Reforming the Hell on the Border Jail

Reforming "Hell on the Border": Changes in the U.S. Jail
for the Western District of Arkansas, 1872 - 1896

by Juliet L. Galonska
Originally published in the Occasional Papers of Arkansas Tech University.

"THIS dark, crowded underground hole is noisome with odors of every description,...horrible with all horrors--a veritable hell upon earth."1 Such was the description Anna Dawes wrote of the federal jail in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the summer of 1885. Overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and an inability to separate prisoners by their crimes plagued this facility from its beginnings in 1872. Dawes, the daughter of Senator Henry Dawes, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee and architect of Indian allotment, brought national attention to the conditions in Fort Smith, resulting in construction of a jail designed to correct the deficiencies began. While this did bring improvements, the hope that a new building would alleviate all problems proved misguided.2

The Fort Smith jail served as the facility for holding prisoners in the Western District of Arkansas. Until 1896, the jurisdiction of this court encompassed all or parts of Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma), home to the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles, tribes the U.S. removed from their homelands in the Southeast during the 1830s. Treaties in 1866 reduced the territory of those nations due to alliances of at least some portions of each tribe with the Confederacy. This resulted in the relocation of additional Indian tribes in the territory, as well as increasing pressure from whites to open the lands to settlement. The treaties also granted the railroads access, creating a transportation link that enhanced the possibility of huge profits in cattle, lumbering and mineral mining. With these opportunities for wealth, the overlapping jurisdictions of the U.S. government and independent Indian nations, and the immense acreage and distances that made avoiding justice easy, the Indian Territory became a chaotic refuge for the lawless.

Responsibility for policing this area fell to the U.S. court in Fort Smith. The Western District of Arkansas, created in 1851, derived uniqueness from its authority to handle cases between Indians and those who were not tribal members. The court, unlike most of its counterparts, handled an extraordinary criminal caseload, with most of this activity erupting after the Civil War. It was also during this time that Judge Isaac C. Parker (1838-1896) served on the bench, bringing efficiency and effectiveness to federal justice in the region.3

Although Fort Smith became infamous as the home of the Western District Court, the city was not the original host to these judicial facilities. Through political wrangling in 1871, the seat of the court moved from Van Buren, Arkansas, to Fort Smith. The following year, the U.S. Marshal, responsible for maintaining federal court buildings, found a suitable, permanent jail in the basement of the abandoned soldiers' barracks of the second Fort Smith (1838-1871). Transferring the U.S. jail to this location was a matter of necessity, as the previous structure used for holding prisoners was a badly ventilated, dilapidated, disease-ridden building. With no funds available for costly improvements and the U.S. government seeking disposal of the fort property, Marshal William Britton seized the opportunity to apply for permission, which the Attorney General granted in August 1872, to house prisoners in the basement. The move of the U.S. district courtroom to the first floor of the barracks that November made the situation further convenient.4

Placing the jail in the barracks' basement was an adaptation of a space not designed for holding inmates and many of its inadequacies resulted from physical limitations. While Britton argued for use of the basement because it was already safeguarded, the Union Army having fitted the windows with gratings in order to hold Confederate prisoners there, other court officials complained that it was "improperly constructed and so insecure that it is necessary to have [the prisoners] protected by guards both night and day. "5A solid masonry wall divided the basement into two large rooms, approximately twenty-nine feet by fifty-five feet each. There were no individual cells in these rooms, leaving prisoners free to mingle with one another in the large space. The ceilings rose only seven feet above the flagstone floors. Each room had eight grated windows, four on the front and back walls, but these were underneath veranda porches, allowing little light or ventilation into the basement. The dark, claustrophobic conditions earned the jail a reputation as a "dungeon" or a "black hole."6

The sanitation needs of the inmates further complicated living conditions, their sheer numbers taxing the capacity of an already limited facility. Britton estimated that the space could hold a total of 150 prisoners. The population did not normally reach that level, instead fluctuating between forty-five and eighty-five prisoners--a high density for two rooms not quite 1,600 square feet each. It was a heterogeneous mix of men (female prisoners lived elsewhere), of every age, race, and crime, but nearly all from Indian Territory. Once incarcerated in Fort Smith, the jail met only their basic needs. Guards set urinal tubs in unused fireplaces in the hope that the flues would carry the odor out of the building. This rarely proved successful and often the stench was present in courtroom on the first floor. A single sink for cleansing was in each cell, but the jail staff did not ordinarily allow baths. In 1873, the U.S. Marshal's clerk wrote that some of the prisoners had been wearing the same clothing for weeks without washing. For at least half of the years the basement jail was in use, prisoners slept on the rough flagstone floor and the dampness caused their blankets and straw-filled mattresses to become soaked and moldy. Despite the frequent use of whitewash, lime and copperas, the jail remained "dirty beyond description."7

