Northland News

'Inside the Ohio Penitentiary'

Ex-con lends credence to local writers' history

Clintonville, Worthington authors delve into Columbus prison's stories

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Men now play hockey, sometimes brilliantly, on a site where men paid the price, sometimes dearly, for their crimes.

A book by local history writers David Meyers of Clintonville and his daughter, Elise Meyers Walker of Worthington, along with James Dailey II of Kettering, takes readers to a place where most people never wanted to be: Inside the Ohio Penitentiary.

The book was released July 16.

The Ohio General Assembly approved construction of a new state prison along the Scioto River in 1932. In January 1988, despite the best efforts of preservationists, a wrecking ball began to demolish the last remaining buildings to make way for a venue for the new Columbus Blue Jackets National Hockey League franchise and eventually, the surrounding Arena District.

Inside the Ohio Penitentiary, published by the History Press of Charleston, S.C., concentrates on the years in between, as well as the famous, infamous and obscure who spent time behind those walls.

"People aren't going to be familiar with a lot of the stories," Meyers said. "They may have heard of them, but they won't know the full details."

"We find not a lot of people have much familiarity with prison life," Walker said. "There are a lot of misconceptions and a lot of rumors and, especially with true crime, there's a lot of talk about what happens right when people go to prison, but not a lot after they get there.

"We wanted to try to help people who don't have experience understand a little better what prison was like then, and we love the history of Columbus, so any chance to tell it is exciting to us. With the (penitentiary), we're losing a lot of the history of it. A lot of young people don't even know that there was a prison where the arena is now."

"Without revealing too much, I am fascinated by those who redeemed themselves," Dailey wrote in an email. "We all fall short. People make mistakes, though when a man will risk his own life without hesitation to save another human being, I think that their core essence is revealed.

"I believe in the goodness of people. We each have that choice. The book details examples of several men who displayed impressive feats of heroism. The true stories are as exciting and suspenseful as any book about mythological heroes, pirates or monsters. In fact, I find them even more so, as they are true and took place in our cities."

The authors brought vastly different perspectives to the book.

Meyers worked for three decades in the state's correctional system, including a stint at the Ohio Penitentiary, and Walker grew up knowing what her father did for a living.

Dailey did time.

Growing up in Wapakoneta after his parents' split, Dailey said he had some juvenile scrapes with the law, including his attempt to steal beer during a party -- one being held to celebrate his high school graduation and his scholarship to a Florida art school.

"Initially, the police accused my younger brother, since it was his car that was used," Dailey wrote. "I immediately confessed rather than see him take the rap. Due to my previous pattern of poor behavior, the judge was not happy to see me.

"I remember him looking over my college assessment test scores, rubbing his temple and referring to them as 'intimidating.' He then looked at me and said, 'But there are a lot of smart people in prison.' His gavel echoed in the courtroom. I was headed to the Big House."

Since serving his time, Dailey said he's gotten a job with a specialized printing company and begun avidly collecting artifacts from various Ohio prisons. One of those items is a cell door from the Ohio Penitentiary, which Meyers said he was somewhat startled to find in Dailey's kitchen when he and his daughter visited their future co-author's Kettering home.

Walker and Meyers earlier collaborated on a book about historic Ohio prisons, and Dailey contacted them about his collection after reading it.

"Having James along for the ride provided an entirely different perspective than I would have," Meyers said.

"He was fantastic," Walker said. "He brought different experiences from what we were familiar with. He definitely brought more empathy for the prisoners than we would have had ... especially their stories."

Among the tales Meyers said he was pleased they were able to bring out in the book is that of prisoner Charles Justice, who is sometimes erroneously credited with having invented the electric chair and then later being executed in one.

"We call that the Frankenstein myth, where the creator is killed by his creation," Meyers said.

Justice, in fact, helped to improve restraints for an existing electric chair, for which he received a pardon -- only to kill another man and find himself sentenced to electrocution in the very device he'd helped to improve, Meyers said.

Inside the Ohio Penitentiary is 160 pages long and will sell for $19.99, according to the History Press. For more information, visit historypress.net.

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