Hoosegows, Calabooses and Lockups


Whether you’re reading a western romance or watching a western movie, you’ll find that jails play some part in most of the storylines. And for good reason. Law enforcement was so crucial in the settlement of the West. There were lots of lawbreakers who had to be made to see the light so to speak.

chillicothetexasjail    desdemonatexasjaillate1800s  hollidaytxformerjail0409bg  

I wrote about jails in two of my single titles and my story in the upcoming Give Me a Texas Ranger anthology that’ll release July 2010 features a jail break. I didn’t really set out to put jails in my stories. It just happened, you know kinda like not intending to gain weight happens. 🙂

There are tons of original old jails here in Texas. Some have been turned into museums, but surprisingly others are still in use after more than a hundred years. Just think how big the spiders are in those lockups and how smelly! Here’s one still being used that’s only 35 miles from where I live at Dickens, Texas.


 Some of the hoosegows resembled huge fortresses with thick walls and consisted of several stories and the sheriff and his family lived in them. These had a gallows built in.

              McCullough Co. Jail 1909                                              bradytexasmccullochcountyjail                                                                                  archercitytexasarchercounty Archer Co. Jail

waxahachietxoldelliscountyjail Ellis Co. Jail built 1888

Others gave the appearance of being added as an afterthought. In very poor counties lacking access to funds they only had what’s called as a strap-iron jail created by strips of metal and must’ve been fashioned by a blacksmith from the looks of things. Strap-iron hoosegows were usually outdoors with no protection from the elements. Those had to have been really miserable places. The first one of these pictures below is from Mobeetie, Texas (or Hide Town which was its name first.) It was a wild and wooly place that entertained Bat Masterson and Pat Garrett among others.




The website www.texasescapes.com is a great source of information on early Texas towns and jails if you’re interested.

One special tidbit I gleaned from that site was that in some counties prisoners were farmed out to willing citizens to keep in their homes for $3.00 a day. I’d never heard that before. Of course, as you well imagine, my mind started whirling, thinking of all sorts of scenerios I could put in a story sometime!

Here’s one that was at a lawless place called The Flat, a town that sat below Ft. Griffin. In the 1870’s the commanding officer declared martial law and tried to clean up the little town that harbored men like John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp. And women like Lottie Deno and Big Nose Kate. The Flat was a Butterfield Stage stop as well as a refuge for buffalo hunters and drovers since it sat smack in the middle of the cattle trails.


Do you have a favorite jail scene from a book or movie? Mine is the John Wayne movie El Dorado with James Caan and Robert Mitchum. Three-fourths of that movie took place in the calaboose.

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

25 thoughts on “Hoosegows, Calabooses and Lockups”

  1. I got in!

    Linda, what a wonderful topic and great pictures. I had no idea that some of these old jails were still in use. Can you imagine?

    You couldn’t pay me $3000 a day to keep a criminal in my house. Yowza! But what great fodder for a story idea….

  2. Hi Cheryl!

    Thanks for your persistence. Glad you got in to comment. We’re sure having trouble with the site today. Maybe the problems will clear up in a bit.

    I’m with you when it comes to keeping a prisoner in my home. NO WAY! Can you imagine? I wouldn’t go to sleep at night. But on the other side of the coin, I’m sure there were cases where prisoners were mistreated. And what recourse would the criminal have if he complained. And who in the heck would he complain to if he was just placed in a home and not checked on. Oodles of story ideas.

  3. Hi Melinda,

    Glad you enjoyed my blog. I’m amazed at how many of those 19th century jails are still in use today. There are five or six within the area where I live in West Texas. Counties are just too poor to build new ones. I can’t imagine being locked up in one. That’d sure be punishment. Guess I’d better walk the straight and narrow. 🙂

  4. One of my favorite Western movies, Rio Bravo,
    is set for a goodly portion of the film in the
    town jail. It was rather clean for an old-timey

    Pat Cochran

  5. Hi Pat C,

    Thanks for stopping by! Rio Bravo was an excellent Western. I loved Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan. And of course, the Duke. Dean Martin played his role well too. You’re right about that jail being just a tad too clean. LOL

  6. Hi Linda, what terrific info and pictures–they are truly amazing! I think I would have been good just to escape such claustrophobic little horrors.

    I do have a jail scene in my first book when the hero is mistakenly imprisoned for something he didn’t do. It was made of square-cut logs and had iron bars. I based it on a picture from…somewhere LOL.

    I like the idea that many of these jails are still in use, history surviving rather than being torn down. The built-in-gallows are delightfully creepy.

    Thanks for the great blog. oxoxoxox

  7. Can you imagine being locked up in some of those jails? It would be enough to scare me into good behaviour, that’s for sure. Isn’t it amazing that some of them are still in use? If walls could talk!

  8. WOW-I had no idea that some old jails were still in use like that! I would love to be able to visit some of them. I think it’s fascinating to learn the history of places like those you mentioned here!

    I have a lot of western romances that have had a jail scene (or a few)-also have seen lots of western movies that had jail scenes…so-Im thinking that maybe my favorite “jail scene” from a book might would be from the Wife Lottery series from Jodi Thomas-interesting spin-having women jailed and of course the outcome was interesting too!