Concerned about the primitive conditions, Judge Parker directed grand juries to make periodic investigations of the jail. Their reports and those of some court officials indicated that conditions were "reasonable...for the comfort to be expected in such a place."8This justification may have not only been due to the number of men confined in a small area, but also to assumptions about the type of person who became an inmate and that those incarcerated as punishment should expect a degraded standard of living. Despite some enthusiastic reviews of the jail and periodic improvements, overall conditions remained poor. In the eyes of Anna Dawes, the Fort Smith jail was a "piece of mediaeval barbarity," "a plaque spot" and a "wretched place."9 The Attorney General agreed, declaring it the "most miserable prison, probably, in the whole country."10

Sanitation may have been less of a problem if prisoners were regularly released to exercise or work. Such programs were usually considered reform efforts, though, which was not a goal of the Fort Smith jail. Rehabilitation of prisoners was the job of penitentiaries, places of long-term confinement. A jail was a temporary or short-term place of incarceration, housing people awaiting trial, serving sentences of less than a year, or awaiting transfer to another facility. In Fort Smith, boredom filled the prisoners' days. They received breakfast and dinner and might have visits from friends, family or their attorney. Anna Dawes described the prisoners holding mock court, putting men on trial for such offenses as spitting on the floor. If convicted, the "judge" sentenced him to sweep. Dawes reported that one man received "such an accumulation of sentences of this nature that he appealed to the court upstairs!"11 For exercise, the prisoners marched up and down the room at intervals. The monotonous days also provided inmates with time to plan and execute escapes, but few were successful, guards usually catching those that did remove themselves from confinement. The majority of Fort Smith prisoners, outside of appearances in the courtroom, did not emerge from the darkness of the basement until they completed their sentence.12

The most oppressive feature about the Fort Smith jail was its potential for converting young, first-time offenders into violent criminals. By the nature of its physical design, the jail failed to segregate prisoners by the degree of their crimes, meaning that murderers and rapists sat next to whiskey smugglers and counterfeiters. The new delinquent shared quarters with those who had seen the insides of the jail five or more times. Also in the mix were men awaiting trial, transportation to a state facility, or execution. With no distinct cells, all were free to communicate and associate with one another. Federal officials worried that the situation was not only dangerous, but that instead of correcting the problems of crime, they added to them by allowing experienced criminals to effect negative changes in those who may have simply made a mistake. In the words of Attorney General Benjamin Brewster, it was "manifestly unjust and cruel to confine detained witnesses and boys charged with minor and first offenses in the same room with murderers and outlaws."13

Appeals for improvements in the U.S. jail occurred throughout the 1870s and 1880s, but Congress did not act on the matter until 1886. Though the situation had long been an embarrassment, the public outside of Fort Smith and the Indian Territory knew little of the jail's conditions and its reputation. This changed with the 1885 visit of the Daweses and the subsequent publication in Boston and Philadelphia of Anna's article entitled "A United States Prison." She did not simply describe the vile environment, but placed blame squarely on the U.S. government. "The worst fact in the whole disgraceful series is the fact that the National Government knows all about this horror....What was done about it?....What excuse has the Government of the United States to offer for the existence and continuance of this scandal?"14

In fact, court officers in Fort Smith complained repeatedly to the Attorney General about the conditions. In 1883, Senator James Walker and Representative John Rogers introduced bills to erect a new courthouse, postoffice and jail, but the effort stalled in the House of Representatives. Again in December of 1885, members of the Arkansas delegation proposed legislation. By this time, the Dawes article, reprinted in the Congressional Record, persuaded many that change was necessary. On March 16, 1886, the Secretary of the Treasury received authorization to expend $50,000 on a new facility for the "care and confinement of United States prisoners" in Fort Smith. In 1890, an appropriation of $5,000 allowed the addition of a second story to the barracks/courthouse building for use as a prison hospital.15

Construction began on the jail in 1887. Although a new structure, it was to be connected to the barracks/courthouse with this older portion renovated for office space, a consulting room for attorneys and their clients, sleeping rooms for guards and a kitchen. The Pauly Jail Building and Manufacturing Company of St. Louis served as the contractors for the project. The finished structure featured a cell block three tiers high surrounded by an iron cage. Each level held twenty four cells, twelve back-to-back running the length of the building. These measured five feet by seven feet and were furnished with an iron bunkbed for two prisoners. The inmates relocated here on March 19, 1888.

