The 1865 Androscoggin County Courthouse complex includes the main entrance to the courthouse, far left, the entrance to the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department, left, and the more recent, multi-story jail addition, far right. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

In a dank corner on the upper floor of the Androscoggin County courthouse complex, the charred remnants of a burned-out jail cell have remained for decades in the dark. 

The barred door is blackened from the heat of those long-ago flames. The thick stone wall around it is likewise scorched, as is the peeling ceiling above. 

An inmate in that old jail space set his own cell on fire, but it happened so long ago, Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson doesn’t recall if that inmate lived or died. 

Writer Mark LaFlamme is seen inside a burned-out jail cell inside the Androscoggin County Courthouse in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“I think he died,” Samson said, standing before the cell in question in the rank-smelling upper regions of the county building. “But I don’t know that for a fact.” 

You can hardly fault him for his memory. The cell fire occurred in the 1960s, shortly before the jail was closed to make room for a newer lockup nearby. And that’s relatively recent history — the original jail, built on an $1,800 piece of farmland when the county building was constructed, dates back to 1856. 

That original jail, incidentally, was once home to a fellow named George Knight, who became its very first inmate after his wife was found slain with a slashed throat in Poland in 1856. Knight, a laborer, was ultimately brought to trial in the murder, but only after the district attorney at the time dreamed of seeing the suspect in a blood-soaked T-shirt. 

No, really. More on Knight later. 

The county building is a very old place and its age shows in a grim variety of ways. And while the ghastly remains of a cell where a jail inmate may have burned alive is disturbing, it’s not the most disturbing thing you’ll see on a tour of the quaint, but decrepit old building. 

Not even close. 

There’s the giant mold spores creeping up the walls in a small, dingy interview room in the basement — right across the hall from the small, dingy rooms in which the detectives work. 

There’s the sewage that has come bubbling up through the floor drains; the hideous stains in a patrol room ceiling, the result of bad plumbing in the old, cramped bathrooms above. 

There’s the gray, greasy film that covers just about every piece of furniture and equipment in the basement, residue from God knows what blowing out of the vents. 

There’s the heat pump that was recently found to be randomly spitting water out just a couple feet away from a $300,000 piece of equipment that controls vital components of the Androscoggin County Sheriff Department’s technological systems. 

There are the floors that slope almost comically and that feel spongy and unsafe in a way that isn’t comical at all. 

There’s the trough-like groove running straight up one dirty hallway that county officials believe may have been used at one time to feed and water horses. 

There are toilets on upper floors leaking into patrol rooms below. There are buckets that have been set up for so long to catch leaks in one place or another, that some wit set an ice fishing trap in one of them and there it sat for two weeks. 

A jail cell in the old jail inside the Androscoggin County Courthouse now serves as a locker room for Androscoggin County sheriff’s deputies. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

On a tour of this old building, you routinely see signs warning of dangers in many forms, including one that advises county officials to avoid certain areas because of exposed asbestos. 

Almost everywhere you turn in the depths of this building, you find an old jail cell being used, by necessity, for storage. Those small, windowless spaces where prisoners once languished are now filled with old records, evidence and retired equipment, because, quite simply, there is absolutely no place to put them. If a sheriff’s officer wants to take a shower (not that there’s space for a gym in here in which to work up a sweat) the locker room he retreats to is in — you guessed it — an old jail cell. 

“This building served its purpose for over 150 years,” Samson tells me. “It’s time to move on — to address the needs and hopefully find a suitable location that may very well last another 150 years, if done right.” 

Samson himself guided me on this walk-through of the old county building, a tour that topped two hours. And while I spent much of that time ducking the various nastiness brought about by the age of the building, I also marveled over its history. 

I imagined the buzz of activity that would have been found here in 1874, for instance, after a woman’s headless skeleton was found in a remote part of Lewiston near Switzerland Road. 

“The body was encased in a silk dress in a secluded and desolate spot,” the local newspaper wrote at the time, “yet within the precincts of a city where it had lain above ground for years.” 

