Jailhouse home

Nelson Smith and the Licking County Governmental Preservation Society are working to restore the residence portion of the Old Licking County Historic Jail to its once-splendorous state.

Imagine being 13 years old and going home every day for the next six years — to jail.

Nelson Smith, chairman of the board of The Energy Cooperative in Newark, called the Licking County Jail home for nearly the entire span of his teenage years, but not because he had committed any crimes. Smith moved into the Licking County Jail when his mother was hired in the early 1960s to be the head cook and jail matron, the person in charge of the female prisoners.

Now Smith has found his way back to the jail, as a trustee for the Licking County Governmental Preservation Society (LCGPS), where he chairs the activities committee. Smith coordinates fundraisers and tours of the jail — which has since been renamed The Old Licking County Historic Jail — to help with its preservation, restoration, and use.

“One of my favorite things about being a part of the LCGPS is having the opportunity to give some amazing tours and relay the history of the jail and a few of my many stories from living here,” Smith says.

The jail has quite a history, in fact — one that’s left it with a reputation for being haunted.

Haunting origins

When it was built in the late 1880s, the Licking County Jail was considered to be the finest jail in Ohio, according to LCGPS’s biography of the institution. Designed by architect Joseph Warren “J.W.” Yost, the original budget was $68,685, though the final cost was nearly double that by the time it opened.

The jail was set up in a way that is unheard of today. The three floors in the front were residential. There were offices, a foyer, a living room, a dining room, and a family kitchen on the first floor and bedrooms for the sheriff’s family on the second floor; the third floor was designated for the matron, so that was where Smith lived with his family.

But four sheriffs, including three consecutive, had fatal heart attacks in the same bedroom, ending the building’s days as a residence in 1971. All the residence rooms were converted into staff offices.

The back four floors of the jail housed inmates. One floor held women, and the other three floors were for men, with a “drunk tank” in the basement.

The jail had 34 cells, with two bunks per cell, allowing for 68 inmates. The walls of these cells saw some dangerous and famous prisoners — some of whom contribute to the ghostly tales told during jail tours to this day.

The Lewingdon brothers, better known as the “.22-caliber killers,” murdered 10 people across three counties in central Ohio and were inmates before being sent to state prison.

Then, of course, there was Carl Etherington.

Etherington, a detective with the Anti-Saloon League of Ohio, came to Newark to raid saloons for serving illegal alcohol in 1910. Etherington shot a local saloon owner, in self-defense, and was taken to the Licking County Jail. A mob stormed the jail, forcibly removed Etherington, and hanged him from a telephone pole in the Newark town square.

The future of the historic jail

The Licking County Jail operated for 99 years, until it became overcrowded and closed its doors in 1987, and a new jail was built a couple of blocks away.

Though the historic jail may be dark and scary — and possibly haunted — its future is bright. The restoration and preservation of the jail is on the upswing, as LCGPS works to restore the building to the condition Smith experienced during his time there.

The Old Licking County Historic Jail has also been featured on the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, and it frequently has paranormal investigators performing ghost hunts to track down the spirits that are said to haunt the jail to this day.

LCGPS hosts fundraisers throughout the year, including flashlight tours, ghost hunts, and the “Jail of Terror,” a haunted house during the Halloween season (see sidebar). LCGPS also raises money through a 5K road race, the Oktoberfest-style Jailhouse Rock Beer Fest, and an annual Carl Etherington memorial fundraiser.

Annual haunting

Ghosts have long been said to roam the halls of the former Licking County Jail in downtown Newark.

Now, thanks to the Licking County Governmental Preservation Society (LCGPS), those spirits are brought back to life every Friday and Saturday from the last Friday of September through the end of October as the old building transforms into the “Jail of Terror.”

The LCGPS, which has overseen the old jail building since it closed its doors in 1987 and is tasked with its restoration and historical promotion, came up with the idea in 2015 to convert the jail into a haunted house during the Halloween season.

Working with haunted house entertainment company Factory of Terror, out of Canton, the society spends two months setting up to create one of the scariest settings around. Actors portraying prisoners, gh ouls, and ghosts from the jail’s creepy past create a gory experience that people of all ages can enjoy (though parental discretion is advised for younger folks).

The haunt begins in the sheriff’s living quarters, continues down to the cellblock levels — which are full of rioting inmates — then finishes with one last scare in the jail yard.

Doors open at 7 p.m., and tours last through midnight. Regular tickets cost $17, though fast pass tickets that allow patrons to jump to the head of the line are available for $25. The walk through the jail lasts about 20 minutes, and lines form that can create about a two-hour wait, so patrons are advised to arrive early.

Proceeds from the haunt are set aside to restore areas such as the foyer and the sheriff’s office to their original state.
— Isaac Miller