'Not for the faint of heart'
During the weekend, visitors to the Old Joliet Prison were able to see what life had been like a century ago for its inmates, guards and nurses.
The Night Behind Bars event took groups of visitors on tours of the prison grounds to various stations, where they heard stories about some of the prison’s more infamous inmates, as well as the story of how a warden’s wife was murdered in 1915.
The Joliet Area Historical Museum staff and volunteers partnered with several local actors to bring the characters to life. Some of those actors perform at venues such as the Rialto Square Theatre and Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park.
“We kind of wanted to do something that was a little bit of a departure from the haunted house or the paranormal stuff,” Joliet Area Historical Museum Executive Director Greg Peerbolte said. “And make this more of a historic, researched presentation.”
The actors took the drive for authenticity to heart, with one portraying a prison guard named Officer Di by yelling at the patrons to hurry up, uttering, “Let’s go, maggots!”
The guards guided groups of visitors through a series of historical vignettes for about 90 minutes while night overtook the prison grounds. Patrons got to look inside cells where inmates were kept, even the 7 -foot-by-7-foot-by-4-foot cell used to keep inmates in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
Visitors heard from another re-enacting guard, who warned them about the burglars and arsonists who had been held there.
“Keep your wits about you tonight,” a guard named Officer Clark said.
A re-enactment scene even unfolded at an electric chair, which the guards nicknamed “Old Sparky.” The operator of the chair said watching an execution was “not for the faint of heart.”
Another vignette featured a nurse caring for an inmate who had contracted tuberculosis, a disease which affected inmates a century ago. The tour guide said that in those days, most inmates who contracted the disease inside the prison eventually would die.
Such was the fate of inmate re-enactor George, whom the visitors met when his nurse Maggie arrived to check on him. After she covered his lifeless body, she began to cough just as the inmate did when he became sick.
Along the tour route, other re-enacting inmates, including some who had been described as being locked up for murder, walked freely on the grounds and greeted the tour visitors.
Visitors also bore witness to a re-enactment scene depicting Warden Edmund “Ned” Allen and his wife, Odette Maizee Bordeaux, a talented singer.
In the scene, Allen is being interviewed for his work running the prison and then turns to his wife in a celebratory mood. Tour visitors later are informed of Bourdeaux’s murder after her body was found after a fire was extinguished in the warden’s quarters.
Investigators initially suspected an inmate named “Chicken” Joe Campbell, who was incarcerated for murder but nevertheless entrusted as Bourdeaux’s houseboy, was the culprit.
An investigation would find no evidence to the claim, and her murder remained a mystery.
Wilmington resident Donna Sukle said the experience was worthwhile because she found the event on Facebook and wanted to see what it was about.
“It was great,” she said. “I had always wondered what it was like inside.”
Sukle also she definitely would return for other events at the prison.
For information on the prison and future events, visit JolietPrison.org.