HOME TO ONE HERO AND NOT A FEW VILLAINS - By John Ronan Broderick
Nestled among the East Texas Piney Woods is one of the oldest cities in Texas to have been established by Anglo-Americans. In 1836, the same year that Texas won its independence from Mexico, what would become the city of Huntsville was founded by two brothers, Pleasant and Ephraim Gray, who had opened a trading post there in 1835 to conduct business with the local Native Americans. 1837 saw Ephraim appointed postmaster of the new settlement, which he named after his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.
At this point in time the new town of Huntsville was part of the Republic of Texas, a new nation that had emerged under the guidance of General Sam Houston, leader of the ragtag army of volunteers who, though greatly outnumbered, defeated Mexican general Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. For the next nine years or so, Huntsville was part of this new republic, until its annexation by the United States on December 29, 1845. That same year Huntsville was incorporated as a city and became the county seat of what is now Walker County. The annexation of Texas by the U.S. was the primary cause of the Mexican-American War in 1846, for Mexico had never ceded its rights to Texas, this despite Santa Anna’s capitulation a decade earlier, when Sam Houston had captured him while trying to make his escape from San Jacinto, disguised as a woman, wearing a dress.
TEXAS PRISON SYSTEM
In 1847 the Texas state legislature created the Texas State Penitentiary and decided on Huntsville for its site, an act that would have a profound effect on the city’s development, direction, and reputation in the years to come. Construction was begun on the original prison, the Huntsville Unit, aka “The Walls,” so named because of the 15-foot-high brick walls that surrounded the prison yard. The Walls occupies 54 acres of downtown Huntsville. This structure was, according to historian Robert Perkinson in his book, Texas Tough: The Rise of a Prison Empire, “the first public work of any importance” constructed in the state. This fact gives some indication of the priorities and mindset of the state legislature. This mindset seemed to persist well into the 20th century, as evidenced by the proliferation of new prisons constructed under the administrations of Governors Ann Richards and George W. Bush. Possibly due to the prison being located in Huntsville, the city lost out to Austin in the vote for the site of the capitol of Texas in 1850.
Though construction was not finally completed until 1853, the first prisoners were accepted at the new facility on October 1, 1849. During the first year of the Civil War the inmates at The Walls manufactured most of the tents and uniforms for the Confederate Army. Initially The Walls was segregated, accepting only white inmates. The only punishments left to the disenfranchised black felons, since incarceration was not an option, was the lash of the bullwhip or hanging. There was no middle ground. It must be remembered that Texas had been admitted to the Union as a slave state, so the whip was an already accepted form of discipline for blacks by their white overseers. Not so for the poor black slaves and convicted felons, who would have preferred a more humane form of punishment.
In all likelihood, this policy of segregation persisted until the conclusion of the Civil War, when news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas on June 19, 1865.This announcement gave rise to an unofficial state holiday known as “Juneteenth,” which has been observed by Texas African-Americans ever since. Those who are incarcerated are traditionally fed barbequed pork ribs for their holiday meal. Inmates eat better on Juneteenth than they do on either the Fourth of July or Cinco de Mayo, which gives some indication of the balance of power among the races in the new, 21st century, integrated prison system.
The Texas Prison System was subsequently renamed the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) and is now known as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Since its inception the prison has been the largest employer in Huntsville. It is also the only state agency not headquartered in Austin, the state capital. Over the years six other prison units have been built in and around Huntsville. The total prison population in the Huntsville area alone, which hovers around 13,000, approximates one-third of the city’s population. For many years it was a common practice for TDC to contract convicts out to area farmers to work their fields or to local businessmen to perform other forms of manual labor at a cheap rate. Naturally, the convicts were not compensated for their efforts; the money was paid directly to prison officials in this arrangement; it is doubtful that much, if any, of this money found its way into TDC’s coffers.
TDCJ is infamously known as the “death penalty capital of the United States,” a dubious distinction that has had a polarizing effect on the citizens of Texas for decades. Between 1924 and 1964, 361 inmates were executed in the electric chair, affectionately known as “Old Sparky.” It now has a place of honor in the impressive and informative Texas Prison Museum since its retirement, when the more humane form of lethal injection replaced it. Prior to the introduction of the electric chair in 1923, when all executions were thenceforth ordered carried out by the state, executions had been carried out by the individual counties. From 1819 until 1923 hanging was the means of execution.
Texas leads the U.S. in the number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976; it is by far the busiest execution chamber in America. The state has put to death over 567 prisoners since 1982. Of these, 279 met their fate during Governor Rick Perry’s administration (2001-2014), more than any other governor in U.S. history. Objectively, one must consider several factors that contribute to these high numbers: 1) Texas is the second most populous state, behind California, in the U.S.; 2) the citizens of Texas are traditionally politically conservative; 3) in the vast majority of cases where the death sentence is meted out, it is juries, not judges, who hand down the sentence; 4) a significant majority of Texans endorse the use of the death penalty as evidenced by their continued election of state legislators who represent their views on this issue.
