As the Old Colony in Massachusetts was settled, shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the county form of government began with the establishment of Plymouth County. Most of Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod were under the control of Plymouth County Government.


By 1685, the area was considered too large for one county government to control as the distances were too great for all the citizens to conduct business in the shire town of Plymouth. The original Plymouth County Government was split into three separate counties, Bristol, Barnstable, and Plymouth. The shire town of Bristol County was the Town of Bristol, currently in Rhode Island, but at that time was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There was considerable county business taking place in the Town of Taunton with many local inhabitants having to travel to the Town of Bristol by way of Tremont Street, which at the time was called Bristol Path.


In 1746, the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations exchanged territory in an effort to satisfy boundary lines.
In this exchange, the Rhode Island Colony relinquished the area now known as Fall River and the Massachusetts Bay Colony relinquished the Town of Bristol. With the loss of the Town of Bristol, Taunton became the shire town for Bristol County. The shire town became the home for County Government and also served as the site for the County Court Houses and ‘Gaol’ (pronounced Jail) as the lock-up was called.


In December 1746, the local ‘Court of General Sessions of Peace’ met to determine the course of action to secure a proper courthouse and jail. The orders recorded on that day were: Ordered by the Court that the school house in Taunton shall be for the present impressed for a ‘Gaol’ and that Samuel Leonard, John Godfrey and Samuel White, Esqrs, be a committee set up to see that the said school house be made as secure as may be fore the safe custody of all persons that may be committed thereto with the utmost dispatch and that Sean Williams 2nd shall take care to secure the two prisoners now in custody and all others that shall be committed in the meantime.


Ordered by the Court that Seth Williams George Leonard, Samuel Leonard, John Godfrey, and Samuel White, Esqrs, be a committee to look out for a suitable place for a standing of a “gaol” and County House in the Town of Taunton and know what the land for erecting said houses or may be purchased for and make a report of their doings thereon at the adjournment of this Court.

A month later, the committee was ready to make its report. For a new courthouse, the committee chose to site the building on the north part of the old Taunton Training Field that once extended from the present Taunton Green along Main Street as far easterly as Longmeadow Road. The chose courthouse site is now the front lawn of the present Bristol County Courthouse.


As for the ‘Gaol’, the committee recommended a site owned at the time by Samuel White and Simeon Tisdale near ‘the spring’ on the road that leads by Tisdale’s home to the home of Robert Crossman. Robert Crossman’s home still stands on Cohannet Street across from the Old Colony Y.M.C.A.

The following is a partial report of the committee that was formed to build a new ‘Gaol’:

“The Gaol to be thirty foot long and fourteen foot wide, two storys high and fourteen foot stud, to be studded with sawed stuff of six inches thick to be framed close together with a chimney in the middle suitable for a gaol. The house of the prison keeper to be seventeen foot wide and twenty three foot long, two story high besides the entry between the Gaol and dwelling house and to be fourteen foot stud with a suitable chimney and cellar.

By 1749, the County ‘Gaol’ had not yet been finished and the County of Bristol raised eleven hundred pounds to secure its completion. The ‘Gaol’ was to be called from this point on “His Majesty’s Jail” however a few years later County Officers referred to the facility as the House of Correction for the County of Bristol. This building stood opposite the south west corner of Taunton Green. The Taunton ‘Gaol’ was visited on June 8, 1762 by a notable lawyer from Boston named John Adams. John Adams, who later became our country’s second President, wrote in his diary about his visit to Taunton. John Adams recalled his impression of the first justice of the local court, the Honorable George Leonard. Adams thought Judge Leonard was too arbitrary as the judge committed two 80 year old gentlemen to the custody of the court officer after the two old gents spoke to loud in his court room. After the ‘Boston Massacre’, John Adams would later rise in defense of the British Soldiers and argue their case against the prosecutor Robert Treat Paine, a prominent Taunton attorney who was an original signer of the Declaration of Independence. The wooden building was used to secure prisoners until 1785. After numerous escapes the County of Bristol authorized a tax to raise 1,500 pounds to erect a more secure lock-up on the same site. The new ‘Gaol’ was built of wood and painted red and cost 617 pounds to complete.


As the 19th Century began and the Taunton Community continued to grow it became apparent that the old wooden jail was obsolete. Bristol County Officials began actively seeking an appropriate site for a new stone jail. A site was secured for a new stone jail on January 30, 1818 at the corner of ‘Mill Street’ and ‘Old Broadway’. The present Court Street was originally called Mill Street and the present day Washington Street was once called Broadway.


