Demolition of the old Harford County jail building in Bel Air. (Video by Todd Holden/BSMG)

It was 32 years ago when Sheriff William J. Kunkel said farewell to the Sheriff's Office. His stellar supervision had reached its natural conclusion, and he had been appointed chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, where he served four years of a six-year term.

So, it was a bittersweet homecoming for Sheriff Kunkel the other day, as I walked with him through the cell blocks of the old Harford County jail, as he reminisced about his career as a lawman and his dedication to running a tight ship.

Perhaps a carry-over from his time in the Merchant Marine, he left the office "ship shape" as other subsequent sheriffs will attest.

The day was special for me as well. I had never been to the inner bowels of the old jail, remodeled in 1940. Only once, in 1955, was I in a holding cell on the first floor, following an arrest for bringing a skunk into the packed Bel Air Theater.

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For Bill Kunkel, the tour of the cell blocks was a walk through history. A level for black prisoners, one for whites, a separate wing for women and juveniles, and of course the holding area for "transits"...later to be known as "the hole."

"Many times folks passing through would be drinking a little too much and would end up at the jail. We brought them to the 'transit block', let them sober up, gave them breakfast in the morning and they went on their way," Kunkel related.

Kunkel, who became Harford's top lawman in 1963, was the last sheriff to run the old jail, where he also had his office.

The current detention center on Rock Spring Road was built in the early 1970s, during Kunkel's time as sheriff. After he left, the sheriff's operations moved from the old jail building into the adjoining building at 45 S. Main Street, which was built on the site of a house where former sheriffs had lived with their families, part of their compensation for taking care of the prisoners. The late Raymond Fulker, who served just before Kunkel, was the last sheriff to live in what was called the "sheriff's house."

To Bill Kunkel the jail, the road, and the office were his life, while he also handled raising two children with his wife, Helen. A retired criminal lawyer noted, "Bill always kept his skirts clean. He was untouchable. He was a good man, honest to a fault, and ran the office the same way he lived his life."

156 years of history

Standing inside the women's cell block looking at the outlines of bunk beds that were arranged along the walls, now just smudges, a vibe came over me of muffled voices, the bars with peeling paint in front seemed to talk and the whole scene felt surreal.

In "The History of the Harford County Sheriff's Office," author Terry A. Noye, a former deputy, writes: "The jail as it stands today was completed in 1857 and remodeled in 1940. The old structure was completely gutted, leaving only the roof and old stone walls, which are three feet thick."

The sheriff pointed to a cell on the first floor, "Right there is where we held Frederick M. Medford and Earl Leroy Blackburn, both 28, accused of murder and robbery, known as the 'Count-To-50' cases." Blackburn had been accused of killing Route 40 service station operator Willis R. Snider and while awaiting trial was under Sheriff Kunkel's watchful eye. The second murder/robbery occurred in Baltimore County.

Sheriff Kunkel looks at the likely cell where Earl Blackburn and Frederick M. Medford had been held prior to trial. Both of the "count to fifty killers" were held in the same cell at one time and the sheriff even chained the cell door to make sure no one escaped.

Blackburn was on the stand in his own defense on Aug. 2, 1962, when he smashed his eyeglasses in a fit of anger, cutting his hand, and passing out. The trial resumed and Blackburn was found guilty of first degree murder.

Other cells held death sentence prisoners.

Tales abound about the third floor timber in the attic being used for hangings. So far though, no one can substantiate any hangings inside the jail.

There was however an oak tree on the east side of town, near Churchville Road where hangings did take place for the public to view. Also, according to the Noye book, a gallows was built for hangings at the jail.

As we concluded our walk through every tier and every cell block, I could feel the bitterness in his demeanor, possibly from the pride Kunkel took in his office.

"I don't appreciate how it has been treated even though it is going to be demolished," he said. "It isn't my 'Little Red Wagon' any longer, so it isn't up to me to decide."