The History of Joliet – Chapter 17

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“The ground at the new prison site was filled with limestone, which meant convicts couldn’t tunnel out. That limestone also could be used to build the prison walls and buildings.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In his inaugural speech during January 1853, Gov. Joel MATTESON of Joliet spoke of the need for a new state penitentiary in the northern part of Illinois.

With an ever-increasing crime rate and the population quickly expanding, a place to house criminals was needed, the new governor said. All that existed at the time was a small prison at Alton, which wasn’t equipped to handle maximum security. It was expensive to transport the prisoners to this downstate prison.

But by the time the Legislature approved a new prison, MATTESON‘s term as governor was completed. In 1857, the state appointed a commission to determine a location. With MATTESON‘s influence, Nelson ELWOOD of Joliet was appointed to the commission.

ELWOOD convinced the commission members to visit Joliet that spring. The commission was impressed with a site then two miles north of the city. The ground there was filled with limestone, which meant convicts couldn’t tunnel out. That limestone also could be used to build the prison walls and buildings.

The state bought 72 acres along Collins Street for $100 an acre. Construction started in the late summer of 1857. The Chicago firm of BOYINGTON and WHEELOCK designed a 15-acre spot enclosed by walls 5 feet thick at the bottom, 2 feet thick at the top, and 25 feet high, with a series of guard towers.

Inside these walls were 1,100 cells, with 100 for solitary confinement and 100 for women. There were two wings of cells on each side of the warden’s quarters.

In 1858, about 160 convicts from Alton were brought to Joliet to supply the labor force. As cells were completed, the rest of the Alton convicts arrived the following year.

By the time the Civil War started in 1861, 800 convicts were serving time in Joliet. But the actual work of both wings of cells wasn’t completed until 1867.

From its very beginning, the prison created controversy. There were frequent escapes from the convict labor force. Partisan politics controlled the jobs. There were numerous charges about corruption and graft in financial operations.

After the Civil War, there was a competition for work between the prison chain gangs and returning soldiers. Businessmen could rent prison convicts for work.

The convict laborers were working in stone quarries, on farms and in some mills. The prisoners were making wagons, harness, clothing, boots, shoes, furniture and a variety of other things.

In one 17-month period of 1867-68, the state collected some $334,000 from the sale of items manufactured at the prison. The prison was supporting itself. With a population of 1,400 convicts, it also was spending a lot of money with farmers and city merchants in buying food.

But the prison was tough and able to break the spirits of bad guys like Frank RANDE. He was a gunfighter and deadly shot who had killed a dozen men by the time he arrived in Joliet to serve a life sentence during the 1870s.

Only 5-foot-6 and weighing 140 pounds, the little convict quickly established himself as one of the meanest men in prison. He caused so much trouble in the prison that he frequently made headlines in the newspapers. RANDE hated everyone and everything, especially those high walls that kept him from escaping.

During his last fight, he blamed a guard for his last confinement in a solitary cell. He knocked down the guard with a heavy poker in the prison harness shop. Another convict pulled him off, or he would have killed the guard. He was a furious demon, a newspaper article described.

Two more guards joined the struggle. RANDE grabbed a knife, and a guard clubbed him. He continued to fight, and a guard shot him, with the bullet glancing off his head. A third guard hit him with a cane, then shot RANDE with another glancing bullet.

But RANDE wasn’t seriously hurt as they carried him off to one of those solitary cells. There was an eternal silence in solitary. No guard ever spoke there, no footstep made the slightest echo, no candle ever gave a gleam of light.

For that last fight, RANDE was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in solitary. But after a week of silence, he hanged himself with his shirt tied to the cell door.

The headline in the Joliet Daily News simply said: “Kicks the Bucket.” The story under it said the people of Joliet could now congratulate themselves over the end of the murderous career of the wretch.

Like RANDE, many tough convicts spent the rest of their life inside Joliet’s limestone walls and were then buried in the prison cemetery called Monkey Hill.

Published July 21, 2001