The prison cemetery, located about a mile from The Walls, was originally and unofficially known as “Peckerwood Hill” as a result of its segregated status for what was considered the final resting place for poor white trash. It contains over 3,000 graves of inmates who died in prison and whose bodies went unclaimed. Over 100 inmates are still buried here annually. Those tombstones bearing the inscription, “EX,” signify those who were executed by the state.
The official name of the cemetery now is the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery, a possible concession, at least in part, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Byrd was an assistant warden who was the state’s official executioner during the 1960s; he personally “pulled the switch” on dozens of inmates himself. To his credit, Byrd was also the man responsible for the general cleanup of Peckerwood Hill in the 1960s, which was in a terrible state of neglect, with many graves unmarked from a century of indifference.
Some of the more well known names of men who were incarcerated at The Walls over the years are: the notorious outlaw and quick-draw gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, who killed at least 21 men in gun duels and ambushes between 1868 and 1877; Clyde Barrow who, with girlfriend Bonnie Parker, robbed innumerable country grocery stores and gas stations but in reality very few banks, as Hollywood would have us believe; rock star David Crosby, of the super groups, the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, for possession of cocaine and carrying a pistol; and Charles Harrelson, the only man to have assassinated a federal judge in the 20th century, and father to actor Woody Harrelson. Only Crosby still rocks on. He has vowed never to return to the state of Texas. And he only spent a few months in “the joint.”
An interesting footnote to the history of TDCJ was the personal employment in 1956 by then warden of The Walls, O.B. Ellis, of a man going by the alias of Ben W. Jones. Based on forged documents Jones was hired, not as a mere prison guard but given the rank of lieutenant by Ellis himself. Within a month or so Ellis promoted Jones to the rank of captain, the equivalent in those days of assistant warden, and he was put in charge of maximum security (solitary confinement) at The Walls. In December 1956, just a few days before Christmas, Jones’s fraud was exposed and he was identified as none other than Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., the man known as “The Great Impostor.” He of course vehemently denied this accusation with expert aplomb when confronted by Ellis and other prison officials. Allowed to return to his quarters, he snuck off the prison grounds in the dark of night and was in the wind. He never returned to Texas, nor was he pursued by the authorities. This incident is well documented in Robert Crichton’s biography, The Great Impostor, which was adapted into the 1961 film starring Tony Curtis as Demara. As one might imagine, this was an embarrassing incident for both Warden Ellis and TDC, one they’d just as soon not have been resurrected.
From a demographics perspective, Huntsville’s estimated population in 2018 was 41,521. According to Wikipedia the 2010 U.S. Census reported the city’s racial makeup to be comprised of (rounded): 66% white; 26% African-American; 16% Hispanic; and 8% other races. Obviously, someone cannot add because this totals 116%. Huntsville is located 72 miles north of Houston and 171 miles south of Dallas. Relative to Texas, Huntsville has a crime rate higher than 68% of Texas’s cities and towns of all sizes. Weather-wise, Huntsville has hot humid summers and mild to cool winters. The city’s size is 36 square miles. Before the prison system came along, timber and cattle were the backbone of the local economy and still play an important role overall.
SAM HOUSTON, HERO OF THE TEXAS REVOLUTION
Huntsville’s leading and most famous citizen was General Sam Houston, hero of the Texas Revolution. Not only was he elected the first and third president of the Republic of Texas, he became its first governor after it became the 28th state in the Union, and he was later elected to represent it in the U.S. Senate. Before coming to Texas Houston had been governor of Tennessee as well as a U.S. congressman from that state. He is the only man in our nation’s history to have achieved the distinction of having been governor of two different states.
Houston was opposed to the Civil War, an unpopular position during that era in Texas, which was part of the seceded nation, the Confederate States of America. It may be presumed that, because of Houston’s intimate association with Native Americans as an honorary member of the Cherokee Nation, he was no racist, thus his opposition to the war. Although a slaveholder himself, Houston repeatedly voted against the spread of slavery to new territories. Texas legend says that Houston freed his dozen slaves before he was legally required to do so. Since he died in 1863, before the Civil War ended, the legend rings true.
