Hell on the Border Jail

Visitors today can walk in the jail cell used by the federal court in the 19th century.
Hell on the Border Jail

During the summer of 1885, a woman named Anna Dawes traveled to Fort Smith and the Indian Territory with her father, Senator Henry Dawes. Anna was very important to the inmates of the federal jail at Fort Smith because she wrote an article describing the conditions of their prison, a place she called a "veritable hell upon earth."

The jail at Fort Smith was the basement of the federal courthouse. It consisted of two rooms and as Anna wrote, it had no light except what came from underground windows and no outside ventilation. In June of 1885, one hundred and nine men were confined there, nine of them accused of murder and two already convicted of that crime.

To Anna, the jail was a "piece of medieval barbarity." The only opportunity for washing was a one half bucket of water in each cell. A single chamber pot served each cell. The air in the basement was suffocating. Hoping to make the air more bearable, the flagstones of the floor were constantly wet down, making the air heavy with rising steam and dampness.

Men who had already been convicted of murder or other violent crimes were confined with the rest in Fort Smith. There was no separation of offenders by crime, meaning that a person accused of horse theft might spend his days listening to the gruesome tales of someone headed for the gallows.

The prisoners relieved the boredom of their days by holding mock court. The men were tried for such offenses as spitting upon the floor and on conviction were sentenced to sweep it. One man suffered such an accumulation of offenses that he reportedly appealed to Judge Parker's court above the jail. To exercise, the prisoners divided up into squads to march up and down the room at intervals.

Anna Dawes closed her article by asking "what excuse has the government of the United States to offer for the existance and continuance of this scandal?" She obviously made an impression because in February of 1886, Congress appropriated funds to build a new jail in Fort Smith. Construction began in 1887 and prisoners were moved into the new facility in March of the following year.

Last updated: September 25, 2017

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