I Grew Up in a Jailhouse
Mary Knox Wells spent her childhood living among the prisoners of Waldo County.
- By: Victoria Doudera
Earth shoes. Sea monkeys. Streaking.
For those of us who came of age in the seventies, the “Me Decade” meant pampering pet rocks, dancing to the Bee Gees, and learning to macramé. For Mary Knox Wells, growing up in a time of polyester clothes and platform shoes had an even more mind-blowing dimension: her home was the Waldo County Jail in Belfast.
Mary was not a juvenile delinquent, not by any stretch of the imagination. She was a well-behaved girl who did well in school and secretly longed to have her own horse. When she was ten, her father retired from the Maine State Police and ran for sheriff of Waldo County. “I knew that if he won, we’d have to leave our new house in Unity and move to Belfast,” she recalls. So, in typical ten-year-old fashion, Mary made signs suggesting voters choose another name on the ballot. Despite her efforts to sway the electorate, Stanley Knox carried the day. In 1970 he was sworn in as sheriff and the family headed east to Belfast.
Back then it wasn’t unusual for Maine county sheriffs and their families to live where they worked. In fact, until the late 1980s, it was a requirement of the jail-keeper’s job. What made the Waldo County Jail’s new inhabitants different from the other counties’ was the presence of school-aged children — Mary, and her brother, Steven, then thirteen. (Another brother, Farley, was already off at college.) “At the time, we were the only family with kids living in a jailhouse [in Maine], and I think we were the last one to do so,” she says.
Mary’s first impression of her new home had little to do with the circa 1887 jail, constructed with brick over granite blocks in Greek Revival fortress style. She barely noticed the white clapboard jail-keeper’s house, attached to the jail, or its stained glass windows looking out onto leafy Congress Street. “All I could see was the huge post-and-beam barn in the backyard,” she remembers. When her father pointed out the stables and whispered that maybe she’d get that horse after all, Mary grabbed her Mrs. Beasley doll from the family Volkswagen and marched in, determined to give jailhouse living a try.
It soon became apparent that the family’s day-to-day routine would by necessity mesh with the lockup’s. Not only was the eight-celled structure attached to the house, but important aspects of the jail’s workings spilled over into the house’s main floor. A tall, curved, iron gate resembling a giant catcher’s mask led from the dining room into the cells, but the booking room, visiting room, and offices for the deputies were all located in the Knox’s house itself.
Mary’s mother claimed the only kitchen as her own. “She didn’t want a stranger coming in to cook in ‘her’ space, so she took on the job of making the prisoners’ meals.” Except for Saturday breakfasts, when her father would flip pancakes for the family and up to sixteen prisoners, Mary’s mother fixed the inmates three home-cooked meals a day, seven days a week, without time off for good behavior.
Naturally her daughter helped when she could. “We all pitched in.” Mary says. “Trays would be lined up on the tables and I would load them with plates of spaghetti, roast pork, American chop suey — the same food I’d be eating later.” Mary helped her mother carry the trays from the kitchen through a door to the visiting room. “I pushed a button on the wall, a loud buzz would sound, and a small slot in the brick wall would open for us to slide the trays through.”
Mary’s mother, Mary Blake Knox, was a good, old-fashioned cook, and most of the prisoners appreciated her culinary talents. “I remember one guy telling her that he’d been locked up in every jail in the state, and, by far, she was the best cook.” The ever-present deputies also benefited from her considerable skills as a baker. “They all knew that if they wandered into the kitchen, Mom would have some kind of treat waiting.”
The physical layout of the building meant close quarters and very little privacy. The downstairs bathroom, located off the family’s tin-ceilinged dining room, was used by all the deputies, as well as some prisoners. Mary still wrinkles her nose at the memory of a Thanksgiving dinner ruined by a sick drunk in that bathroom. She also remembers — with a little shiver — the time a murderer was strip-searched in the family’s living room. “He’d been arrested for suffocating a woman with a pillow,” she says. “I went into the room after the deputy had taken him to the jail and found down feathers floating to the floor.”
Despite these incidents, Mary rarely felt frightened, even after two fires (one of which she slept right through), and a few breakouts. “Dad always said, ‘If anybody escapes, they’re getting the heck out of here,’ ” she says today. “I believed him.”
Still, life at the jail had its unusual aspects. There was the confiscated marijuana plant, kept on hand for educational purposes, that adorned one of the deputy’s desks. Mary watered it — but did not inhale. There was the jail’s basement, which also served as the evidence room, a place where unclaimed goods were stored for years. “I used to look at all the antique dishes, tools, and clothes, and imagine the stories behind them,” she remembers. “There was a ten-speed bike that had been there for at least five years. That eventually became the bike I rode.”
Her dream of riding something else — her very own horse — came true when she was twelve. Taffy, a beautiful palomino, lived in the big barn behind the jail, and trotted around the prisoners’ exercise yard when the inmates were indoors. Often Mary saddled Taffy up and headed out to Miller Street, where she could see Belfast’s downtown, harbor, and the Maplewood Poultry Plant. “Sometimes I got spooked when I had to feed Taffy at night,” she remembers. “But that had nothing to do with the jail. Just the dark.”
With the addition of Taffy, Mary’s curious home life seemed complete. “My friends and classmates loved hanging out at the jailhouse,” she says. “We’d walk home from school to find a plate of chocolate chip cookies or whoopie pies waiting. In some ways, it was an ideal childhood. My Mom was always there. I had a horse and a big barn for parties.” Birthday celebrations for the family, friends, and deputies were memorable
occasions. One birthday Mary recalls quite clearly involved one of the jail’s most
frequent inmates, a man called “Frenchi.”
“Frenchi was a harmless guy with a chronic drinking problem who’d never finished school,” says Mary. “He had trustee status and used to be released during the day to go mow lawns or shovel snow.” Because of his habitual arrests, the Waldo County Jail served as Frenchi’s home away from home. “One year, my mother made him a cake on his birthday,” recalls Mary, “and he broke down and sobbed. Frenchi was forty-two years old. No one had ever made him a cake before.”
Throughout her teen years, Mary continued to experience the raw, unvarnished side of small-town life. “I was fourteen or fifteen when Dad asked if I would visit with a runaway girl in the jail. I remember sitting and talking with her in our kitchen. I could see she was cutting herself, and my heart went out to her.” On Mary’s eighteenth birthday, she was deputized so she could assist with the female prisoners as a matron. “I taught one inmate to crochet granny squares,” she recalls. Being a deputy also meant she served summonses. “I remember one guy in Swanville who was so happy to see me pull into his driveway,” she says. “I got out of the car and he had a huge smile on his face — until I pulled out the papers and handed them out. Then he started cursing.”
Mary claims she heard every word in the book while growing up. “I saw nudity — including a man who streaked through town and was brought to the jail wrapped in a blanket. I had such reality right in my face. I didn’t feel it was strange, but I knew it was different.” Mary’s exciting home life was the envy of her friends. “I certainly had some interesting stories to tell at sleepovers,” she says.
And yet Mary also saw some heartbreaking human drama. She remembers a local minister jailed for embezzlement. A classmate locked up for drunk driving. “These were people who made bad decisions,” she says. “They weren’t the scum of the earth.” Growing up in the jailhouse gave Mary an insight into human nature that she might not have received in a more traditional home. “I saw how quickly things could change for people, and the hardships they endured.” Now a teacher living with her husband and two daughters in Rockport, she admits that her jailhouse experiences continue to influence the way she approaches life. “I try hard not to be judgmental because I realize that everyone’s got their own story.”
But none like Mary Knox Wells.
- By: Victoria Doudera