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Ellicott City’s former jail operated from 1878 until the 1980s. This 1931 photo was taken around the time a man who was arrested for drunken driving had his wife and children spend the night in jail with him.
Ellicott City’s former jail operated from 1878 until the 1980s. This 1931 photo was taken around the time a man who was arrested for drunken driving had his wife and children spend the night in jail with him. (Baltimore Sun archive photo)

The Ellicott City jail has the musty aroma of an old stone building that’s lain vacant for 30 years, collecting layers of mold. But Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County, sees potential. It could be a tourist site, maybe, or an office building.

“It’s our only jail here,” he said. “The building itself, there is really nothing wrong with it.”

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Since 1878, the jail has been the temporary shelter for many who’ve run afoul of the law, including a man arrested in 1931 for drunk driving whose wife and children chose to spend the night there with him, The Baltimore Sun reported. The little ones, 8 and 9, “roamed about the prison, not in the least awed by its iron bars and grim-looking walls.”

Inside the Ellicott City jail in 1966.
Inside the Ellicott City jail in 1966. (Baltimore Sun archive photo)

Many escaped, sometimes using pipes as tools. Three picked locks in 1939. Two teenagers left after attacking a warden in 1955. Another group simply bolted through the front door in 1962.

The jail was the site of at least two lynchings. In 1895, Jacob Henson, a black man jailed for murdering his boss, was scheduled to be hanged, but the mob worried his sentence would be commuted. Around a dozen white men donned hoods, stormed the building and hanged Henson from a dogwood tree nearby. State-run executions, too, took place on the grounds as late as 1916.

Maple Lawn farm in Howard County has sold turkeys since the 1930s.

The building fell out of use in the 1980s, after the Howard County Detention Center was built in Jessup.

Though restoration would likely require asbestos removal and significant repairs, said Dorsey, “I think it would be well worth the expense.”

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