A Unique Jail
Gilbert B. Avery, architect of the 1839 Courthouse next door, also designed the 1870 Berrien County Jail and Sheriff's Residence. The brick jail appeared from the outside as a conventional square structure with a ventilator atop a glass skylight.
Inside, Avery arranged the cells in a circular pattern. Twenty-four triangular cells - sixteen on the first floor and eight on the second - surrounded a central core, where a pump and bathtub let prisoners bathe. The jailer could let inmates exercise in the outer walkway while still confining them within the exterior walls.
Removal of the county seat to St. Joseph in 1894 left the jail vacant. It fell into disrepair, and in 1916 its owners demolished it.
The Great Escape
One Saturday in July 1883, eight prisoners made a bold escape from this jail. Removing the bathtub in the central core, they pumped water from the cistern below until they could climb inside and begin to dig. They tunneled under the north wall but the soft earth gave way, exposing the tunnel and forcing them to crawl up in broad daylight.
The sheriff, county clerk and several townspeople began a lively chase and soon recaptured most of them. Their tunnel became a short-lived tourist attraction as people came from all around the county to see the site. One Niles woman even carried off a sample of earth from the excavation as a souvenir.