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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Convict Diet in the 1860s

Corn or Wheat Bread;
Ham, Beef, Or Bacon;

Corn Or Wheat Bread;
Soup, Beef, Or Bacon;
Vinegar Or Molasses;
Vegetables Or Beans;
Rice, Dried Apples,
Or Hominy

Corn Or Wheat Bread;
Beef Or Bacon


The Civil War and the Collapse of Civil Authority 1861-1871

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Spare no pains nor time to get it as near ship shape as can be. A new beginning in these things must take place, and the rubbish of the past must be digested, so that new leaves of the future may be clean and explicit. – Governor James W. Throckmorton, 1864

The Civil War was a cataclysm that left no aspect of life in Texas untouched. The Texas state prison was no exception. The inmate population plunged as more men left the state for the war. Those who remained behind bars found themselves working harder than ever, as the cloth manufactory became a critical component in the Confederate supply chain and the largest industrial operation yet seen in Texas.

The Biggest Textile Mill in the South

With the Confederacy cut off from its sources of cloth from the northern states and overseas, Texas volunteered the men of Huntsville to supply the Confederate army with cloth for uniforms, tents, wagon covers, and flour sacking. By September 1863, the Confederate army was receiving 75 percent of what the mill produced, with the rest going to clothe indigent families of Texas soldiers, inmates of the state lunatic asylum, prison employees, and the convicts themselves. The effort was enormous, but even running at full capacity, the mill was not able to supply the Confederacy’s insatiable demand.

In 1864, Union troops overran Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri. Texas’s remoteness served to insulate the state from the worst of the fighting, and the prison in Huntsville took in convicts and prisoners of war from all three states. But with the surrender of the Confederate army in 1865, civil authority in Texas collapsed. At war’s end, "The Walls" withstood a six-week siege by a group of outlaws threatening to liberate the convicts and loot the prison stores.

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Thomas Hindman to Governor Lubbock, August 1862As early as 1862, Confederate commanders like Arkansas' Thomas Hindman were pleading with Governor Lubbock for more cloth from the Texas penitentiary.




Henry Perkins to the Texas Legislature, February 1863A Texas district attorney writes of the transfer to the penitentiary of "six Negroes claiming to be free." The men were sailors in the Federal Navy who had been taken prisoner.




Learn More About John S. Besser

Learn more about John S. Besser, the financial agent and political maverick who stabilized the prison throughout its early years and masterminded the textile operation.

Page last modified: August 27, 2019