Tucked away in the east Texas town of Huntsville, the Texas Prison Museum holds a wealth of information about Texas’ infamous. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is one of the largest employers in Texas and in Huntsville, it’s the largest. The walls and glass cases in the museum are crammed with letters, photos, and artifacts spanning the prison system’s long history dating from 1849. In this year, The Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, better known as “The Walls” unit, was built and is the oldest Texas state prison. This facility still houses the state execution chamber which is the most active in the United States with 423 executions between 1982 and 2008. From the time of Texas’ independence from Mexico, until 1924, the lawful method of execution was hanging. These always took place in the county where the condemned person was convicted. But in 1924, the State of Texas centralized control of all executions and electrocution became the lawful method. The centerpeice and most controversial exhibit of the prison museum is “Old Sparky”, the decommissioned electric chair in which 361 prisoners were executed between 1924 and 1964.
Visitors can listen to the excellent “Witness To An Execution” , an audio description of several executions as told by witnesses in the death chamber at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. There are cases full of prison hardware: ball-and-chains, handcuffs, padlocks. There are examples of various methods and equipment used to restrain prisoners dating from the early days of the prison system right up to the present day. There are wonderful examples of prisoners’ artwork also. Perhaps the inmates were talented already or perhaps they discovered an unknown ability once faced with more time on their hands. Whichever applied, there are some wonderful and imaginative items ranging from a rose made from toilet paper to a ship made of matchsticks to a circular saw blade from the mill which is covered in images painted by the inmates. Perhaps the most interesting is a large tree stump that was carved by one inmate into many different types of birds and animals all emerging from the tree trunk. Some are finished, some have yet to fully appear. What is interesting is that when this particular inmate was relased, the tree stump was stored away and forgotten about. Some time later, this same man committed a futher offense and was incarcerated again. He asked about the tree stump and it was found and given to him again. He merely continued where he left off!
The contraband items are most interesting and inventive, astonishing in some cases. And one can spend quite a while marvelling at the variety of items, mostly weapons, fashioned by desperate men. There are a myriad of shanks made of everything from masking tape to flip-flops. There are knives, pry-bars and very realistic guns. There is a ball made out of slivers of compressed lead-based paint, the size of a baseball, that was dropped into a sock and used as a weapon. There is even a shoe with a hollowed out heel in which to smuggle drugs. This shoe was worn by Charles Harrelson (Woody’s father).
For many years the Huntsville Prisons held an annual rodeo and prison art sale and exhibit in which the inmates participated. Sadly, these events are no longer. But the rodeos especially, were very very popular. The Prison Rodeo ran from 1931 to 1986, the Rodeo was the most popular sporting event in Texas for many years, drawing crowds of over 75,000 a day. Many big country stars performed as well: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb and Willie Nelson among them. An event unique to the Texas Prison Rodeo was the Hard Money Event. Forty Inmates wearing red shirts were turned into the arena with a raging wild bull which had a Bull Durham tobacco sack tied between its horns. The object was for some brave inmate to get the sack and take it to the Judge. Fifty dollars had been placed in the sack but donations often ran the pay up, sometimes to $1500. This became a very popular event for the inmates due to the amount of money involved and was one of the most dangerous as well. The action kept fans on the edge of their seats throughout the event.
And of course, no accounting of the Texas Prison Museum would be complete without mention of some of its most famous associates. The gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, one of the most famous frontier outlaws, did time in the Walls Unit in Huntsville in the late 1870s. He was pardoned in 1894, admitted to the Texas Bar Association, and later shot to death in El Paso. Clyde Barrow did time in and escaped from the Eastham Unit in Huntsville, using a gun that Bonnie Parker smuggled in for him. In January of 1934 five prisoners, including the notorious Ray Hamilton broke out of the Eastham Prison farm in Waldo TX, near Huntsville. They were liberated by Bonnie and Clyde who had hidden automatic pistols in a nearby ditch. In the resulting gunfight, two guards were shot by the escaping prisoners. As history tells, Bonnie and Clyde were later killed an a hail of gunfire as they drove down the highway near Sailes, Louisiana. The gun Bonnie supposedly had with her in the car during that final gun battle is on exhibit at the museum.
One final mention must be made of one of Huntsville’s early inmates. It is a poignant and sad story. Satanta, a Kiowa chief, was the first American Indian tried and sentenced to the TDCJ. He was one of the signers of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. By this treaty he and his tribe agreed to go on to a reservation. He earned the title “Orator of the Plains” because of his eloquence in council, and was respected by the army officers and commissioners despite his hostility toward the white man’s civilization. For boasting about his part in a raid into Texas in 1871, he was arrested and tried in Texas. He was sentenced to life in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. Two years later he was released conditional on the good behavior of his people. But by 1874, the Kiowa again were on the warpath and because of his participation in several raids into Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico, he was arrested several times. He was finally sentenced again to life in the penitentiary at Huntsville. On October 11th, 1878, Satanta complained to the prison physician of an injury and was taken to the prison hospital on the second floor of the Walls Unit, but before being treated, he was left briefly alone. Suddenly the Kiowa death chant was heard and Satanta jumped to his death, headfirst, from the second-story balcony. As he’d stated many times in his life, he would rather die proudly than be subjugated to the white man’s law. His death was his protest against the terrible injustice done to his people.
There are many more colorful, sad, and larger-than-life characters that one can meet in the exhibits of the Texas Prison Museum. Some were incarcerated because of a small mistake or twist of fate; some because of deliberate acts of violence and cruelty. Many of them were not so different from you or me.
The easiest access to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville from Austin is by taking Hwy 290 East toward Houston to Brenham where you turn onto Hwy 577 North and then on to 105 East toward Conroe. From Conroe, take I-45 North about 30 miles to Huntsville. Take exit number 118 for State Highway 75 and the museum is located off the east side of the feeder road at 491 SH 75 North, Huntsville, TX 77320