This is common question asked by visitors to Carthage.
Police officers and dispatchers quickly learn that to answer that question, they must ask one of their own; “Are you looking for the jail where Joseph Smith died?” If the answer is yes, the visitor must be kindly told that the old jail where the founder of the Mormon Church was martyred in 1844 is in Carthage, Ill., some 360 miles northeast of here.
But don’t we have an “old jail” here in Carthage, Mo.? Yes and no. There have been, in fact, several locations for jails in Carthage.
The first was the Jasper County jail, in the 1854 red brick courthouse on the Carthage Square. Shortly after this, the county built a separate jail at the southwest corner of Fourth and Lincoln streets, just off the square.
Fighting during the Civil War left one wall of the jail standing, but after the war it was rebuilt, and served for many years. Over the course of the next century, Jasper County would have four different jail buildings, all in this block.
Carthage would not have its own jail until after 1873, when the city was chartered and a marshal was elected. Records are scarce on law enforcement in the early days of the city, although they imply that the first jail was a brick structure on the south side of Second Street, just west of Grant.
It was from here that the first city marshal, W.W. Thornburg, performed his duties.
In 1884, the first City Hall was built. Constructed next to the jail, at the southwest corner of Second and Grant streets, it was a modern building with water and gas service (no electricity yet, however – it would be a few years before electrical power would come to Carthage).
The offices of the city clerk and recorder, and the recorder’s courtroom were on the second floor. The fire department and city jail, with its five 6-foot-by-8-foot cells and a 7-foot-by-14-foot iron cage, were on the first floor. The city government would operate out of this building for ten short years. The old jail became a storage building for fire equipment.
In 1895, the Jasper County Courthouse was completed, and as part of an agreement for assisting the county with financing the project, the offices of the city of Carthage moved into four large rooms on the second floor.
The city hall building then became home to the Carthage Fire Department, which had grown considerably This building is now the Carthage Civil War Museum.
The city jail returned to its former building at the rear of the “old” City Hall, on Second Street.
Records are unclear on this, but it appears that the police department functioned out of this building for many years. As age took its toll and the building was no longer suitable for jail use, inmates were eventually housed at the county jail, with the police department furnishing personnel to act as jailers.
It was in this capacity that Carthage Police Officer E. O. Bray was shot and killed on Dec. 14, 1930, during an escape from the jail by a county inmate.