A History of the Calais Jail

Former Calais Police Chief Luther Barnes stands outside the City Building where the Calais lockup once was. The cells were just to his left. Behind him is the city's first police cruiser, prior to which policemen had to walk or take a cab. (Photo courtesy of St. Croix Historical Society)


With all of the controversy surrounding the state’s sudden closure of the prison and the idea put forward of closing the county jail, here is a timely look at how jail used to work in Calais, courtesy of the St. Croix Historical Society.

Calais, in the early 1800s, was a pretty rowdy town if the reports of drinking and brawling – even during town meetings – are any indication of the general behavior of some of the local citizens. This isn’t even taking into account the hundreds of sailors of every nationality who roamed the streets near the wharves in search of entertainment. There must have been “law” of some sort present to detain the serious troublemakers and a place to lock them up until demon rum lost its grip but early town records aren’t very helpful in locating the jail. We believe the answer is on the 1880’s map above which shows a “City Lock Up” on Depot Street, now Hog Alley. This is where the rear entrance to Johnson’s Hardware was located before it burned in 1996. 

It’s very likely this lockup was the first City jail and served this purpose until the City Building on Church Street was constructed in 1903. The lockup held some fairly notorious criminals in its day. The first unfortunate guest we can identify was, according to the Frontier Journal of 1849, an itinerant preacher who is identified only as Wood. The Reverend Wood went in search of converts in Baileyville and found at least one, a young woman from a respectable family who he married. Unfortunately, the Reverend Wood was black and the bride was white. The uproar was furious, and the Sheriff undertook to arrest Wood for violating the Maine miscegenation law and Wood in turn threatened “to shoot anyone who undertook to lay hands upon him”. The couple fled to St. Stephen but were apprehended and illegally extradited to Calais. Wood was put in the lockup. Even the Journal conceded the illegality of the extradition but felt it justified as Wood, who the paper refers to as “Sambo” was, the paper claimed, a notorious villain with several other wives and possessed a “heart blacker than his skin”. This incident sadly reflects the racial attitudes of the time and the yellow journalism which exceeded in crudity and sensationalism even that of the present day. We don’t know what happened to Reverend Wood or his wife.

In 1864 the Calais lockup received its most infamous guest: William Collins, Captain in the Confederate Army and Intelligence Services. On July 18, 1864 Collins and three other rebels attempted to rob the Calais Bank. What is now considered a rather bizarre and insignificant incident during the Civil War was not so at the time. Collins plan was not only to rob the bank to provide funds for more Confederate depredations in the area but also to burn the city. Thirteen additional conspirators were to have arrived early that morning to take advantage of the chaos occasioned by the bank heist. They were to set fires throughout the downtown.  Had the plan been carried out the wooden buildings along Main Street would have burned fiercely and much of the town would have been destroyed.

Thankfully for Calais, Collins, while a brave and desperate character, had a penchant for bragging about his plans. Word was received of the plan in Calais the day before the robbery and the teller and customers in the bank when Collins arrived were all armed law enforcement officers. Collins and his gang were captured and taken to the Calais lockup. The only shot fired was discharged accidentally by an officer who shot himself in the foot. When arrested, Collins had a Confederate flag in his pocket. He intended to raise it over the smoldering remains of the City of Calais. Instead he was sent to State Prison from which he promptly escaped and rejoined the war effort. The second group of raiders apparently got lost or. as likely, got cold feet and never arrived. Collins remarked when arrested that had they not failed him things would have turned out differently, and he’s probably right.

Speaking of JG Beckett, the patriarch of the Calais Beckett family, he had quite a reputation for carousing. According to family legend, he was a notorious boozer who spent many a night with his low friends haunting the Calais bars. On one occasion the police escorted his drinking buddies to the lockup to cool off, and JG, lonely for their company, engineered a successful jailbreak in order to continue the weekend revelries. Escapes from the Calais lockup were common. We are not sure how they managed to hold a desperado like Confederate Captain Collins.  In 1894 the first bicycle theft occurred in the county. The Eastport thief rode his “wheel” all the way to Calais before being apprehended and jailed. He was convicted at a trial in the municipal court but before sentencing he escaped and was never caught. This was a common refrain in those days, the Calais lockup was very insecure and almost any determined miscreant could break out. Our cousins from across the river had great success in shortening their sentence by simply leaving early, often with the connivance of their jailers. Much to the consternation of the municipal law judge, the City had little interest in incurring the expense of feeding a Canadian cousin for 30 days for some venial infraction.

