We first became aware of Yuma, Arizona's, approach to law and order when we saw the city's Tramp Chair at the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Florida. The Chair was a metal seat in which vagrants were locked and left in the desert, which is the kind of justice that we'll pay to see. So when we learned that Yuma's Territorial Prison had become a tourist attraction, we had to stop by....
The Prison, it turns out, was a tourist attraction even when it was a prison, with money from tours being used to buy books for its library. It's been closed since 1909, and much of it has succumbed to the elements and to frugal locals looking for cheap building supplies. The cell block that remains, however, is still imposing, with its strap iron cages set inside high adobe-and-rock walls, all built by the prisoners themselves. The Territorial Prison turns out to be a good family vacation prison: more colorful than modern tourist lockups, and much less terrifying.
During its 33 years of operation over 3,000 men and 29 women were jailed here, often for odd crimes, according to displays in the Prison museum. Men were imprisoned for being Mormons or Mexican revolutionaries, women for rape, adultery, and for selling liquor to Indians.
"You can be a convict too!" reads a sign. "Please join the gang supporting the preservation and enjoyment of Arizona's heritage." Visitors are invited to "create your very own prisoner portrait" by donning a striped prison suit, holding a number on a card under their chin, and taking pictures of themselves.
Other exhibits of note in the museum include the last surviving headstone from the prison cemetery, and a selection of horsehair hat bands and rattlesnake belts made by the convicts and sold to visitors at the prison's Sunday flea market.
One display, titled "a grisly object," is the weight allegedly used to stretch the hangman's rope at the courthouse gallows.
Highlights of the self-guided tour around the Prison yard include a peek into the remains of the "incorrigible ward" cages, and the ominous "Dark Cell," which was essentially the same as a regular cell except that it was excavated into a hill and was pitch black when its door was shut.
Prisoners who refused to obey the rules were sent to the Dark Cell -- what was the warden thinking? Convicts probably outdid each other in mayhem to get into in that total darkness and subterranean coolness, especially in this blinding desert climate.
In an odd twist, derelicts and transients set up housekeeping in the Prison after it had been abandoned. There's irony in that, but we bet that it wouldn't have happened if Florida hadn't swiped the Tramp Chair.