Ultimately the dead woman’s husband, a 31-year-old railroad worker named James Lowell, was arrested in the killing, and the courthouse again became the center of a lurid criminal trial. 

Lowell had claimed that his wife ran off with a traveling circus man from Australia, but that defense was ruined when his wife’s skeleton was recovered — all but the head, that is. 

Jurors heard enough testimony within these walls to convict James Lowell and to sentence him to hang for the deed. His wife’s head, meanwhile, was never found. 

UP AND DOWN THE CREAKY STAIRS

Two toilets are directly above the patrol office at the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department in the courthouse building. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Despite its age, the county building is still the center of a whole bunch of county business. The long tour includes parts of the building that are still functional.

On the first floor you find the county commissioner’s office, treasurer’s office, the clerk of courts, the probate courtroom, the IT office and the register of deeds.

Up one flight and you have the county’s main courtroom with its high ceilings and paintings of former justices looking down upon the proceedings. Up there you’ll also find the law library, which has been converted into a smaller courtroom, the former District Attorney’s Office, which is now a commissioner’s meeting room, a few offices and the grand jury room.

Way up on the third floor is a space occupied by the Androscoggin County Historical Society, which actually provided information and recommendations for this article.

The people who work in these offices complain of things like leaky windows and a heating system that leaves the building icy cold in the winter and broiling hot in summertime. In private conversations, a few say they are embarrassed about the conditions in the building and they resent that Auburn has been passed over while county buildings in larger cities get complete renovations.

On the main floor of the building, the section where visitors first come in, a bucket has been placed outside of the small, grungy bathrooms to catch water dripping from the ceiling. A short distance away is a lighted exit sign hanging on a wall where there is no longer an exit. Whatever door once existed there has been boarded up as part of one project or another to relocate workers.

There is also the attached jail, which is in remarkably good shape compared to the rest of the complex, thanks to an expansion in 1990 and regular upkeep.

Mold grows on the walls in the area occupied by the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department in the courthouse building. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

On Samson’s wish list is a plan to move his sheriff’s department out of the basement, with the idea that wherever they go, the jail will one day follow.

“It would give us a chance to assess the needs, determine the appropriate size or square footage needed and begin looking for an available structure or land to construct,” he says. “I will recommend at that time keeping the future needs of the jail in mind.”

His most immediate issues are in the basement, Samson says. The problem that arises is that, should his department be taken out of that space, there would be no room for them on the upper floors.

In November, the Androscoggin County Commissioners met to discuss a potential bond package that would be used to renovate and update the courthouse.

County Commissioner Larry Post told commissioners that the preliminary amount of the bond package is approximately $4.5 million. That amount could go up or down depending if more projects are added or if commissioners decide to cut back on the scope of the projects.

The biggest undertaking would be to upgrade the heating, ventilation, cooling and electrical systems at a cost of $2.5 million. Another $1.5 million would be earmarked to renovate the ground floor area throughout the complex — the area that Samson and his officers are hoping to vacate.

More than $100,000 would go to complete the probate office renovation. Replacing the windows with energy-efficient models would cost roughly $300,000.

Commissioners still need to decide whether to send the bond question to county voters in 2021 or during the next general election in 2022.

THE FUZZ

Samson himself has fond memories of the county building. He recalls his first interview when he applied for a deputy position in 1991, for instance, and got his own tour of the building. 

He recalls all the talk of ghosts roaming the dark maze-like halls that run along all floors of the building. 

“When we used to do building checks at night,” Samson recalls, “at times it sounded like you could hear people walking around — and from time to time talking. We searched, but we never found anyone.” 

Take a tour of the building, particularly at night, and talk of ghosts doesn’t sound too ludicrous. In that unoccupied section of the upper floor, in particular, the old-style jail doors hang open to reveal the stone walls of the cells within and one can’t help but wonder about the various miseries suffered within those claustrophobic spaces. 

Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Moe Drouin works in converted office space in the basement of the Androscoggin County Courthouse. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The feeling is mitigated, however, by the massive piles of random stuff placed in all areas of the old building over the years. When mold or leaks or other calamities render a room useless for human habitation, workers are shuffled off to another part of the building and the empty space is used for storage. 

Over the decades, this process has been repeated over and over, quickening in recent years as the building further deteriorates. The county detectives have had it particularly rough. Today, they work in a dungeon-like basement in tiny offices where the air always seems foul. 

Back in 2009, the detectives were forced to retreat to closet-sized spaces in other parts of the building after mold chased them out of their offices. A study of the air found elevated levels of mold and other common pollutants in the basement. 

The offices were cleaned, carpets were replaced and humidifiers were installed, and the detectives returned to do their sleuthing in the same cramped, dank offices. 

“It has its charms, I guess,” says Detective Tom Slivinski, who says it was not uncommon for a while to have to duck water dripping from leaky pipes when he headed to his office. 

Those leaks were eventually repaired. 

“But then the leaks occurred elsewhere,” says Slivinski. “The records room, the interview room . . .” 

The people who visit the sheriff’s department tend to be astonished by the conditions they find there. 

But what to do about it? 

“I’m not a contractor,” says County Commissioner Sally Christner. “And so I’m going to rely a lot on other people’s recommendations. However, if you’re asking me would I enjoy working in that environment, I’m going to say no.” 

HELLOOO DOWN THERRRRRRE

Not long ago, as the sheriff and his workers were once again moving files and equipment around to relocate officer workers, they tried to move a filing cabinet that seemed to want to sink down into the floor. 

A trash can catches water from the leaking ceiling on the first floor of the Androscoggin County Courthouse in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We discovered that somebody had lain a board across the floor over a stairwell to put the filing cabinets on,” Samson recalls. “So then we go downstairs thinking, where does this stairwell go?” 

As it happens, at some point in the deep musty past, someone had simply walled up an old stairwell from below and loosely boarded over the top, and staff set cabinets there. Nobody in Samson’s department had any idea the stairwell was down there. 

Portions of the county building have been transformed, patched and revamped so many times over the past 150 years, it is doubtless that anyone alive knows its true layout anymore. 

Walking through its hallways, with their sloping floors and creaking boards, it’s hard to imagine that at one time, this old building represented delirious excitement within the population around it. 

In 1853, there was vigorous debate about which municipality — Auburn, Lewiston or Danville — should be declared the county seat. A year later, county residents chose Auburn by a slim 876 votes. 

Immediately after it was decided, according to Robert K. Sloane’s “The Courthouses of Maine,” county offices were brought from Lewiston to Auburn and housed at a variety of different locations, including one local woman’s home. 

Bidding to build a spanking new county courthouse began in early 1856 and was secured by one Albert Currier, of Newburyport. Massachusetts, for a total price of $69,753.

Construction was done by the end of the year, according to Sloane’s book, and shortly after, old George Knight came along. Accused of slashing his wife’s throat with a butcher knife, Knight went on trial in the new courthouse to fanfare so great, some women regarded it as their daily entertainment. 

“In one of the small towns of Maine, among an entirely rural population, they are enjoying the excitement of a Maine murder trial with as much gusto as any affair of the sort creates even in this wicked metropolis,” according to a New York Times crime reporter. “A man named George Knight is on trial for the murder of his wife and to such a pitch is the excitement caused that a daily paper has been established expressly to chronicle the proceeding, while the place of trial is crowded with the fairer part of the population, who take their sewing and knitting with them. . . . Murder trials have not yet become quite so prominent in New York.” 

The trial took a turn for the weird when the county attorney by the name of Goddard dreamed of seeing the suspect in a T-shirt soaked with blood. The attorney went to see Knight immediately the following day and asked to see his underclothes.

“At this the prisoner paled,” according to one account of the trial. “He would have refused had he dared, but the men who guarded him were too grim. As he bared the long sleeve of his underwear, Goddard could see that it was soaked in blood.”

