July 19, 2005
DAYTON – Nestled in the back of an historic firehouse are remnants of Dayton’s more desperate past – two cage-like cross-bar jail cells from the 1860s.
The cells were in use in the Dayton Courthouse, which, according to documents at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno, was built in 1864. That same year Dayton’s only recorded lynching took place, when vigilantes removed an accused murderer from the jail and hung him, then returned the body to the cell.
After a 1908 fire destroyed the courthouse, the county seat was moved to Yerington and the jail cells were moved to the firehouse on Pike Street in Old Town Dayton, where they remain today. The firehouse, built in 1875 and a stop on the Overland Stage route, is now open for special events.
Prisoners were held at the Dayton jail usually only for short periods of time, according to Winston “Stony” Tennant, longtime Dayton resident and local historian.
“When prisoners were transferred across the state or nation – of course, transportation was slow in those days and since Dayton was on the main road – it was often used for holding purposes,” he said. “They also held local guys here who were headed to Yerington for trial.”
Prisoners were allowed out for 10 minutes in the room surrounding the cells. Several wrote messages on the walls about their lives.
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Even more mysterious than the inmates who passed through is the origin of the jail itself.
With no manufacturing centers west of the Mississippi at that time, most large-scale items had to be sent away for – and the jail was no different.
It is a prefabricated, heavy-iron jail, sent to the Dayton courthouse and put together most likely by the sheriff or deputies.
Where the jail came from is unknown, though it most likely was ordered from the Pauly Jail Building Co. of St. Louis, which built similar jails all over the country. The historic jail at Silverton, Colo., was a Pauly jail. It looks remarkably like the Dayton jail, so it may have been the same model, though the Dayton jail has no manufacturer’s stamp for verification.
In 1856, company founder P.J. Pauly and his family were blacksmiths in St. Louis, where they built steel cages that could be mounted on flatbed wagons to create portable jail cells, which could then be transported to remote areas across the country. The Pauly Jail Building Co. is still in business, but could not verify whether it manufactured the Dayton jail.
The cells are about 6 by 3 feet with two bunks that fold up to allow for more room. Though there were thin mattresses on the bunks, there was no sink, table or chair. And no toilet.
But there was the thunder mug.
The thunder mug is a cast-iron pot with a cover and handle, about the size of a 6-quart Dutch oven, that prisoners used to relieve themselves. According to Tennant, when an inmate had to go, the jailer brought the thunder mug, then dumped it’s contents after use.
The steel panels make up a do-it-yourself jail. Each panel has a letter painted on it in white – marked by letters A, B, C, D, E so they could be correctly put together, almost like putting together a child’s playhouse.
The floor of the cells are steel, and steel panels are bolted to the doors and wall panels near the locks, so that prisoners couldn’t pick the locks while the jailer’s back was turned, Tennant said.
The last time the Dayton jail was used, according to Tennant, was 1966, during the time when Rocky Adamson was constable.
Another Rocky, Rocky Darrow, was drunk and driving recklessly around a baseball game going on in a nearby field.
“Adamson deputized me and Robin Hancock to convince Rocky Darrow to go home and sleep it off,” Tennant said. “Darrow got to fighting, and Adamson threw him in the Dayton jail.”
He also said it was used as a holding cell by former deputy sheriff Chester Barton, who patrolled Dayton from 1929 to 1966.
The most famous incident that occurred there is the lynching of 1864.
According to the Lyon County Sentinel, also called the Como Sentinel, on Aug. 5, 1864, James Linn, a gambler and bartender, used a Bowie knife to kill John Doyle, the popular owner of Dayton’s Doyle Theater, after an argument outside the theater.
Linn was lodged in the Dayton jail, and after an Aug. 8, 1864, hearing where bail was suggested, whispering began among the spectators. The sheriff made sure to assign a guard to watch the jail that night, to no avail. Early the next morning, a group of residents quietly removed Linn from the jail, hanged him, then returned the body to the cell. The Sentinel article stated that the vigilantes were so quiet, nearby families heard nothing. The death was attributed to “strangulation by a person or persons unknown.”
Later that evening, following rumors in surrounding communities of a wild vigilante mob running amok in Dayton, according to the Sentinel, Territorial Gov. James B. Nye arrived in town with soldiers from Fort Churchill. The town was quiet, with no one on the streets, yet Nye had the soldiers surround the jail holding Linn’s body, this stopped even the commissioners bringing the dead man’s coffin.
n Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at email@example.com or 882-2111 ext. 351.