    Thanks for another neat and informative blog Linda!!

  9. Hi Linda, I’m with Pat Cochran on “Rio Bravo.” I love the scene where John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan are passing the night in the jail. Such strong characters!

    As for jails, one of the most fascinating tours I’ve ever taken was of Alcatraz. I’ll never forgot the few moments we spent in solitary, with the door shut and in total darkness. Very creepy.

  10. Hi Tanya,

    Glad you enjoyed the blog and found it interesting. Where I live in West Texas there are five or six jails from the 1800’s still in use. I’ve been in some of them (only as a visitor I assure you) and it’s really neat to see those old cells. It’s where modern technology meets the Old West!

  11. Hi Jennie,

    Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed my topic today. I had fun gathering all these pictures. I wound up with a lot and I found no place to use so I picked out the best of the crop. Yes, I agree. If only walls could talk. Bet they’d have plenty of tales.

  12. Hi Melissa,

    Thanks for taking a minute to post a comment. It’s always a joy to have you visit. I agree that Jodi Thomas’s Wife Lottery series had a great jail scene. Loved that series. It started off strong and ended strong. But then all of her series do that. She’s such a talented author.

    Glad you enjoyed my blog and pictures. It was fun.

  13. Hi Vicki,

    Glad you found my blog interesting. Rio Bravo was a great movie. The whole cast was strong which made the movie outstanding. I really liked Walter Brennan. There wasn’t any character actor better than he was.

    I’ve never been to Alcatraz but I’ve heard it’s a must-see place. If I ever get the chance I’ll go see it. Bet it is really spooky.

  14. When I saw those cages it made me think of an early scene in Silverado…one of my favorite westerns of all time.

    A very YOUNG Kevin Costner, in jail, being hyperactive while he talked to his big brother. He hung from the bars on the ceiling of his jail cell. I hadn’t realized that they put bars on the ceiling, but why not? A prison break though the ceiling is pretty possible.

    And since then I saw a jail that was a cage in Oklahoma City, in the Cowboy Hall of Fame…I don’t remember bars on the floor, but the celing, the walls and of course the door were all bars.

  15. Hi Mary!

    Ooooh, I’d forgotten about Silvardo! That was a great movie. That’s when I fell in love with Kevin Costner. When I watch it now, he sure looks awfully young. He’s sure plays a good cowboy! *sigh* I would shine his boots if he’d let me. LOL

    Yeah, those old strap-iron jails were nothing more than a cage for a wild animal. And they’d be pretty secure….unless they let the prisoner out to go to the outhouse, which was mentioned on that Texas Escapes website. Another little tidbit to file away for use sometime.

  16. Hi Linda
    What great research but it makes me think how awful these jails were .. pretty gruesome places. I wouldn’t want to commit a crime anytime, but especially in the old west. UGH!!

  17. Great blog and photos. There was a restired jail in Pioneer Village near Asheville, NC., that was every bit as bad (even smaller), if not worse, than the photos.

  18. Hi Charlene,

    Glad you enjoyed my blog. I don’t think anyone spent too much time on floor plans when it came to designing jails. At least not most of the time. And I don’t think they to make things too pleasant for the criminal. Punishment pretty much meant what it the word implied. Nothing too cozy or plush. That’d be a deterrant for me.

  19. Hi Pat P,

    Glad you enjoyed the blog and photos. I had a fun time with this blog. And I learned some new things which never hurts. Life is all about learning. Bet that pioneer village near Asheville is something to see. If I happen to be in the vicinity some time I’ll make it a point to stop.

  20. Loved these photos and the blog — can you imagine being in one of those places. I don’t know, Linda. I don’t think men were meant to be in cages. Oh, well.

    Oh, Linda, I finished your book just the other day — I so loved their story — I admit that your use of description and dialogue is really inspiring, but I think I love your use of metaphor — can’t spell the word — best of all.

    Thanks for letting me read this wonderful story.

  21. Linda, was a fascinating post! I’m sorry for being so late reading your blog. It’s so informative. I’ve been at the Mobeetie Jail, and it’s truly awsome. Thanks for researching and sharing all of the great info.

  22. Just being jailed in some of those cells would be enough to prevent recidivism. As for favorite jail – I showed the post to my husband and his response was Andy Griffith’s Mayberry Jail. Many of my relative work or worked at a NY State maximum security prison. They have amenities, but they are not nice places to be. It is unsafe for both prisoners and guards at times. My bother worked at Attica.

  23. Hi Linda!
    Fascinating post…I agree with Patricia above–the jail I know best is Andy of Mayberry’s . The jail cell in my town here in Illinois still stands from the 1860s but it is just a room used for storage now. It is on Main Street and inside an old limestone building which is presently used as a private driving school. Wish it was restored for posterity–maybe the historical society here will take up that cause.

  24. Hi Linda,

    I have been working on a site in Texas with a strap iron jail. The jail has 6 cells with 2 built in bunks in each cell. I’m trying to find the history of the jail. E-mail me and I’ll send you photos.


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