Texas Prison Museum
Texas has 115 prisons. Six of them are in Huntsville.
Billboards along the city's highways invite motorists to pursue careers as guards. The city's Prison Driving Tour winds past every jail and the prison cemetery. But its first stop is north of town, on Highway 75, at the brand new 10,000-square-foot Texas Prison Museum (which moved and expanded from it storefront roost downtown in late 2002).
Following yellow directional stripes painted on its concrete floor -- just like those used in prisons -- the exhibits at the museum trace the development of the Texas penal system from 1848 to today. Helping us to understand this is Jim Willett, the former warden of "The Walls" prison, one of the six in Huntsville. Willett, who looks like Dick Cheney, oversaw 89 executions. Now he spends his days relaxing in the prison barber chair at the Museum, eager to help. "If you have any questions, just ask!" (Jim became very serious looking whenever we took his picture, perhaps unconscious training from years of execution media coverage at the prison....)
The Museum's prize possession is Old Sparky, an electric chair that fried 361 prisoners between 1924 and 1964. It was made by prison workers, rescued from a prison dump, and is now displayed in a replica Death Chamber. Nearby is a photo of dog-faced Captain Joe Byrd, who started pulling Old Sparky's switch in 1936. "He was as tough as they came, but was loved because of his compassion," reads the accompanying caption. "He died on the job."
Lest one get the impression that the Museum is pro-electrocution, it also displays a hangman's noose and the tubing and straps from the first lethal injection in Texas in 1982. And standing nearby is the teletype machine -- a TWX Model 33 -- that received last-minute reprieves.
The gift shop, whose managers obviously understand their audience, sells "Death Row caps."
The Contraband Exhibit showcases "the craftiness and creativeness of inmates," evident in many improvised knives, pry bars, and lifelike guns. Also here is a ball made out of slivers of compressed paint, the size of a baseball, that was dropped into a sock and used as a weapon (lead-based paint is heavy); and a boot worn by prisoner Charles Harrelson -- Woody's dad -- with a hollowed-out heel in which he smuggled drugs.
An exhibit devoted to other notable prisoners includes a pistol found in the bullet-ridden death car of Bonnie & Clyde, but most of it is given over to lesser-known convicts such as Candy Barr (an exotic dancer) and Annie Williams, who cut up her two kids and hid the body parts in her freezer.
The prison hardware exhibit is fairly routine -- an old ball and chain, padlocks, handcuffs -- but it goes on to explain that in former years Texas prisons would reduce their overcrowding, and make a tidy profit, by leasing convicts to private industry. Prisoners were not happy with this arrangement and would sometimes cut off their fingers, hands, and feet -- and even blind themselves -- to avoid working in the lease camps, where they were often punished with whippings from something called the "bat" -- also on display.
You can have your picture taken in a real 9' x 6' jail cell at the Museum, and for three bucks you can borrow a striped prisoner shirt for that authentic Big House atmosphere. The manager complained to us: "We thought that this would be for kids, but the ratio of adults to kids is 4 to 1. I had twelve district attorneys in here, and they all wanted pictures AND a group shot."
A display of a prison uniform -- a white jumpsuit -- explains that, contrary to what you might see in photos taken at the Texas Prison Museum, the only time that Texas prisoners wore striped shirts was at the Texas Prison Rodeo, chronicled in another exhibit at the museum. Staged 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.
Its highlight was the Hard Money Event, in which 40 prisoners in red shirts were turned loose in an arena with an enraged wild bull. The bull had a tobacco sack tied between its horns, stuffed with up to $1,500 in cash, and the first inmate to grab the sack and take it to a judge got to keep it. Injuries were expected.
Since Huntsville is such a prison-minded town, we asked Warden Willett if ex-cons ever visit its prison museum. He nodded, telling us the Museum is sometimes the first stop made by prisoners when they're released, which is always on Fridays. "Do you ever recognize them?" we asked. "Not individually," Willett said. "But you can always recognize them."
How right he was! As we left the Museum, a pickup truck passed by, towing a trailer filled with about a dozen men in white jumpsuits -- prisoners! -- and a couple of guards. We spotted them instantly. It was a landscaping crew. Huntsville's greatest human resource was being put to yet another good use.