 at 2% interest on Dec. 7, and gave Comer another year to finish the work. When the jail was completed on March 2, 1841, Comer was paid $575 the next day. A Mr. Sircy and Mr. Stallings received $25 for a report on the work. The total cost to the county was $600. Bedding was purchased in May, 1841, and in May, 1842, so the pit jail was probably first used during this time.
The pit jail was placed on level ground with no foundation. It was two stories high, measuring 18 feet to the roof line. The ground floor was one room 20’x2’x8′ with a single 10″x18″ window and a 2’x2′ trap door in the center of the ceiling. The second floor was 23’x23’x7′ with no windows and a single door leading to a 5’x6′ platform. The outside size of the building was 25’x25′ with steps leading up the front to the platform. Materials needed for the construction exceeded 62,000 board feet of logs and 2,000 running feet of 6-inch diameter peeled poles. All logs were hewn 12-inches square except for the ceiling of the second floor which was made of 8″x12″ logs.
The door on the second floor was 3-3/4″ thick of three layers of oak plank with wrought iron nails over 2 inches and driven through and cinched. Hinges were riveted on the inside. The 2-foot square trap door was strong and secured by a lock. The outer door was secured by a “flint quality” lock. The banisters were 2 feet high. The log floor of the pit was not secured to the side walls, so the ceiling may have become lower as the side walls sank into the soil. There was no plan for chinking the cracks or for protection from carpenter ants, termites or other bugs. The jail was probably made of green logs, so cracks probably enlarged. There was no provision for heating the building.
The builder, John Comer, was born in North Carolina about 1785, and was living in Gallatin with his wife, Mary, after 1860. The Comers probably had a cabin south of the jail (where the Bank of Gallatin was later built). This cabin was rebuilt after the Mormon War. John was a licensed dram shop keeper in 1851 and 1852 and was county deputy sheriff in August, 1854. He purchased two lots east of his cabin and owned 10 acres in the southeast part of the original town.
Col. McFerran started plans for a new stone jail on Dec. 19, 1856. This second jail facility in Daviess County was not completed and ready for use until Nov. 15, 1858, at a cost of $3,300. The lots and old pit jail may have been sold by the county before the new stone jail was finished.
— written by David Stark for the Gallatin North Missourian in August, 1993