Houston’s homes in Huntsville, Woodland and Steamboat House, are both still standing in restored condition and are tourist attractions, along with the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, where his personal papers, memorabilia, and other personal artifacts are on display. When he died at Steamboat House on July 26, 1863, at age 70, his last words to his wife were, “Texas, Margaret, Texas!” He is buried in Huntsville, where he had lived since 1847. His mentor and sometime nemesis, Andrew Jackson, commented upon Houston’s passing that “The world will take care of Houston’s fame.” And indeed it has, for on the northbound side of Interstate-45’s entrance to Huntsville stands a white 67-foot-tall statue of General Sam by artist David Adicks called “Tribute to Courage,” the world’s largest statue of an American hero. Moreover, the City of Houston, Texas, also named after him, is the fourth largest city in America. It is the only one of the top four named for a genuine American hero. Predictions are that it will soon displace Chicago as the third largest city in the country.
SAM HOUSTON STATE UNIVERSITY
According to Wikipedia, Sam Houston State University was created, appropriately, on San Jacinto Day, April 21st, 1879. It is the second largest employer in Huntsville, with approximately 600 academic staff plus support personnel. SHSU is the third oldest college or university in Texas and had as its stated goal from its inception the training of teachers for Texas public schools. Its Austin Hall was constructed in 1851 and is the oldest university building west of the Mississippi River still in operation. The current student enrollment exceeds 21,000. It is organized into eight colleges, including its College of Criminal Justice, which is the largest [email protected] America. Many of the TDCJ employees who work in the seven prisons in the Huntsville area are criminal justice students here. SHSU offers 88 undergraduate degree programs, 59 Masters degrees, and 8 Doctoral. Some of its notable alumni are: Charlie Wilson, former U.S. Congressman; Dan Rather, former CBS anchorman; and Marcus Luttrell, former U.S. Navy Seal.
LOCAL OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
Located six miles southwest of Huntsville is the 2,083-acre Huntsville State Park, a beautiful wooded recreational area, one of the nicest state parks in Texas. Situated on the edge of the Sam Houston National Forest, it began as one of FDR’s New Deal back-to-work programs in the mid-to-late 1930s. The project got interrupted by World War II and did not officially open until 1956. It offers camping areas equipped with showers and restrooms and 17 miles of hiking and biking trails. Additionally, there is 21-acre Lake Raven with its superb fishing that requires no license. Kayaking and canoeing are also permitted. Birdwatchers will likewise be impressed by the 218 species that can be spotted throughout the year. And for the equestrian-minded, there is guided horseback trail riding. Finally, Raven Hall, built in 1942, is available for rental for weddings, reunions, and other social events.
Also nearby is the Blue Lagoon, the premier diving facility in the state. It is a privately owned property consisting of two former limestone quarries, each filled with 28 feet of warm, spring-fed crystal blue water. It is used primarily for scuba diving instruction, where for $435, divers can earn their certification over a weekend.
Visitors to Huntsville will be impressed with its cultural district, which was one of the first seven such districts created by the Texas Commission on the Arts in 2009. It is especially attractive to Texas history buffs, with its three comprehensive museums dedicated to Sam Houston, the Texas Prison System, and American military veterans. Architecturally, some of the finest historical architecture in Texas can be appreciated via the restored, renovated, and preserved homes and commercial buildings throughout the downtown area. World famous artist Richard Haas has contributed handsome murals he has painted in the downtown area. There is even a replica of the original Gray Brothers’ log cabin style trading post on the site where it was erected nearly 200 years ago.
For the aesthetically inclined there are numerous art galleries, artists’ studios and workshops, theaters featuring music, dance, and theatrical performances. The shopping district on the downtown square, featuring its fair share of antiques, is a wonderful place to while away a few hours on a morning or afternoon stroll.
A half century ago Walker County was a “dry” county, meaning in the parlance of that time that one could not purchase alcohol within the county. There was not a single bar or restaurant serving alcohol in Huntsville. In that era each of the 254 Texas counties could vote whether their county would be wet or dry. My, how times have changed! For there are now no less than 16 bars and restaurants in Huntsville and its environs, ranging from a crawfish and oyster bar, to sushi, karaoke, bar-b-que, Mexican food, seafood, steaks, to—get this!-- Mongolian cuisine. The city also lays claim to the oldest café in Texas, the 83-year-old Café Texan, located downtown on the courthouse square. Its famous chicken fried steak is a lunchtime favorite among the café’s patrons. For convenience sake most of these bars and restaurants are located within walking distance of one another in the downtown area, close to the university. When one considers that the net civilian population of Huntsville is, less the 13,000 inmates. about 28,000, and then you add back in the 21,000 student population, then the city has close to 50,000 potential customers for these popular nightclubs, bars and restaurants. And this does not take into consideration the tourist trade, which is growing with each passing weekend. Huntsville, Texas is thriving! As cross-dressing General Santa Anna may’ve said, “Viva Huntsville!”
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