Knight was ultimately convicted after a jury deliberated for 25 hours. He spent the next 43 years of his life at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston.

Eleven years later, another high-profile case at the courthouse ended in a hanging. Twenty-year-old Clifton Harris, a shoe factory worker, was convicted in 1867 was convicted of murdering two elderly women inside their home in West Auburn.

According to accounts of the killings, Harris had gone to the home with another man, Luther Verrill, with the plans of burglarizing the home. When their break-in was interrupted, the men beat one of the women over the head with a chair and slashed the second victim’s throat.

Both men were convicted of the crime, yet only Harris was sentenced to hang. Verrill was eventually released from prison after Harris recanted part of his story before we went to the gallows.

CAN WE GET A LITTLE PRIVACY OVER HERE?

Signs warn of exposed asbestos in random areas of the Androscoggin County Courthouse in Auburn. Submitted photo

The county building is a quaint and storied place, but particularly for Samson and his workers, the charm has all but worn off. It’s not just that his department has outgrown the space that’s still available for human occupancy. It’s not just that he sees multiple security risks for his deputies or that there will never be enough space in the old building for things like a gym or a training room — if the sheriff wants to assemble people for training or classes, he has to go begging at local schools or churches for space. 

For Samson, it’s also the inconvenience, embarrassment and distress experienced by the public who must use the building — folks going through unpleasant divorces or custody battles, witnesses to and victims of horrific crimes, families of people being put on a trial and families of their victims. 

If you go to the Androscoggin County Courthouse for such sensitive matters, don’t expect any sort of privacy. There’s no space for that. As you sit in tears, battling for custody of your child, you might have deputies marching prisoners through to the courthouse or people milling about on other court matters. 

As for the Sheriff’s Department space, “When we have victims come in to talk with us, there’s really no professional place to meet with them,” Samson says.  

A hallway in the Androscoggin County Courthouse was eliminated to make room for information technology equipment. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Detectives trying to talk to a victim of domestic violence or other crime of that nature can offer that victim no real sense of privacy and security. There’s just no space for it down there in the gloomy basement, where even the tiniest of closets are crammed full. 

As Samson sees it, it’s time for his department to part ways with the old building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 both for its architecture and its history. 

“You’ve got this responsibility to serve and protect the public,” Samson says, “but you’ve also got the same responsibility to provide a safe working environment for the employees. I just don’t think the layout of this building — in today’s environment, in particular — provides a safe working condition for employees that work out of there.” 

Christner, the county commissioner, is inclined to agree. The catch-as-catch-can patchwork approach has worked for many years at the old building, but at some point, those temporary fixes just can’t keep pace with all the new problems that arise. 

“I know everyone is looking for the cheapest way out,” Christner says, “and that especially now, nobody wants to strap towns that pay the bill (for the county’s operation). On the other hand, I think people are expecting that their law enforcement officers are going to be put in a place where they’re safe, and where it’s healthy for them and where it’s a good working environment. And I’m just not convinced that’s the best way to go. 

“I think we’ve got to look at long-term fixes,” she says. “We can’t just keep quick fixing it just to come back and quick fix it again. We’ve got to be looking into something that’s long term.” 

“For the most part,” Samson says, “employees have just learned to accept the facility for what it is: an old run-down basement.”

Referring to the potential bond issue and renovations to the ground floor area, “I think the money used can be utilized better elsewhere,” he says, “as we lack confidence that it will solve all problems associated with being located in a basement.”

As for me, I was plenty happy to exit the old building once my tour was over. It wasn’t a fear of ghosts this time, or of some headless skeleton chasing her husband to the gallows. Fuzzy mold spores big enough to sprout legs was plenty for me and that general feeling of age and grime left me feeling like a shower.

But at least there wasn’t any sewage during my visit, and for that I’m grateful.

Sheriff Eric Samson’s office in the Androscoggin County Courthouse complex. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo


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