Office of the Sheriff - St. Lawrence County
48 Court Street ~ Canton, NY ~ 315-379-2222
History of St. Lawrence County
St. Lawrence became a County on March 3, 1802, pursuant to an act passed by the State Legislature and signed by the Governor. This area had previously been a part of Montgomery, Herkimer, Oneida and Clinton Counties since our Nationís Independence.
The first County seat was in the Village of Ogdensburg, it being the only locality with any sizable population at that time. The officers to head this new county were Nathan Ford, County Judge; Louis Hasbrouck, County Clerk; Matthew Perkins, Surrogate and; Thomas J. Davies, Sheriff. The first Courts were held in an abandoned barracks and the jail was located in an adjacent powder magazine.
As more people kept moving into this new County and other settlements started to grow, it was decided to move the location of the County seat to Canton in 1828, it being in a more central location, so, in 1829, a Court House and Jail were built in that Village on land donated by a Mr. David Judson. Both buildings cost the taxpayers the sum of five thousand, six hundred dollars.
As a result of the original jail burning, a new jail was erected in 1898. In 1891 a new court house was erected. The County Clerks Office, built on the comer of Court and Judson Streets had been erected in 1877. This is still being used as a County Office building. All of these buildings are presently in everyday use, pretty much as originally constructed, except the Court House, which was rebuilt in 1925 following a bad fire. In 1993, an addition for the Court Offices was built onto the Court House.
In 1928, the jail was completely rebuilt and remodeled; an addition of fourteen new cells was completed in 1984. These buildings are constructed of Gouverneur Limestone and trimmed with Red Potsdam Sandstone. The wooden jail barn and stone sheds at the rear of the jail were torn down several years ago to make room for the present garage.
Hangings for convicted murderers were carried out by the Sheriff until about 1898 when the electric chair came into use in the State prison system. The gallows were located near where the old smoke stack of the central heating plant now stands.
A jail farm, about a mile out the Judson Street Road was operated until just a few years ago. All the labor was provided by the inmates and a team of horses. Here they raised vegetables plus pigs, chickens and about a half a dozen milk cows. This farm provided the major part of the food at the institution and some surplus farm goods were sold.
The prisoners also unloaded all the coal at the railroad siding and delivered it to the heating plants at both the Jail and the County Home which was located about three miles out of the Village. This amounted to about one thousand tons each year and constituted quite a significant savings. This was in addition to the usual work of farming, mowing lawns, shoveling and hauling snow and other maintenance chores around the buildings.
Also, the County used to buy Fieldstone from local farmers delivered to the stone sheds where the inmates would break, by hand, this material into small graded sizes. This broken stone would be sold to the Towns and Villages for road improvements. A large set of scales for the weighing of the stone and any hay that was sold, were located just behind the cell blocks. The inmates also operated the County Home Farm for a short time after the Judson Street Farm was sold.
During the prohibition years, many bootleggers were held in Canton, either awaiting trial in Federal Court or serving sentences from there. Most of these were caught smuggling contraband liquor and beer in from Canada and were brought in by either the State Police or the United States Border Patrol.
Another interesting scene from years past were the Chinese Prisoners that were held for deportation. The Asiatic Exclusion Act in force at the time forbid their coming into this County legally so, they used all means, either by coming across the border from Canada, or, perhaps, by jumping ship at some coastal port and then heading toward New York Cityís Chinatown where they would melt into the common crowd and never be found.
Because of their Oriental appearance, they were easily detected here in the North and it was not unusual to have as many as thirty of them in Canton at one time. They would be held there until a Federal Marshall received his orders to load them on a train for Deportation to China out of San Francisco.
While in Canton, they were held in a large room on the top floor. A stove was provided them and they did their own cooking with the rice and a few other necessities being furnished by the County. The Federal Government paid the County $1.00 per day for boarding the Federal Prisoners and the County even made a little money on the deal, prices being that low in those days. The era of the Chinese being held in Canton came to an end in the late 1930ís.
About this same time, another type of society started showing up on the County jail population - the persecuted minorities of Eastern Europe. Adolph Hitler was rising to power in Germany and Jews and others in that section started fleeing to this Country in any way they could get here. If they were caught coming in illegally, they were held until some disposition was made of their case. Because the sympathy of our people were with them almost all were eventually allowed to stay. A large percentage of these were professional people and included many Doctors, Scientists, Musicians and others of high learning.
Until 1940, the Sheriffs of New York State were not allowed to succeed themselves in office so at the end of their term, they had to step down. Although some did stay on in a lesser capacity by appointment by their predecessors it was a friendly transition. The first Sheriff to succeed himself in office was the late Floyd C. SanJule. He had previously been the Under Sheriff, and, before that, he was Village Police Chief in Massena.
Another St. Lawrence County Sheriff, in the early years of this century, was responsible for having the idea of Probation made into Law. He was the late Sheriff, Erastus Backus of the Town of Russell. He believed that young, first offenders should have some chance of working out some form of penance or restitution, under supervision, without being locked up. Sheriff Backus employed many of these young Probationers on his Farm in Russell.