Instantly the goal of dividing prisoners by crime could be accomplished. Generally, level one of the new jail became the area for the most hardened criminals--those charged or convicted of murder, rape, or assault; level two for lesser crimes such as larceny; and level three for non-violent offenders. Those sentenced to death, however, did not have isolated quarters and at least one observer urged setting them apart from the general prison population. The argument in favor of such a course of action had less to do with the convicted's influence on other inmates, than it did to do with allowing those under a death sentence "to realize the gravity of their situation."16The Fort Smith jail never did achieve a distinct death row or solitary confinement.

Accomplishing the separation of prisoners and improving the physical layout were the only significant reforms resulting from the construction of the new jail. The difficulties with sanitation and security remained with the addition of some new obstacles. In December of 1888, nine months after guards moved the prisoners, Department of Justice Examiner Frank Strong reported that the jail was "not satisfactory as far as good order and neatness." The floors were not clean, cells and halls required whitewashing, and the walls were "covered with filth" because the "jailer seems unable to prevent prisoners from indulging in the unseemly amusement of covering as many square yards of wall as possible with yellow tobacco juice."17The difficulties persisted, for in 1896, another Justice Department examiner, Howard Perry, said that "absolutely no attention whatever [is] paid to keeping [the jail] a presentable condition."18 At least a portion of the problem rested in overcrowded conditions. At times there were over two hundred prisoners in a space designed for one hundred forty-four, "taxing the capacity of the building to its utmost, and necessitating the confinement of from three to four in a cell."19

While the harshest criticism of the new jail came from outside of Fort Smith, those in town did realize that sanitation remained a recurring problem. Judge Parker continued to send grand juries into the jail to review the conditions and make recommendations. Their ratings ranged from "excellent" to "good" to "very fair," but the jurymen again qualified such remarks.20 Statements that the jail was "in as good sanitary condition as could be expected"21 or that the prisoners were "as well kept and clean as it seems possible to keep an institution of this kind, filled with all classes and grades of prisoners"22 appear in the reports, just as they did during the first jail period. One group even pointed out that "it is a very easy matter to have the jail especially prepared for the visit of the Grand Jury" and urged more frequent inspections by independent examiners.23 Specific problems cited by grand juries included bed bugs, body lice, "bedding...filthy beyond all reason" and the lack of interest prisoners had in keeping their cells and persons clean.24

U.S. Marshal George Crump was aware of the state of the jail during Perry's visit in 1896, but he placed the blame on Washington, explaining that his staff would be happy to clean, whitewash and paint when the materials were available. His frustration is evident in his terse explanation to the Attorney General: "We can only use the white wash when we have it. We can only have it when we get authority in advance from your Department to buy it. We are willing to take upon ourselves all the censure and blame justly due us. [M]ore, we ought not to have."25 The Justice Department repeatedly refused or disallowed expenditures from the Western District Court, failing to understand why conditions in Indian Territory warranted such large amounts. When faced with a shortage of funds, which was often, officers in Fort Smith could only proceed with what they had available.26

One of the greatest oversights in constructing the new jail at Fort Smith was the failure to provide a separate space for female prisoners. During the first jail period, the federal court incarcerated women in the old military guardhouse, but with the move of prisoners to the new facility, the women went into cells next to the men "allowing free and unrestricted conversation between them."27 Although there was only an average of six women held at a time, the potential dangers of the situation concerned court officers. In 1894, U.S. Marshal George Crump suggested partitioning off a portion of the hospital for female prisoners to make a "safe, comfortable and respectable place in which to keep these unfortunates."28 This solution also had its problems, as Justice Department Examiner Howard Perry discovered in March of 1896. To reach the women's quarters in the hospital, one had to walk across the hospital room filled with male prisoners. During the day the door to the women's room was kept open, but locked at night. When Perry visited, in confinement were five white women and one black woman. At night the white women slept in the locked room, relegating the black female to a cot in the hospital among the men. For Perry, "it is little wonder if scandal should result" from such a "disgraceful" situation.29 His complaints prompted action and in December of 1896 the women finally had their own quarters in the east half of the former Parker courtroom.30

Discipline problems, of little consequence during the first jail period because guards could watch all prisoners at once, increased during the 1890s. In 1888, Frank Strong complained that Fort Smith lacked a competent and efficient jailer. "Discipline is almost unknown," he wrote to the Attorney General.31Seven years later, Perry found "to his utter surprise" a large number of empty whiskey bottles under one of the jail stairs. Marshal Crump explained that he occasionally allowed a prisoner to purchase spirits, and while this was not allowed into the jail, the guards would give the man a drink when he wished. At Christmas a local liquor dealer offered a drink to any prisoner who wanted one. "I do not think then, nor do I think now, that it was wrong in any respect." However, Crump complied with the Attorney General's orders and forbade whiskey in the jail.32

The boredom remained for prisoners. Although a grand jury recommended supplying the inmates with reading material to "lessen games of vice and more pleasantly pass off the monotonous hours,"33 they seemed to have preferred activities which might lead to escape. In 1888, guards found bricks loosened from the cell walls. The following year, two prisoners managed to get some spoons which they fashioned into knives. In 1893, the jail staff located a sling shot, two knife blades and a three-cornered file in the possession of inmates. As Frank Strong observed, "it is no easy task to control nearly 200 hardened and desperate men, shut up in the building with a few guards, and with but few methods of restraint on hand."34 Jail breaks were more elaborate affairs than those from the old jail and the jail staff did pay higher consequences. Still, there were few successes. Inmates did injure several guards in escape attempts, and there was one murder. Crawford Goldsby, alias Cherokee Bill, killed guard Larry Keating with a revolver smuggled into the jail by a visitor. Such incidents did not deter a grand jury from proclaiming that "firm discipline is maintained, and the Buz Luckies and Henry Starrs are as secure as if they were chained in the Tower of London."35

The Fort Smith jail completed in 1888 remained in use until 1917. Its declining population, a trend that began with the loss of the Western District Court's jurisdiction of Indian Territory in 1896, no longer filled such a large facility and maintenance of the building became burdensome. While construction of the second jail achieved certain goals, specifically separation of prisoners by crime, problems with sanitation remained and new issues of discipline and security arose. The jail staff was never satisfactorily able to resolve these. However, compared to the "standing reproach" of the basement jail, by 1893 Frank Strong of the Justice Department could declare that "the jail at Fort Smith is no longer, at least, an institution to be ashamed of, and answers its purpose comparatively well."36


1 Anna Dawes, "A United States Prison," Lend A Hand, 1886, 5.

2 Other works on the Fort Smith jail include: Juliet L. Galonska, Barracks/Courthouse/Jail Building, Fort Smith National Historic Site, Historic Structure Report (National Park Service, 1995); John C. Paige, Fort Smith, Courthouse and Jail Wing, Historic Structure Report and Furnishing Study, Historical Data Section, Courthouse and Jail Wing (National Park Service, 1981); Leslie L. Siroky, Fort Smith, Courthouse and Jail Wing, Historic Structure Report, Courthouse and Jail Wing, Architectural Data Section, (National Park Service, 1979); Edwin C. Bearss, "Furnishing a New Federal Jail," The Journal, Fort Smith Historical Society, vol. 3, April 1979; Paul Keve, "The Fort Smith Jail: Federal Corrections on the Frontier," Federal Prisons Journal, vol. 3, Fall 1992.

3 For further discussion of the history of the federal court in Fort Smith, see Edwin C. Bearss and Arrell M. Gibson, Fort Smith: Little Gibraltar on the Arkansas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969); Jeffrey Burton, Indian Territory and the United States, 1866-1906: Courts, Government and the Movement for Oklahoma Statehood (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995); Fred Harvey Harrington, Hanging Judge (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, reprint 1996); and Glenn Shirley, Law West of Fort Smith: A History of Frontier Justice in the Indian Territory, 1834-1896 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1957).

4 W.A. Britton to the Attorney General, August 12, 1872, Western District of Arkansas, Source Chronological Files, Department of Justice, Record Group 60, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter noted as WDA, SCF). U.S. Marshals were presidential appointees and would change as politics did. The Western District had nine different marshals between 1872 and 1896. Britton served from 1869 to 1873.

5 W.H.H. Clayton to the Attorney General, May 17, 1884, WDA, SCF. Clayton served as the U.S. District Attorney. See also: W.A. Britton to the Attorney General, August 12, 1872, WDA, SCF.

6Dawes, 4. See also: U.S. Congress, Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States for the Year 1884, 48th Cong., 2nd sess., 1884. House Exec. Doc. 12, 144-145.

7Dawes, 5, 3-4. See also: W.A. Britton to the Attorney General, August 12, 1872, WDA, SCF; Charles E. Miller to the Attorney General, March 8, 1873, WDA, SCF; C.C. Ayers to Valentine Dell, September 9, 1880, WDA, SCF; J.E. Bennett to Valentine Dell, September 9, 1880, WDA, SCF; U.S. Congress, Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States for the Year 1884, 48th Cong., 2nd sess., 1884. House Exec. Doc. 12, 144-145.

8Grand Jury Reports, May and November Terms 1881, Grand Jury File, Library, Fort Smith National Historic Site, Fort Smith, Arkansas (hereafter cited as GJ, FOSM).

9 Dawes, 4-6. See also: John Carroll to Isaac Parker, November 16, 1885, Year Files, DOJ.

10 Congress, House, Congressman John Rogers of Arkansas reading from the Attorney General's report on the jail at Fort Smith, Arkansas, S. 610, 49th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record (1 March 1886), 1925.

11 Dawes, 5. For additional material on jails and prisons, see: Prisons and the American Conscience: A History of U.S. Federal Corrections (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991); Blake McKelvey, American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions (Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1977); and J.M. Moynahan and Earle K. Stewart, The American Jail: Its Development and Growth (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980).

12 Dawes, 5. See also: Fort Smith Elevator, March 24, 1882, September 16, 1887, March 23, 1888 and the Western Independent, July 4, 1874, September 29, 1875, December 6, 1876.

13 Congress, House, Congressman John Rogers of Arkansas reading from the Attorney General s report on the jail at Fort Smith, Arkansas, S. 610, 49th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record (1 March 1886), 1925. See also: Grand Jury Report, February Term, 1885, GJ, FOSM; Dawes, 4-5.

14 Dawes, 6.

15 24 U.S. Statutes, 5. See also: 26 U.S. Statutes, 36; 48th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record, 32, 59, 221, 897; 49th Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record, 212, 1925-1927, 2328, 2347.

16 Frank Strong to the Attorney General, November 4, 1893, Year Files, Department of Justice, Record Group 60, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter cited as Year Files, DOJ)

17 Frank Strong to the Attorney General, December 15, 1888, Year Files, DOJ.

18 Howard Perry to the Attorney General, March 30, 1896, Year Files, DOJ.

19 Grand Jury Reports, August Term 1895, March 7, 1894, May Term 1896, GJ, FOSM.

20 Grand Jury Reports, November Term 1888, August Term 1891, February Term 1895, GJ, FOSM.

21 Grand Jury Reports, May 14, 1891, July 23, 1892, GJ, FOSM.

22Grand Jury Report, February Term 1893, GJ, FOSM.

23 Grand Jury Report, February Term 1895, GJ, FOSM.

24 Grand Jury Reports, August Term 1895, July 23, 1889, March 7, 1894, May Term 1895.

25 George Crump to the Attorney General, April 11, 1896, Year Files, DOJ.

26 Mary M. Stolberg, "The Evolution of Frontier Justice: The Case of Judge Isaac Parker," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives, Spring 1988, 7-23.

27Grand Jury Report, August Term 1891, GJ, FOSM.

28 George Crump to the Attorney General, December 11, 1894, Year Files, DOJ. See also Frank Grygla to W. J. Edbrooke, December 10, 1891, Record Group 121, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

29 Howard Perry to the Attorney General, March 30, 1896, Year Files, DOJ.

30George Crump to the Attorney General, April 11, 1896, Year Files, DOJ. See also: Fort Smith Elevator, December 1896.

31 Frank Strong to the Attorney General, December 15, 1888, Year Files, DOJ.

32 Ibid. See also: Howard Perry to the Attorney General, March 30, 1896, Year Files, DOJ; Frank Strong to the Attorney General, December 15, 1888, Year Files, DOJ.

33Grand Jury Report, May Term 1895, GJ, FOSM.

34Frank Strong to the Attorney General, Year Files, DOJ. See also: Jacob Yoes to the Attorney General, October 29, 1890, Year Files, DOJ; Fort Smith Elevator, June 22, 1888, November 22, 1889, and October 27, 1893.

35 Grand Jury Report, August Term 1896, GJ, FOSM. See also: Frank Strong to the Attorney General, November 4, 1893, Year Files, DOJ; Grand Jury Report, February 13, 1891, August Term 1891, GJ, FOSM.

36 Frank Strong to the Attorney General, November 4, 1893, Year Files, DOJ.

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