Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas
A Noticeable Lack of Jails
Bonham Daily Favorite, November 7, 1993
Although several attempts were made to establish an official prison during the Republic of Texas days, nothing was actually done until the Texas Legislature, in 1848, finally set about creating the Texas Prison System. The first prison facility was erected at Huntsville in 1847 but did not receive its first prisoners until 1849.
Local county governments were responsible for those sentenced to serve time by providing the necessary means of securing these prisoners for the term of their incarceration. It would seem from the many accounts of criminal activity during those early days in Texas that the regional facilities would be crowded to overflowing.
Fannin County was far from being crime free although the possibility of serving time seems to have been limited to the most serious of crimes such as murder. Horse thievery was considered to be about as serious a crime as murder and in many cases the apprehended horse thief was almost certainly to find himself at the end of a rope and not always due to the pronouncements of any judicial personage.
Those crimes that today we consider to be minor but still requiring some sort of retribution do not seem to have existed in the frontier mentality. An examination of Fannin County court records find very few of these crimes and even those of a more serious nature seemed to have usually resulted in a not guilty verdict.
Murder seems to have been the prevalent case heard by the Fannin County courts. Although testimonies, depositions, arguments, and other such evidence from these cases no longer exist, it seems that in many such cases the murders resulted from disputes over land ownership claims.
The first murder indictment in Fannin County was brought against a John W. Davis for the murder of William Wenlock. The case was presented to the Grand Jury at the November 1840 term of court at the courthouse in Warren.
The next day a jury of twelve men, composed of Stephen Westbrook, Seth Parker, Joseph Spence, Jacob Jetchum, William Onstott, Curtis Moore, Thomas S. Smith, Joseph D. Rogers, George Damron, Samuel McFarland, Mabel Gilbert, and John Stephens, was summoned to hear the case.
Nothing remains of this case beyond the indictment, the names of the jury panel, and the jury's "guilty" verdict. The jury assessed Davis' punishment at five years which was to be served in the custody of Sheriff John P. Simpson.
The sentence brings up an interesting question. What did Sheriff Simpson do with John Davis for the five years of his sentence? Nothing in the records even hints at the existence of any sort of jail or correctional facility in the county. Simpson had a solution.
In fact the Fannin County annals are curiously quiet on the subject of jails for the first fifteen or so years of the county's existence. Regional lore has often held that the first jail was built, at his own expense, by Sheriff John P. Simpson, when the county seat was moved from Warren to Bonham. The fact is that Simpson served as Sheriff only in 1840 and 1841, two years before the county seat was moved.
Court records also indicate that most times the Sheriff was assigned the responsibility of securing prisoners both before and after their trials. In the Commissioners Court records at the July, 1845 term of court, Sheriff Thomas A. Dagle appeared and "presented an account against the county for expenses incurred in guarding and keeping the criminal Samuel Wychard, charged with larceny." Dagley was awarded $92.82 on the account.
It must be assumed that the Sheriff had the authority to farm these prisoners out to other persons after they had been senetenced to his custody. At the July, 1846 term of the Commissioners Court, William H. Pullens, after an unexplained delay, appeared before the court and presented his account against the county, "for guarding and taking charge of the prisoner J.W. Davis in 1840, amounting to $183." Pullens was awarded the full amount. It might be presumed that Pullens requested his compensation only after Davis had served his full term.
For the next several years accounts such as these appear in nearly every term of the Fannin Count Commissioners Court and there is no clear evidence that a jail facility had ever been called for or built. Texas records, other than those of Fannin County, indicate that this was a similar situation in many areas of the state. Once the initial prison at Huntsville began accepting prisoners in 1849, those convicted of serious crimes could then be transported for incarceration.
Exactly what were the responsibilities of those charged with "guarding and tending" these prisoners? Nothing was spelled out in the court records and it seems that whatever requirements were necessary were detailed by the county sheriff. It appears, from other sources, that these prisoners simply expected to work at whatever tasks their keepers assigned them and in return the keeper was required to furnish some measure of care and attention for the term of the prisoner's sentence.
By the mid point of the nineteenth century there was an influx of people into Texas somewhat akin to the rush that took place after Texas achieved its independence. And, as occured in those early years of the Republic, there was an accompanying increase in the criminal element seeking to escape the law in other parts of the country.
Texas was not so far removed from the mores of its frontier society in which a man's background or reason for coming to Texas was questioned. Into this situation the criminal might have expected to escape notice until he could ply his illegal trade.
For whatever reasons, the county officials finally began to talk of the need for a county jail. Under the guidance of Chief Justice J.F. Crawford and Sheriff William A. Routh, the Commisioners Court began to investigate the need, extent, and financing of a jail.
At the August, 1856 term of the court it was ordered that notices be inserted in The Bonham Advertiser and The Northern Standard, in Clarksville, requesting the submission of plans and bids for the erection of a jail for Fannin County.
No reasons were given, but at the court session on August 30th, all plans and bids were rejected.
Over the next two months, someone, at the behest of the court drew up a set of plans and specifications for a jail. On November 17, 1856 the court ordered that bids be received by January 3rd and it further ordered that Samuel J. Galbraith, County Clerk, purchase a suitable lot.