Fear, Force, and Leather: The Texas Prison System&rsquot;s First Hundred Years 1848-1948

Rough Beginnings 1848-1861

Learn MoreJohn S. Besser was born to immigrant parents in Pennsylvania. By the time he was 16, Besser had headed west to St. Louis, where he learned the tailor’s trade, then enlisted in the famous Ashley-Henry fur trapping expedition to the Yellowstone country. After his return, he traded tailoring and exploring for politics, first in Missouri, then in the Republic of Texas, where he moved in 1841. In 1852, Besser was appointed the financial agent for the Texas state prison. He became the key stabilizing force of the prison’s early years, writing the prison’s early rules and managing the operation of the textile mill.

Besser was known for espousing political views that went against the grain. In Civil War Texas, he made no secret of being a Unionist. Perhaps as a result of his beliefs, he was investigated for mismanagement of the clothing mill. Besser found himself accused of personally profiting from the mill and of improperly hiring his son over more qualified individuals. Though he retained the support of Governor Francis R. Lubbock, Besser resigned in 1863 after Texas state troops stormed the prison factory to take clothing at gunpoint, firing shots into Besser’s office. In later years, he served as a judge in Walker County.

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John S. Besser, December 1863"I seized a musket": In this letter, Besser writes a first-hand account of the violent attempt by Texas state troops to seize cloth. Besser's wife and son were also threatened.




Page last modified: February 9, 2016