Ghosts of the Old Benton County Jail


Three-story rough-faced limestone Italianate-style building constructed in 1876, once oldest-functioning in Indiana

(also known as Fowler jail)

603-7 East Sixth Street

Fowler, IN 47944

Historic Timeline

• County jail constructed in 1876 across street from courthouse, remained in continuous use until 1997.

o Front section included Victorian sheriff’s residence of several bedrooms, parlor and kitchen; sheriff’s wife historically jail matron and cook; back portion housed cells. (Journal and Courier, 2/26/2016)

▪ Sheriffs resided in building for more than 100 years.

o 12 cold, narrow unlit cells of about 4-by-8 feet upstairs with antique locks and toilets. Larger cell on second floor used for female inmates and juveniles, the only cell with toilet. Former dirt floor “dungeon” located in basement. According to former Sheriff Lawrence Wiemken, “There are eight old cells down there where people were chained to the walls until they either confessed or went crazy. It makes your hair curl just to think about it.” (Journal and Courier, 3/28/1969)

o Originally had 32 beds before second floor closed in 1970s. Padded cell used for mentally disturbed prisoners or prisoners who became violent when drunk. Cells separated from rest of jail by barred walkways with showers at each end and a day room. (Journal and Courier, 12/27/1984)

o Only three prisoners said to have escaped in jail’s history.

o Average length of prisoner stay only few days.

• Sheriff persisted in quest for remodeling of jail after requests for funding repeatedly denied by Benton County Council. (Journal and Courier, 3/28/1969)

• Prisoners, personnel temporarily evacuated due to structural damage to the then-101-year-old building caused by post-freezing ground thaw. (Journal and Courier, 3/4/1977)

• Prisoner files suit claiming deplorable conditions, including lack of cell lighting and access to medical care and no policies to govern conduct of prisoners; judge dismisses as prisoner demonstrated knowledge of emerging law with reference to prisoners’ rights but failed to demonstrate any claim of constitutional magnitude: “Much of that law grew out of a factual context infinitely worse than anything that is here alleged in regard to the Benton County Jail.” (Journal and Courier, 2/12/1982)

o Substandard facilities again cited, including lack of heat in winter and air conditioning in summer. Also no way to separate pre- and post-trial inmates or by severity of crimes. (Journal and Courier, 5/22/2005)

• Jail remains in use for storage, small museum after prisoners relocated from then-16-bed facility to new jail constructed across street in 1997.

Nelling lynching, Notes of Interest

• Jacob Nelling — Civil War veteran and farmhand who confessed to murder of 15-year-old Ada Atkinson in 1883. The girl was found choked and stabbed 28 times in her bedroom on family farm south of Oxford, where Nelling, 50, worked as a farmhand. Nelling confessed to the murder, saying, “I went upstairs and I found Ada there. I said to her: ‘Ada, I am going to kill you.’ She said not to do it, that she did not want to die that way. I told her I would do it, but I do not recollect what she said. Then I took hold of her and threw her down on the floor. Then I cut her throat. Then I became frenzied and made the other cuts. It seems I did not care what I was doing.” Nelling originally taken to Lafayette but brought to Fowler (Benton Co.) jail to await trial, where he was expected to plead guilty. Organized mob of men arrived at jail where believed to have demanded of the sheriff the body of Nelling and keys to jail. After requests were denied, mob forced entry into jail. When men arrived at Nelling’s cell he was reportedly awaiting them, dressed and wearing overcoat. Nelling taken away by buggy and hanged from walnut tree about 200 yards from Atkinson home. Body allowed to hang for hours, during which time hundreds came to view. Card with words “A Warning to All Murderers” attached to his coat. Rope cut for souvenirs. Cephas Atkinson, Ada’s father, cut down tree and proposed to make a cane for each member of the mob. “To the leader will be presented the best that can be made.” Rumors circulated Nelling’s body stolen from pauper’s grave and brought to surgeons. (Indiana State Sentinel, 10/24/1883; Fowler Benton Review, 11/22/1883; Logansport Weekly Journal, 11/22/1883; Topeka Mail, 12/6/1883)

o “To satisfy themselves whether Jacob Nelling’s body laid mouldering (sic) in the grave or not, some citizens of Oxford proceeded to the burial place and dug to the coffin. The coffin and body were gone. Search was made in this city yesterday for the remains. The old room in the McCormick block used for cutting up ‘stiffs’ was examined but nothing was found.”  (Journal and Courier, 11/29/1933, reprint of Morning Journal)

• Mrs. Elizabeth Lyda held at jail for husband’s death. (South Bend Tribune, 11/15/1900)

• Board of State Charities report revealed plight of epileptics and public burden: “It is a great wrong to confine them to jail. One has been confined in the Benton county jail four years.” (The Herald, 2/20/1903)

• Farmer John W. Poole freed from jail after facing murder charge in death of farmhand; Poole’s son Emory provided information that led to arrest, saying he and family believed him insane. John Poole later arrested again and sentenced for the murder. (Star Press, March 20,1911)

o  Emory charged with robbery and occupied same Fowler cell as father once had. (Star Press, 6/25/1918)

• Albert Tolles arrested for trying to strangle 7-month-old baby; taken to Fowler jail for safekeeping. (Brook Reporter, 1/21/1916)

• Man emerged from woods, arousing suspicions of neighbors who called sheriff. “He was taken to Fowler jail where he has been a raving maniac.” (Journal and Courier, 11/1/1924)

• Frank Frasier, confined to jail awaiting insanity inquest, found attempting to hang self with torn shirt in cell. (Journal and Courier, 3/16/1932)

• Farmer LeRoy Clark, 21, admitted to slaying of wife Mayme as she lay beside 3-month-old son. After first reporting death as suicide, Clark later confessed at funeral home to the shooting of his wife because she refused to get out of bed to make breakfast. After processed at police barracks in West Lafayette, officials announced Clark would be returned to Fowler and lodged in jail. (Journal and Courier, 6/18/1937)

o Sheriff later credited Clark with providing information that prevented Benton jail break by teen inmate who had torn up cell plumbing in attempt to get pipe as weapon. (Kokomo Tribune, 7/29/1937)

• Mrs. May (Mae) Hampton, wife of Benton County Sheriff Ralph Hampton, died in hospital, though presumably death at time of residence in sheriff’s quarters. (Sheriff Boston “Butch” Pritchett, sheriff 1990-1998, first sheriff who did not live in residence.) (Journal and Courier, 5/25/1942, 5/22/2005)

Special shoutout to 765 Paranormal for getting us access to this special place. Tiffany & Travis you rock! Thanks for spending the day with us. Also thank you to Eunice Spector again for her exceptional historical research. She kills it for me.

— Evel Ogilville


  1. I lived in the jail until I was 2 while my dad Wiley Brewer was sheriff which would be 1948. My mother said she cooked for the prisoners. Many years ago after it was just a museum, we toured it and she showed me where my bedroom was. So glad to read all this history of such a unique building where I grew up.

    Liked by 1 person

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