The Fannin County Jail Has Been Destroyed by Fire
Bonham Daily Favorite, November 21, 1993
Within four years of the completion of the first Fannin County jail, Texas was embroiled in the early days of the Civil War. For the next four years little information, concerning the operation of the jail, is to be found in the records of the Fannin County Commissioners. Part of the difficulty in researching the legal system in the county is that each sheriff of the county was empowered to keep his own records including those of jail activities.
Unfortunately no provision seems to have ever been made to preserve these records with the result that most of the information about the county's 150 year history in law enforcement has been lost.
During those years of the Civil War there are only scattered references to activities at the jail. In 1858 County Clerk Samuel Galbraith was ordered by the court to purchase weatherboarding for the jail, hire workers to do the installation of the boards, and hire a painter to paint the jail. Appropriations in the amount of $45.00 was allowed. In February of 1859 Joshua Fuqua was hired to do blacksmithing and repairs at the jail. Only incidentals such as these are jail information we have during this period.
After the war ended and the Reconstruction government held sway over the operation of local governments do we find the first evidence that law enforcement was not to be left in the hands of locally elected officials. The 11th Texas Legislature in session at Austin enacted a piece of legislation entitled "An Act to Provide For the Employment of Convict for Petty Offenses."
It was generally considered that this legislation was enacted to better control punishments issued for freedmen who were being arrested and jailed on the slightest of pretexts. In some sections of the state control of gangs of former slaves was seriously curtailed by occupying military forces.
The legislative act briefly provided that any persons convicted of any misdemeanor would be remanded to the custody of the local sheriff until the fines and costs were paid. The sheriff was ordered to hire out such persons or he could become the hirer himself.
The sheriff was also instructed to hire these convicts only to men who could secure the pay for their services. They were reguired to pledge that the convicts were to be treated humanely and would be required to work only during the normal "laboring hours."
The employers were also to "use reasonable exertions to capture them if they escape. If any person hired out under these provisions refuse to perform ordered services or refuse to obey any reasonable orders, or attempt to escape, then the employer was to deliver them to the sheriff who would then place them in jail where they were to be kept until the expiration of their time for which they were committed."
As the controls of the Reconstruction government continued to tighten additional legislation regarding law enforcement continued to issue from Austin. On March 20, 1868 General Order #41 was sent to Fannin County officials.
The order was "to provide for the most efficient administration of Justice, the Courts of several Counties in this State are authorized to levy a special tax upon all taxable property within the limits of their respective jurisdictions yielding one half of one percent assessed value thereof. The tax so levied will be added to assessment for the current year payable in United Stated currency. This tax will be applied to defraying the expenses necessarily incurred in arresting, guarding, subsisting, and when necessary clothing and trying prisoners and such repairs to jails and other places of imprisonment as may be indispensably necessary to the security and health of prisoners awaiting trial or undergoing punishment." Signed by order of Brevet Major General E.R.S. Canby.
At the opening of the Court, now called Police Court under orders from the military authorities, on May 18, 1868, the first entry in the court minutes is a brief statement.
"It Appearing to the court that the jail of said Fannin County has been destroyed by fire it is ordered by the court that the nails and irons from the ruins be collected by Sheriff Bledsoe and that he sell same for cash."
No information about the fire, the fate of the prisoners or what provisions were to be made for guarding prisoners. The only apparent concern was to reap some financial benefit from what could be raked from the ashes. Nor for the next several months was there any expressed concern over the replacement of the jail. Without a doubt the county finances were still in a shambles after the expensive war not long concluded
Once again Sheriff Bledsoe was put into the position of having to find alternative means for housing those persons sentenced by the courts to serve terms of varying lengths. And as his predecessors had done, Bledsoe resorted to the old method of farming out those prisoners, who were charged with lesser offenses, to the custody of selected individuals who assumed the responsibility for guarding these prisoners and utilizing them in various forms of labor. This solution can be found in accounts such as the one submitted to the court by L.C. Wilson two weeks after the destruction of the jail. On June 5, 1868 Wilson received payment in the amount of $6.00 for "feeding prisoners and the guard's horses."
The more serious offenders were evidently farmed out to surrounding county jails. The first account of this appears in the August 17, 1868 court minutes. Sheriff Bledsoe submitted his account for $24.00 for "taking prisoner Clanton to the Paris jail." At almost every term of court for the next two years such accounts were submitted by Bledsoe and the majority of these transports seem to have been to the Paris jail.
Missing from the court minutes for the next several months is any reference to a replacement for the burned jail. Evidently at some point the Commissioners did appoint a committee to oversee the building of a new jail. At the July 1869 term of court the Commissioners "order that the committee to superintend the building of the jail, viz, S.A. Roberts, S.B. Allen, and J.R. Russell be and they are hereby relieved from further duty as such commissioners, by their own request and for want of harmony in view with the Police Court."
"It is further ordered that F.D. Piner, Jack Blair, and Peter B. Maddrey be appointed in their stead." Obviously the delay in the construction of a jail must have been the result of strong disagreements, over the proper course of action for the court to take, resulting in the firing of the original construction committee."
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas