Built between 1909 and 1910, the old Mohave County Jail is a rare tangible link to the closing years of the territorial era in Arizona. It is one of the last free-standing jails built before statehood. Surprisingly it remained in use until 1965 when a new jail in the courthouse basement was completed. Currently the building is used for storage but plans are for the Mohave Museum of History & Arts to open it for tours.
Subject of the first 2023 episode of Coffee With Jim, an audio podcast from Jim HInckley’s America, the jail is a point of interest on the narrated, self guided historic district walking tour developed by Kingman Main Street. But the old jail is more than just a tangible link to the early history of Arizona statehood.
As an example, the Pauly Jail Building Company of Missouri was awarded the construction contract for the cells. As an interesting historic footnote, still in business this company was established in 1856. It remains as the oldest single family-owned correctional facilities contractor in the United States.
The history of prior jails in Kingman, and former county seats in Cerbat, Mineral Park, and Hardyville, now forgotten ghost towns, is vague. During research for the walking tour one of the earliest references I found was in a published article dated January 1884 that noted funding approval in the amount of $1,400 for jail construction in Mineral Park.
There is ample evidence that incarceration in the Mohave County Jail after the dawn of the 20th century was considered a joke by outlaws. And it was an absolute embarrassment for the county.
Published in the fall of 1907 was a particularly comedic story. “Because all the prisoners in the Mohave County Jail, grown tired of the sameness of the menu, and their surroundings, walked away a short time ago. All of the fugitives face additional charges for the jail break. None of the escapees have yet been caught.”
An article published in September 1908 noted that, quote, “Sometime yesterday afternoon two prisoners slipped through one of the jail gratings and made their escape. They were two boys held for robbing the section house at Berry. The continual escapes are similar to the early days of Yuma when prisoners were wont to take a dinner knife and fork and carve their way to freedom through the adobe walls. Anytime a husky fellow wishes to desert the Mohave County Jail all he has to do is put his back to one of the cages and shove a hole through the walls of the buildings. But most of the prisoners are more considerate and only pull out the frame of one of the gratings and squeeze themselves through.”
But ongoing issues pertaining to incarceration were not the only crime related news stories to garner headlines in papers throughout the territory of Arizona, or even nationally. At 2:00 in the afternoon of January 19, 1907, C.C. Leigh was hung in the yard of the Mohave County Jail. This was the culmination of a two-year legal battle that had often been the subject of national headlines.And to the best of my knowledge, it was the only hanging on the square at the Mohave County Courthouse.
On September 8, 1905, Leigh had murdered Jennie Bauters, his mistress, in Goldroad, now a ghost town along Route 66 in the Black Mountains. Bauters was an immigrant that had profited greatly from running a house of ill repute in the mining town of Jerome. And she had also become well known, and even respected, in the territory for her boundless genoristy.
When Leigh’s appeals had been exhausted and the date of execution was set, his mother sent a wire to President Theodore Roosevelt and Territorial Governor Kibbey seeking clemency or a stay of execution. Neither one responded.
Throughout his trial and the subsequent appeals Leigh had played the tough guy and shown no remorse. Reportedly at several times during the trial he smirked and even laughed when testimony against him was given. He spent the morning of his execution writing letters to family and friends. But when the death warrant was read to him in the corridor of the jail, his bravado vanished.
But it was reported that when the jailer bound him, Leigh fainted and struck his head on the cell. The gash bled profusely. But he was bandaged and led to the scaffold in a nearly unconscious state. He had to be held up as the cap and noose were adjusted.
After years of scathing editorials, public arguments, and frustration with the county’s deplorable jail, on May 15, 1909, the county published an announcement that work on a new, modern jail would begin soon. John Mulligan was awarded the contract for the concrete work on the jail, and that the expected date of completion for the project was September 1910. Mulligan was well know in the community and had been the primary contractor for the Brunswick Hotel and Hotel Beale, both of which still stand along Andy Devine Avenue, Route 66.
In July 1909 an article published about the project noted that Mulligan and a fellow named Pendergast was commencing work on the foundation, and that construction of the jail was to begin within sixty days. Interestingly, the article noted that a covered bridge was to be built between the jail and courthouse.
It is not known if the bridge was built. If so, it was removed when the courthouse was moved to the west as construction on the new courthouse began.
A persistent urabn legend in Kingman is that with completion of the new courthouse, the old building was moved to Front Street, now Andy Devine Avenue, across from the railroad depot, renovated and operated as the Commercial Hotel until the early 1950s. However, apparently this courthouse was demolished.
The legend is rotted in the story of the first courthouse in Kingman, the Taggart House, a hotel and office complex on Beale Street. It was this building that was moved to Front Street, and remodeled as the Commerical Hotel.
By the end of January 1910, the walls of the new jail were complete, and the forms removed. On October 27th of that year the structure was inspected by the county’s special committee. Except for a lack of gratings on the lower windows of the sheriff’s office and main entrance, and the need for a steel door between the main corridor and the sheriff’s office and residence, they approved the project.
The jail and other points of interest on the square, including the courthouse that dates to 1914, are just a few of the dusty gems awaiting discovery with some urban exploration in Kingman, Arizona.