A Harford sheriff takes one last walk through his condemned jail

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.

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."

In time, the old jail made way for the new Harford County Detention Center, no longer called 'the jail'...which meant all of the prisoners had to be moved to the new facility.

The big move

Both Kunkel and one of his young deputies, Jesse Bane, the current sheriff of Harford County, recall the night and circumstances of the move. Secrecy was utmost and very few actually knew the move was taking place, other than the deputies assigned to the transfer.

Bane recalls the night. "The sheriff issued an order to call home and tell the wives we wouldn't be home," Bane said. "He didn't even tell us why, but we had an idea it was gonna be the night to move everyone out of the old jail.

"With two deputies in each car, under cover of darkness, the move was made without a problem," he added.

"The deputies didn't know in advance when we were going to move," Kunkel said. "I took a count of the ones on the day shift that could be back after they ate and work a couple of hours that night without telling them the assignment."

"We transferred the prisoners in the patrol vehicles at night, two or three at a time cuffed together depending on who they were, what they were charged with," he continued. "I know we transported more than one at a time because I told the deputies to make note of the serial number on their handcuffs so they didn't get them mixed up.

"We did the move unannounced. Edna [Goldberg, of The Baltimore Sun] had been bugging me about when we were going to make the move. I couldn't take a chance of having reporters with cameras and so forth interfering while we were trying to handle the prisoners and making the move."

"I also wanted to make the move when the prisoner count was down. I really don't remember how many there were. I would guess twenty-five to thirty prisoners," Kunkel said.

Just as someone will recall the years they spent on the plant floor or in the office, so too the old jail holds memories for those who served. More importantly, perhaps, the old jail housed a legacy of Bel Air's history, the criminals and near criminals, the way in which prisoners were treated in the old days compared to the way they seem to have a few more creature comforts these days.

The old jail has been torn down. It's stewardship as recalled by Sheriff Kunkel and the times of a bygone era will forever remain in the hearts and minds of those who choose to remember.

Historically many of us never paid much attention to the jail, and perhaps that was a blessing because, after all, some folks got locked up there.

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