If these walls could talk

By Archives Specialist Vishi Garig A Service of Clerk of Court and Comptroller Tara S. Green
Posted 10/27/21

Nestled in the heart of Green Cove Springs lies the Historic Triangle. The Triangle, bordered by State Road 16, Gratio Place and Walnut Street, is home to the 1894 Old Jail and the 1890 Historic …

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If these walls could talk

Posted

Nestled in the heart of Green Cove Springs lies the Historic Triangle. The Triangle, bordered by State Road 16, Gratio Place and Walnut Street, is home to the 1894 Old Jail and the 1890 Historic Courthouse. Over the years, both buildings held a wide variety of prisoners. The cellblock housed their bodies, but the courthouse is where their fate was decided. Some say the spirits of those who crossed the thresholds of these buildings still linger inside the walls of the jail and courthouse.
Some inmates were simply drunk on Sunday, but others killed their family members. Some were common thieves. Others went to jail for teaching black and white students together. You name it.
All the cases below are found in the court records held at the Clay County Archives. Let us examine a few cases, shall we?

Orange Park Normal School
The fall of 1896 was marred by the arrest of teachers at the Orange Park Normal School for teaching white and black students together. Segregation was the law of the land and the Normal School, which started out as a school for just black children, was so good that white parents sent their children there, too. William Sheats, the state’s superintendent of education, was a rabid racist. He caused charges to be filed. Clay County’s Sheriff Weeks reluctantly had to arrest the teachers and haul them to jail. Defense attorneys filed a motion to quash the indictment because the law was unconstitutionally void for vagueness (violated the Sixth Amendment right to know the charges and evidence against you). Judge Rhydon Call was a progressive man who was ahead of his time when it came to segregation cases. He granted the motion to quash and the charges were dropped.

W.N. Smith
After breaking his stepdaughter’s neck, Smith dumped her in Bull Creek. He then went to his church (he was a preacher) where “he fought like a demon” against the law officers who came to arrest him. He was convicted in October 1907 of first-degree murder and got the death penalty. He was executed Feb. 28, 1908, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. There is a photo of Smith standing on the scaffold at the Clay County Archives. It is the only photo we have of any of the seven executions that took place at the 1894 Old Jail.

Escapes
In 1963, two bad hombres cut a hole in the cell bars, slid out, beat Jailer Cercy viciously over the head and escaped. They were captured shortly after and for their trouble got a year tacked onto their sentences for escape. The breakout highlighted the need for a new jail, which was accomplished by 1972.

John Urspruch
It was March of 1945 when an AWOL Camp Blanding soldier stole his Army-issued M1 rifle and crept up to the local lover’s lane in Orange Park. He planned on stealing a car and heading back home to Hoboken, New Jersey. Urspruch, 23, came across Nathan Ledbetter, 66, and his lady friend Clara Jones, 67, as they sat in Ledbetter’s car. Shots rang out. Ledbetter was shot in the face and Jones in the chest. Urspruch then “lost his nerve”, as he later confessed, turning himself in. Testifying at his own trial, he tried to claim self-defense. The jury didn’t buy it. He got a life sentence after the jury recommended mercy. In 1951, as a prisoner, Ledbetter was a witness to a grand jury probe into beatings at his prison camp. Then, somehow, he got out of prison and later died in Polk County, Florida, in 2007.

Juveniles
Imagine this sad state of affairs. It is 1930 and E.C., a 9-year-old, was found to be “feeble minded and epileptic”. He had hallucinations about “cutting off the other children’s heads”. He was shipped off to the Florida Farm Colony for Epileptics in Gainesville. E.L., 13 and only in the fourth grade, was adjudged delinquent and a “common petit thief”. She was sent to the Florida Industrial School for Girls for seven years. J.G., at 14 years of age and pregnant, was charged with manslaughter. After a short trial, she was found not guilty.

The Mentally Ill
The mentally ill were held at the jail in the early 20th Century as Clay County did not have a hospital to address their treatment needs at that time. M.L. was found to be incompetent. Her delusion was that she was “conjured” and had “worms in her head.” S.B., 70 years old, told the court “I am bewitched, I own all the land, evil surrounds me” and raved about shooting anyone who comes near her. J.D. was found to be a “criminal sexual psychopath” and sent to Chattahoochee.

Odd Crimes
John Berry was arrested for “fishing with a sieve in the river, a freshwater stream”. For his trouble, he could choose between a $10 fine and 35 days of hard labor. Berry Woodhouse “beat way onto a train”- that means he didn’t pay for a ticket. He got 35 days in jail. D.R. Jones, E.L. Lebaron and ten others were arrested for “using firearms on Sunday for hunting grouse.”
They all could pay a $4 fine or serve 10 days in jail. Three men, Will G., James M. and Thomas A., were all arrested for fornication - they could do sixty days or pay a $25 fine. In 1930, Willie Boree was arrested for “unlawful burning woods of another.”
In the mid 2000s the Old Jail was given a face-lift and the Clay County Archives moved in.
The Historical Archives program is a service of the Clerk of Court and Comptroller, Tara S. Green. Housed inside the walls are the county’s oldest official records and documents.
The Archivist, Vishi Garig, is there to help you with your family history or other historical research questions. In addition, you can tour the cellblock, the Archives and the 1890 Historic Courthouse.
Today, the cellblock stands empty but if you listen carefully enough, it is said, you can hear the whispers of prisoners past. The stately courtroom is filled with life on Wednesdays and Thursdays when Teen Court is in session. Come meet the friendly Archivist – and maybe the ghosts of prisoners, too?
The information filed against the teachers. All the documents related to the case can be found at the Clay County Archives Center in Green Cove Springs.

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