1894, the year of the first bicycle heist, also saw the arrest of the Right Reverend Fuller of the Methodist Church on Main Street, directly across from the bottom of Monroe Street, where Sherwin Williams was located in the 1970s. 

Fuller attempted to convince church officials to abandon church suppers on the grounds that the women of the church spent so much time preparing them, which he felt led them to neglect their other duties. The suppers were cancelled for a time, but some in the church wanted to resume them for their social function. The first night of the newly resumed suppers, Reverend Fuller went down to the vestry, still in protest. Because some church officials felt he was obstructing the suppers, they ordered for his arrest by Marshall Charles Miller. Miller refused to arrest him, and so church officials enlisted Ward Constable Tom McCullough, Sr. He put him in the lock-up on Hog Alley, but Marshall Miller refused to keep him there (even though Reverend Fuller said he wanted to stay). “Now I must say this split the church down the middle and it never was the same in my time,” writes Roy Wilson, a former Calais historian.

The Calais Advertiser was outraged by the treatment of Rev. Fuller, as indicated in this excerpt published February 7, 1894: “There occurred this morning the most dastardly and disgraceful affair that ever happened in our city. We have had murders, kidnappings, riots and drunken brawls, but nothing more disgraceful than this morning transaction. The pastor of the Methodist Church, regularly assigned to this society, was forcibly taken by some trustees and placed in the lockup for conscientiously doing what he believed to be his duty. If this the kind of Christianity the Trustees of the church are imbued with, we should say, the sooner they are dropped from its rolls the better for its interests.”

Not long after the reverend’s release, the Calais lockup had another star inmate, a desperate character by the name of Calvin Graves. His story is too long and oft told to go into much detail but Graves shot two wardens in Wesley when they shot his deer-chasing dog. Graves, the last man to be tried under the hanging law in the State of Maine, was held in the Calais lockup until they took him to Thomaston to serve his sentence of life imprisonment. Graves was subsequently pardoned and released.

We mention one person who, in 1883, should have been an inmate of the lockup but was not because he was an Eaton, one of the wealthy and influential Eaton lumber family. Herbert Eaton shot and killed his friend Samuel Kelley after a drunken argument at the Eaton office building on Main Street in Calais. Eaton also shot his brother Joseph. Eaton was not arrested at the scene and later when murder charges were filed he was given plenty of opportunity to escape to Canada where deals were done and he returned to pay a $1,000 fine. One person did do a stretch in the Calais lockup as a result of the murder: a Passamaquoddy hostler employed by the Eatons was held in the lockup as a material witness.

In 1903, the existing Calais City Building was constructed. The basement served as a police station and there were two cells, one for each sex. Each cell had an iron bunk secured to the floor and a barred basement window that looked out at ground level onto the alleyway between the City Building and the Fire Station. This alley went between Church Street and Sawyer Avenue. One important inmate of the new jail was Clarence Beckett, the Mayor of Calais. Of course, this was before he became Mayor. From his recollections of growing up in Calais: “When Bill Goode and I were seven or eight years old we batted ball in Bill’s side yard and broke a window. Bill’s father was Chief of Police and he told us that if we did it again he would put us in jail. Shortly after that we broke another window. After dinner he took us, one on each side, and marched us down the Main Street to the City jail where he locked us up. He kept us there until supper time. Lesson learned, I always wanted to keep away from jails. The police officers at that time were Martin Goode, Bill McNamara, Steve Greenlaw, Howard Eye, and in Milltown, Steve Woodman and Fred McKnight.”