The Libby Prison Mystery

By Sue Neikirk

This article was originally published on the Starke County Historical Society website. You can see it here.

I do love a good mystery and found that I was on the trail of one which included war, starvation, murder and disappearance of an entire four-storied wood and brick building.

My husband Frank and I had visited the local Knox Christo’s restaurant where I was seated facing a large photograph that quickly caught my attention. Many people think of it as a quaint barn in the local countryside. The real difference was that most “barns” don’t come with a historical plaque which states it was the Libby Prison from Virginia. I had to find more about this building and little did I know that the search would take years of on and off search.

We started by trying to find the property near Hamlet where it had been located. We found that it had been sold and moved after the barn was being quickly destroyed by well meaning sightseers, wishing to see (have a piece of?) the notorious prison of the south.

But the life of the Libby Prison hadn’t started in Hamlet, Indiana and neither did it end there. I dug through the sites on the internet and found that this barn had started out as a tobacco warehouse in Richmond, VA, being built from 1845-1852. It was later bought by Capt Libby and his son for a ship’s chandlery and grocery business and then converted into the Confederate prison.

This small wooden barn in Hamlet had, in fact, started as a 4-story building covered with bricks that would eventually house thousands of Union officers (prisoners) during the Civil War.

Sue Before 3

At this prison you would have found death, starvation and a great escape of over 100 officers through tunnels they dug with pocket knives, a stolen chisel, and bare hands. Each piece of wood in the prison was carved with names, dates and pictures of daily life in the prison. My early search indicated that the remains of the prison/barn were missing. How could such a large building go missing?

I began my search across the web and I found I needed to know more. After the war the Libby was a prison by the US government and then was leased to a fertilizer company. In 1888 a group of Chicago businessmen bought the Libby for $23,000 in hopes of creating a museum back in Chicago.

Each brick and piece of wood was slowly taken down and numbered. This was all placed in 132 train cars and taken to Chicago where it was rebuilt. At the time it was the largest building ever moved. It was rebuilt near the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, known as the Columbian Exhibition (even though it was not part of that Exhibition).

libby museum
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library on Flickr

The museum was kept quite busy for about 10 years and then the businessmen decided to call it quits. It was decided that the building would be torn down in such a way that it would never be rebuilt. After it was taken down, souvenirs were taken.

People from the south and those it once held wanted the building destroyed. Many of the bricks were used in the Chicago Coliseum and some were used to form a wall in the Chicago Historical Society’s Civil War Room. It was decided that the beams, timbers and most of the wood would be sold. This was bought by Mr. Charles Danielson of Hamlet, Indiana to use as a stock barn. The historical marker was placed on U.S. Highway 35.

Mr. Danielson’s daughter sold it later because of the sightseers, in December 1963. The building was torn down and sold to Mr. Charles K. Mercer of Spencer Indiana. Mr. Mercer had plans to re-assemble the building to use as a museum but this never happened.

After further search I found that on June 19, 1995 Mr. Mercer sold the Libby to Mr. Rod Wampler of Gosport, IN where it was stored on his farm.

On October 21, 2006 Mr. Wampler’s estate put the Libby up for auction and I learned that Mr. Robert Willey of New Haven rescued it from destruction.

On November 13, 2010 I decided I needed to know what happened to the Libby Prison. At that time I only knew that Mr. Willey had purchased the prison but not about it’s near destruction.

Mr. Willey returned my phone call that evening and I excitedly asked, “Do you have the Libby Prison?” There was a pause and a question of “why do you want to know?” From this prompting I told him about my search and how I found his name.

Mr. Willey explained to me that he had heard that the Libby Prison was coming up for auction and also learned that two people were planning to bid on it. One young man had said he was going to take the wood, cut it up in 4-foot sections and sell them on eBay. A woman had decided that she wanted the wood for her floors and was going to have it made into planks.

Believing that neither of these things should occur, Mr. Willey decided to bid and buy what was left of the Libby Prison, which he did. He then contacted Petersburg, VA and that led to the Pamplin Park, which bought it for what Mr. Willey paid.

The people from the park drove up to Mr. Willey’s and loaded it on a flatbed truck and took it home to where it had begun it’s life.

I contacted the park and found that they have less than 1% of the original Libby Prison. After a train wreck on the way to Chicago from Virginia, pieces of the prison were missing. When the museum in Chicago was torn down after 10 years of making money, another opportunity for souvenirs occurred. Then years of going from one owner to another presented yet another opportunity for souvenirs, so Pamplin Park of Virginia is lucky to have that much of the original prison. I would personally love to just touch it to know that it is still there.

I returned to Christo’s not long after finding the final resting place of the Libby and just wanted to see the photo again. The waitress didn’t even know about the history of the barn in the photo, had not paid attention to it in her busy days. I told her just a bit of its history and where it is now. Hopefully, it will interest her enough to keep the Libby alive and she can tell others.

It is a part of not just American Civil War history, but part of a small town in Indiana called Hamlet. The Libby Prison is everyone’s history and a memory that should not be easily forgotten.

For more Starke County History, visit these sites:

Starke County Historical Society

Starke County Public Library

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