Desktop version

Home arrow Law arrow Prisons and Punishment in Texas: Culture, History and Museological Representation

Becoming a Texas Tourist

In the summer of 2013, I left England to spend six months as a Texas tourist. The research trip, funded by the Christine and Ian Bolt Scholarship Fund (University of Kent), involved travelling around the Lone Star State to visit both punishment museums and tourist sites associated with history. In this chapter I will share with you some of my experiences in order to contextualise both the research sites and the stories told within them. More specifically though, this chapter will introduce you to the Texan punishment museums, the tourist sites associated with history, to Texas more generally as a place, and to some of the Texans I met while on my travels. The structure of the chapter follows the order in which I visited each of the locations. We will therefore begin our journey as I did, in Eastland.


I arrived in Eastland around noon and was surprised by how small it seemed. Eastland is technically a city but in the UK it would more likely be considered a town. I’m told by locals that the city’s most popular

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 H. Thurston, Prisons and Punishment in Texas,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-53308-1_3

tourist attraction is a horned toad named ‘Old Rip’. Sadly Old Rip is dead, but his body has been laid to rest in a wooden, velvet-lined, glass topped coffin in the County Courthouse. The toad first became famous in 1928 when the old County Courthouse was demolished and he was discovered in a time capsule. The capsule had been sealed and buried for 31 years, but when re-opened Old Rip the toad was still alive. Old Rip passed away in 1929, but he has since become something of a mascot for Eastland. After paying my respects to Old Rip I made my way to the Sheriff’s Office, a short walk from the Courthouse, in order to be shown around the Old Eastland Jail and Museum.

As I arrived I noticed that the Texan and American flags were being flown at the same height outside the County Sheriff’s Office. I had been told on countless occasions during my trips to Texas that the Lone Star State is the only state in America which can fly the flags at equal height. All other states must fly their state flag at a lower level. This is apparently because the state flag shares its design with the Republic of Texas flag, chosen to represent the Lone Star State after successfully winning independence from Mexico in 1836 (discussed further in Chap. 12). Indeed, the Lone Star flag is a powerful symbol of independence all over Texas. From supermarkets to churches, schools to strip bars, firearms to pushchairs, the flag is a very pervasive part of the Texan experience.

I walked past the flags, through some glass double doors and into the Sheriff’s Office. There was a reception area so I introduced myself to the lady behind the desk, explaining that I was there to see the museum. She politely informed me that the Sheriff was out but that Brandon—a Deputy Sheriff—would happily show me around. I went through to meet Brandon who was sitting at his desk, cluttered with family photographs, mountains of paperwork, some empty fruit juice cartons and a small wooden sculpture of his name.

He extended his hand and removed his cowboy hat, resting it on his chest. ‘Miss Hannah ain’t it? Nice to meet you’, he said in a welcoming Southern accent. I had already called ahead to let them know I was coming, so Brandon was ready for my arrival. We chatted for a minute or two and I signed a piece of framed chipboard in his office which all museum visitors are asked to sign. The board was crammed full with kind wishes and sentiments of appreciation. Brandon replaced his cowboy hat, gathered his phone along with a large set of keys and led me out of the building. We walked across the street and within a few seconds we were outside the old county jail house. The jail house was a square building, three stories high with bars over all the windows. The sign outside read: Tours by appointment through the Sheriff’s Office. Old Eastland County Jail and Museum. Built 1897, out of service 1980. I should also say that later on that day the County Sheriff—Wayne—returned to the office, so I also took a tour with him.

Research Diary: Wayne is the one who originally decided to create the museum. He has worked in Eastland for some time now and he believes part of his role as Sheriff is to preserve the County’s penal past. It was lovely to hear him speak about the preservation process, and the care he takes when deciding how to present the objects. I had assumed that the tour would be quite rushed;, I was after all taking Wayne away from his day job as Sheriff, but I think he rather enjoys it, chatting about times gone by. I can’t blame him really. Eastland does have a pretty unique (punishment related) claim to fame.

Both of the tours began with us entering the room which had originally been the living quarters of the Eastland jailer. There was a small kitchen and Brandon told me that this was where the jailer’s wife would have cooked meals for herself, her family and the inmates who resided in the cells above. From here we moved into a smaller room, still on the ground floor, which had one glass cabinet against the back wall and a desk in the far corner. Upon the desk was a ‘charge book’ which was used to register the arrival of each new inmate when the jail was operational. While looking at the charge book, on Brandon’s tour, he told me that

the arresting officer would sign them in and the charge would go here [points to a column in the book] some go back as far as the 1920’s. The Sheriff went and got the book and had it all re-done. There’s a lot of history there and we think it’s really important to keep that kind of history safe. If no one makes the effort then it gets lost forever.

We turned around to look at a glass box, the focal point within which was a coiled piece of rope. Wayne informed me that the rope was a significant part of Texan penal history because it was the noose ‘used by the mob when they lynched Marshall Ratliff, and that was the last official recorded lynching in the state’. Ratliff had robbed a bank on 23 December 1927 dressed as Father Christmas which earned him the nickname of ‘Santa Claus Robber’. There was also a four-shelf glass cabinet next to the rope which displayed paperwork, handcuffs, ankle manacles, photographs of Ratliff, beating paddles and a set of brass knuckle-dusters. The paperwork was too faded to read, but both guides described its relationship to the 1927 Santa Claus Robbery, explaining that it included Marshall Ratliff’s death certificate and official police reports of the lynching event. Moving to the back corner of the room I was encouraged to look up at the corrugated iron ceiling to see a single bullet hole. Wayne told me,

nobody’s really sure who fired the gun that left the bullet hole up there. It was either during a scuffle between Ratliff and a jailer before the mob got here, or sometime when the mob came to take Ratliff away.

We then walked up to the first floor. There were five cell spaces on this level (Fig. 3.1). One was a communal area and the other four were where the inmates would have slept. Within the central cell (the communal area) there was a washbasin and toilet. One cell in particular was pointed out as significant because of the graffiti on the wall. The graffiti, which was scratched into the stonework, showed the names of two of the Santa Claus Robbers, Henry Helms and Robert Hill.

Eastland standard cell

Fig. 3.1 Eastland standard cell

Research Diary: The cells are truly austere places. On one floor there is a centrally positioned sit-in bath, next to a toilet—essentially a rust-stained metal bucket with a pump. Whilst the room is airy, I try to imagine how that place would have smelt in heat of the summer. It is relatively cool today considering the time of year but I have felt the heat of a Texas summer, and it is hot. The bars are rusty, the floor cement and when inside the cells I recall images of how penned cattle are kept.

We then went up another flight of stairs onto the top floor. Here there were more cells. On one side of the room were three adjacent cells, each with bathroom facilities and a double bunk. Opposite these was a padded cell. Neither of the guides knew how long the padding had been there but as Wayne pointed out, ‘it’s likely been there a fair while I’d say, looking at it I mean. We think it is probably the original stuff.’

Once the tours had finished I conducted brief interviews with Wayne and Brandon. Wayne even gave me an iron-on Sheriff’s patch and a bible as parting gifts. Both Brandon and Wayne had been excellent guides, and Wayne in particular had really surprised me. He was very knowledgeable about Eastland’s past and had undertaken extensive research in order to ensure the interpretation of the items on display was as accurate as possible. There was a genuine passion for preservation and ensuring the County’s penal history was not lost. I had enjoyed my tours of the Eastland jail house very much but it was time to say my goodbyes. I thanked Wayne and Brandon for their kind hospitality then returned to Dallas in order to make the short journey to Fort Worth.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics