Fear, Force, and Leather - The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years, 1848-1948



Rough Beginnings, 1849-1861

War and Collapse, 1861-1871

The Lease Era, 1871-1883

Convict Leasing, 1883-1909

Scandal and Reform, 1909-1911

Perpetual Inquiry, 1911-1927

Reform and Reaction, 1927-1948

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Rough Beginnings 1848-1861

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Building “The Walls”

A special committee selected Huntsville, the hometown of Texas icon Sam Houston and the growing seat of Walker County, as the location of the prison. The first superintendent was Abner Cook, a self-taught architect who had built many of the finest homes in Austin; a few years later, he would go on to design and build the Texas Governor’s Mansion. As one of the only experienced builders in Texas, he seemed a natural to supervise the construction, though one critic noted that his design showed “little familiarity with other penitentiaries in the United States.”

On August 5, 1848, Cook broke ground with the digging of a well. Soon workers had created “The Walls,” a 300-square-foot site enclosed by a brick wall 15 feet high and three feet thick. The new prison had three wings, each constructed of brick two feet thick: an 88-cell east wing, including two dark cells for punishment; a 144-cell south wing; and a 36-cell west wing for women. Each cell was five feet wide by seven feet long (eight feet for women), with eight-foot ceilings. A central building contained an infirmary, kitchen and pantry, storehouse, workshops, small rooms for guards and officers, and an apartment and office for the superintendent.

William Sansom, the first prisoner at Huntsville, arrived in October and served out his nine-month sentence for cattle rustling in a temporary log jail. Even after the prison was completed, Texas juries proved reluctant to send their local boys away to The Walls. By 1850, three guards stood watch over just ten prisoners. The first female prisoner, 23-year-old Elizabeth Hofman, was not admitted until 1854; she served a year’s sentence for infanticide. In 1855, the total inmate population stood at only 75 inmates. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, 182 inmates called The Walls home.

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Abner Cook to penitentiary  directors, September 1849In this 1849 report to the directors of the penitentiary, Abner Cook lists expenses such as bricks, nails, paint, and flooring.





Directors of the state penitentiary to Governor Bell, November 1851In 1851, the directors of the penitentiary reported on a prison still "in its infancy." The directors are already wrestling with the conflict between profit and the expenses of transporting, feeding, and guarding the convicts. They also explain a recent death by gunshot.

Page last modified: July 23, 2019