Many people living in central Ohio are well aware that until recently, Columbus was the home of the Ohio Penitentiary.

Many people living in central Ohio are well aware that until recently, Columbus was the home of the Ohio Penitentiary.

The great stone building at the corner of Spring Street and Neil Avenue was only the front of a 22-acre group of buildings that was surrounded by a high stone wall. That prison was removed and the site is now part of the area known as the Arena District because of its proximity to Nationwide Arena.

The Ohio Penitentiary had been at the Spring Street location for a long time. Built in 1832, the "pen" had been a Columbus landmark for more than 150 years before it was finally closed for the last time. But it was not the first prison in Columbus.

The first Ohio Penitentiary was the first public building to be constructed in the capital city. And there was a reason why that was the case.

Columbus is a created city. There was no city on the "High Banks opposite Franklinton at the Forks of the Scioto" until the Ohio General Assembly brought it into being in 1812. Joel Wright, a surveyor from Springboro, Ohio, was chosen to be the director of the new capital city and was charged with laying out its streets and constructing its public buildings. He began to do that as the United States went to war with Great Britain.

The legislature was trying to build a capital city in the most frugal way possible. The four men calling themselves the Proprietors of Columbus had offered the state 10 acres for a Statehouse and 10 acres for a penitentiary. They also had offered the large sum of $50,000 to build buildings.

With a war on its way, the legislature wanted to build the new city as economically as possible. One way to do that was to use prison labor. And if one were using prisoners as workers, one needed a place to keep them. One needed a prison.

People like Joel Wright favored the idea of a prison. A devout Quaker, Wright had seen the success of eastern prisons and thought Ohio should build one as well.

For most of the previous several hundred years, prisons were places where people were kept before trial or where they were sent to die in squalor and obscurity. Beginning in the 1780s, states such as Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland began to experiment with new forms of incarceration. Called "penitentiaries," the new institutions were designed to reform as well as punish and were places where the prisoners would work at crafts and trades to pay for their support.

This sort of approach was considered to be a humane alternative to the previous system, which had included whipping, branding and execution for a variety of offenses.

A site was selected at the corner of what is now East Main Street and Civic Center Drive and in the fall of 1812, the site was cleared and building materials gathered. The prison itself was completed in 1813 and was fully operational by 1815. According to later local history, the prison was a brick building "sixty by thirty feet on the ground, and three stories high, including the basement, which was about half above and half below the ground …The prison yard was about one hundred feet square … and was enclosed by a stone wall form fifteen to eighteen feet high."

This small prison lasted until 1818, when a larger building was built on the same site. The new prison building was 34 feet by 150 feet and held 59 cells. The yard was increased in size to 160 feet by 400 feet and was surrounded by a 20-foot wall that was three feet thick at its base. The yard descended by terraces to the foot of the hill on the side of which it had been built.

Other than helping build the Statehouse and the expanded prison, the prisoners also occupied themselves with a number of other trades and crafts.

According to an early account, "During the whole term of business at the old Penitentiary, a store of manufactured articles was kept connected with the institution, and a general system of bartering was the policy adopted. Blacksmithing, wagon-making, coopering, shoemaking, gunsmithing, cabinetmaking, tailoring and weaving were carried on in the prison, and the work and wares of the prison were exchanged for provisions and raw materials … or sold for cash as cases might offer."

But for all of this work and activity, the early penitentiary was not very successful.

It was not hard to see why.

Prisoners had a nasty habit of disturbing the public order with some regularity. Fond of playing ball within the prison yard, the prisoners trained at least one dog to bring the ball back when it sailed over the prison wall. More disconcerting was the occasion when a escaped "drunken convict, while roaming the streets, met Gov. Lucas and implored his pardon, much to the governor's disgust."

The most spectacular exploit of the early prison took place in 1830 when a convict named Smith Maythe held a guard at bay while a dozen other prisoners escaped. "Pursued by guards, the fugitives betook themselves to the mound on South High Street (at Mound and High), whence they retreated to Stewart's Woods (Schiller Park) where they were retaken."

It was this incident, the imminent arrival of the National Road and the Ohio Canal, and the fact that the prison was losing money in spite of its many businesses that convinced the legislature to move out of downtown to a more rural location where a new prison was built in 1832.

The old prison's limestone walls were town down and either reused or burned for the lime they contained. The bricks from the prison buildings were made from clay taken from the 40-foot mound on High Street and were reused in the new Ohio Statehouse being constructed on Statehouse Square.

The new prison proved to be considerably more secure and significantly more profitable than its predecessors. After a number of legal wrangles over the ownership of the site of the first prison, the state constructed an arsenal there shortly before the American Civil War. It is now the Cultural Arts Center of the city of Columbus.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.

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