Towson jail had quite a colorful history

Historic site is now the home of new offices

  • The specifics in 1854 sent out by the Baltimore County Commissioners, authorizing work to be done by Dixon , Balbirnie &; Dixon, the architects of both the jail building and the Old Court House in Towson.
The specifics in 1854 sent out by the Baltimore County Commissioners,…
March 05, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

A decade ago, the abandoned Baltimore County Jail on Bosley Avenue, which had been receiving criminals — some bound for the gallows that once stood in its yard — since the mid-19th century, barely escaped the wrecker's ball.

Then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger had asked the Planning Board and the Department of Recreation to turn the site into a green space.

"The Bosley Avenue facility is an eyesore," Ruppersberger told The Baltimore Sun at the time. "We're going to get rid of it and replace it with green space — a nice community park."

In 2000, the County Council voted to stop using the old jail, which by then was home to a work-release program.

Its penal functions ended in 2005 after a $70 million expansion of the county Detention Center on Kenilworth Avenue, a few blocks to the north, was completed.

It was brought back to life last month when the Azola Cos. completed a $1.7 million restoration of the 8,000-square-foot, three-story stone structure, which included 24 of the jail's 34 cells. County officials dedicated the building with a new name — Bosley Hall — after Dr. Grafton Marsh Bosley.

Bosley, who had been born and raised on the old York Turnpike, was an 1847 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The next year, he moved to Towson when he formed a medical partnership with his uncle, Dr. Josiah March.

When his uncle died in 1850, Bosley inherited a rather large real estate portfolio, and when the county seat was established in Towson, he donated the land for the jail and courthouse. Bosley died in 1901.

Construction on the jail — designed by architect Thomas Dixon, a principal at the firm of Dixon, Balbirnie and Dixon — began in earnest in 1854. He also designed the Baltimore County Courthouse that year.

Besides its cells, the jail complex included a residence for the sheriff, who lived there with his family.

The construction superintendent, Edward Havilland, oversaw the building of the jail, which cost $17,000.

Other notable commissions designed by Dixon, who died in 1886, included the now-demolished Second Presbyterian Church that stood at East Baltimore and Lloyd streets; Indigent Widows' Asylum on West Lexington Street; Lutherville Female Seminary, which later burned; the Pennsylvania Railroad station, also in Lutherville; and the Baltimore City Jail.

The Sun reported in 1855 that the Baltimore County courthouse and jail were "now under roof, enclosed, and rapidly approaching completion."

The next year, the newspaper reported that "twelve of the iron doors are hung, which are all that are yet ordered. Workmen are engaged in fixing a hydraulic-ram in the branch near the building to force water into the cistern in the tower. The plumbing inside the house was finished some time ago, so there will be no delay about the water."

An 1895 jail break by four prisoners who dug a hole in the wall while the warden was enjoying his dinner caused The Sun to report that the old jail was "defective."

Around 1900, the jail underwent a restoration, with The Sun reporting that all "cells are large and cheerful."

There was electric light throughout the jail and "each cell has a wood-over concrete floor. The corridors are solid concrete, laid at an incline for easy flooding and cleansing. Disinfectants are used liberally. Everything is clean and neat and comfortable," reported the newspaper.

"Two meals daily are served. Prisoners may have meals sent to them from restaurants if prepared to pay for them, or by friends and relatives," reported The Sun. "They are allowed to use tobacco."

White and black males were kept on different floors. White and black women were not segregated, and a steel-barred door separated them from male inmates.

The jail yard was also the site of the gallows, where the condemned stepped into eternity.

One of the most notorious episodes at the jail occurred in 1885, when Howard Cooper, who had been found guilty of assault, rape and attempted murder of Kate Gray, a 16-year-old Towson resident, was hanged by a group of men.

Cooper, who had been tried in the old Criminal Court of Baltimore City, was sentenced to "die by hanging" on July 31, 1885.

On the evening and early morning of July 12 and 13, about 75 men wearing black muslin masks and handkerchiefs broke into the jail and smashed the lock on Cooper's cell.

A rope was placed around his neck and he was taken to a tree in the jail yard and hanged. Ten hours later, Cooper's body was claimed by his mother, who had him buried at Bare Hills.

"The conviction and sentence to death of Howard Cooper was one of the most flagrant outrages to be found in the criminal annals of Maryland," observed The Sun. "Although there was no question of his guilt, he was allowed the exercise of every right that our laws concede to offenders. … The pity is that the law is not always permitted to take its proper course."

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