Dighton’s ‘Big Gilbert’ Briggs was in charge of the stone work with much of the carpentry work performed by Abiezer Dean 2nd. The stone of this project was secured from quarries in Fall River. Abiezer Dean, the carpenter was sure to do a good job as his father became the first jail manager to serve in his new jail. The elder Dean served for seven years in this facility and was succeeded by his son, the carpenter, Abeizer Dean who in turn was followed by his brother Joseph Dean.


Many of the communities in the southern part of the County of Bristol would often complain that the distances were too great to travel to the County Seat of Taunton when transacting County business. This problem led to repeated attempts to create a ‘half-shire’ status for community in the southern part of the district. New Bedford and Fall River competed for that designation as a ‘half-shire’ town with both communities boasting about the great amounts of ruffians and criminals that reside at each place.


New Bedford won that competition and the Massachusetts State Senate passed a bill on February 29, 1828 to designate that community as ‘half-shire’ town which allowed the construction of a jail and courthouse to serve the southern district of the county. The Massachusetts Legislature confirmed the bill on March 13 of that same year. In June of 1828, the County Commissioners purchased an acre and a half tract of land belonging to the estate of Abraham Russell.


The original New Bedford Jail was opened on Monday, October 5, 1829 with William Reed as the first jail keeper. The County Commissioners appropriated $13,236.30 for its construction. This facility was located on Court Street and is no longer used as a jail. This structure is currently used for Civil Processing. The building had been previously used as the home of the Sheriff and his family.


The County Commissioners soon recognized the need for additional facilities and authorized the construction of the New Bedford House of Correction Building on the east side of the original jail lot between Court and Union Streets.
The old Bristol County Jail on Court Street in Taunton was quickly becoming obsolete which led to the acquisition of new site on land belonging to the estate of William Hodges on the east side of the present Hodges Avenue. The new Hodges Avenue Jail was completed in 1873 at a cost of $160,000. This facility would get local acclaim as the temporary home for an accused axe murderer from Fall River named Lizzie Borden. The Fall River socialite was detained at the Taunton Jail for ten months while awaiting trial for the murder of her father, Andrew Borden in August of 1892.


The Hodges Avenue Jail in Taunton had served the citizens of Bristol County until 1923 when it closed its’ doors for the final time as a place to house prisoners. The building remained vacant for ten years until the David F. Adams Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars rented the building for their meetings. The Veterans group used the building for many years. They finally purchased the building for $2,500 following the Second World War. It was dedicated as a permanent memorial to U.S. Veterans.
The County Commissioners recognized that the old Jail on Court Street in New Bedford had long outlived its usefulness by the mid 1880’s and began plans to replace the old stone jail. This effort led to the construction of the new 287 cell Ash Street Facility in 1888 at a cost of $80,000.


Over 85 years ago, county officials began construction on a large stone jail on Bay Street in Fall River however; the introduction of the Probation Program made the new facility obsolete. The County Jail in Fall River never opened and was sold to the City of Fall River in 1915 for $165,000 for use as Home for the Poor. Once the Taunton facility closed, the Ash Street Facility became the primary center for housing prisoners within Bristol County for much of the Twentieth Century. In 1985, the County Commissioners acquired the old St. Mary’s Home on Kempton Street in New Bedford and transformed that facility into the Eastern Massachusetts Correctional Addiction Center. The name of this center was changed in 1997 to honor retired Sheriff David R. Nelson.


A large parcel of land was acquired by the County Commissioners in the late 1980’s for a massive new correctional facility in Dartmouth, along Faunce Corner Road. The current Pre-Release Facility was opened in the spring of 1990 and the Dartmouth House of Correction opened in the fall of that year. The Dartmouth Campus was improved in 1998 with the opening of the Modular Units.


The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office has evolved into one of the premier law enforcement and correctional institutions in the country. There have been 24 men that have held the post of Sheriff of Bristol County. Currently, Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson holds the respected position.


The Office of Sheriff has evolved into a major law enforcement resource that is valued by every city and town in the country.

 
History Prepared by Charles Crowley
 
 

For website related questions or comments, email the Webmaster: jeremycorriveau@bcso-ma.org
Bristol County Sheriff's Office Address: 400 Faunce Corner Road, Dartmouth, MA 02747 Phone: 508.995.6400 Web: www.bcso-ma.us