December 13, 2010

Fort Smith Jail

Guest Blogger Kathy Otten

When my manuscript for Lost Hearts was in its earliest plotting stage I knew that my heroine, Johnny, would have to spend some time in jail. In my mind I pictured something similar to what I’d seen in TV westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. I saw a wood frame building with bars on the windows, a back room with four or five fairly spacious jail cells, each with a nice cot to sleep on. Meals arrived on trays covered with pretty dish towels and except for an obvious lack of freedom it wasn’t such a terrible place.

But after doing my research, I realized that what my heroine, Johnny, would experience was something very different from my original conception.

Johnny was arrested in Indian Territory by my hero, U.S. Deputy Marshal Richard Bennick, and returned to the United States District court at Fort Smith, AK. The jail at that time was beneath the courthouse, a brick building which had once housed the soldiers of the old fort.

Prisoners were brought there to await trial, or serve out sentences of less than a year. Occasionally, a reluctant witness was housed in the jail until he was needed to testify. After their conviction, men waited for transfer to other facilities, or for the execution of their sentences.

The ceiling of the basement rose barely eight feet above the floor. A heavy stone wall divided the space into two sections, each measuring thirty by sixty feet. Two entrance doors in the foundation flanked either side of the courthouse steps, and opened into each basement area.

Inside each entrance was an eight by ten foot vestibule constructed of rough lumber, where prisoners could confer with their attorneys or visit with family.

Small basement windows provided light and ventilation. Guards placed urinal tubs in the unused fireplaces with the thought that the old basement chimneys would carry the odor out of the building. Kerosene barrels, cut in half were used for washing though the jail staff did not usually allow baths. To make the suffocating air more bearable, the flagstone floor was constantly wet down, making the air heavy with steam and dampness. And although whitewash and lime were used frequently, the stench from the crowded basement rooms was often present in the courtroom upstairs.

There was no separation of criminals by crime, so a young boy accused of horse theft would spend his time with convicted murderers awaiting their sentence on the gallows.

Very little attention was given to the comfort of the prisoners. They were left to manage for themselves, sleeping on the rough flagstone floor where the constant dampness caused their straw mattresses and blankets to become moldy. To exercise, prisoners divided themselves into squads and took turns marching back and forth across the room. They also held mock court, trying men for offenses like spitting on the floor, which if convicted were sentenced to sweep.

Prisoners were fed breakfast and dinner. The cooking was done in a couple of old buildings which once stood south east of the jail building. Hogs raised by the bailiff were fed the scraps in a barrel from the prisoners’ meals.

As the number of prisoners increased and were crowded into the basement, they became filthy from lack of any kind of sanitation.

In the 1870’s a member of the Grand Jury went down to inspect the jail. The stench nearly knock him down. When he returned to the courtroom, he brought with him a piece of bread and a piece of meat, each alive with vermin.

Appeals for improvement were made, but congress did not act. The sad state of affairs continued until 1887, when a new three story brick jail, adjoining the courthouse, was finally built.

These are the conditions Johnny encountered when she arrived at the jail in Fort Smith, and here is a brief excerpt from her time there.


The guard grabbed her arm and shoved her forward, down the steps, and through the door. The smell of sweat and human excrement assaulted her senses. She slapped her hand over her nose and mouth and stepped forward into a small area partitioned off between the outside door and the inside of the jail. He handed her an itchy wool blanket and opened the inner door to the crowded basement cell.

The only light came through small, ground-level windows. She stood for a few moments as the crowd of men stared back, sizing her up. She wished she could turn and run, back outside, back the way they’d come, back down the wide street, searching every building and alley until she found Rab. With cold finality, the door of iron bars clanked shut behind her.

As much as she hated Warren and Machler, Johnny scurried forward, sticking to them like a
leech. At least their familiarity offered some measure of protection. Dewy and Red found a spot
near the fireplace, but she wouldn’t have chosen it, because most of the odor in the room seemed to come from the large tub inside the unused hearth. Breed and Stringer found some men they knew from somewhere and stopped to talk.

Tears clogged her throat and silent sobs swelled tight inside her chest. This tiny room was filled with thieves, murderers and rapists. She bit down on her lower lip.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry, she chanted to herself as she worked her way through the crowd behind
Machler. Eventually, they found a tiny area along the wall. She huddled there on the stone floor, her arms wrapped tight around her up-drawn knees. Even Warren and Machler were subdued, talking quietly between themselves.

How was she ever going to protect her secret in here? She could almost feel the hands of these men milling around, touching her body, holding her down, as they pulled off her clothes. She wiggled her back against the damp stone and pulled her blanket tight around her, wishing that somehow the wall would swallow her up. She shivered, but her baggy layers of clothing did nothing to warm her.

Afraid to reach for her locket, she closed her eyes and thought about a big white house surrounded by a strong iron fence, or maybe pretty, white pickets, like the one at the Elk House. She imagined the smell of pies cooling on a window sill, and a swing hanging from the limb of a large oak tree. In her mind, she heard the laughter of a man and woman and saw a table overflowing with food.

“Hey, there, boy.”

Johnny’s eyes flew open. A man with dirty clothes and graying whiskers stood looking down at
her with one ice blue eye. His other eye, his left, was stuck in the outside corner of his eye socket so that he appeared to be looking in two places at the same time.

“Got a name?” the grizzly man continued.

She swallowed down her fear and lifted her chin. “Johnny Bodine.” At the mention of the name
Bodine, the prisoner’s black eyebrows rose.

Then to make him think twice, she added. “An’ I’m kin to Calvin Everett, so’s ya best jest stay away from me or Uncle Cal’ll gut ya in less time than it takes ta skin a badger.”

The man chuckled. “But yore paw an’ yer uncle ain’t here.”

“They ain’t, but the men what ride fer them are.” She slipped her hand inside her boot and pulled out her small skinning knife. “Now stay away from me, or I’ll gut ya my own self.”

The man chuckled. “Damn it, kid, where’d ya get that little toad sticker? Didn’t anyone search ya?”

Machler laughed. “Johnny’s our little pickpocket. Whatever ya want, Johnny’ll get it fer ya.”

The big man’s smile vanished. “What I want is that knife a yourn. So why don’t ya pass it over?”

The thought crossed her mind to just give him the knife, maybe then he’d leave her alone. But if
she did would he use it on her later? And how would the other men treat her if she backed down and they perceived her as weak?

“Didn’t yer paw teach ya nothin’?” Warren whispered as he inched away. “Never show yer

The big man reached for the front of her duster, as though he were about to jerk her to her feet. Instead, she jumped up and ducked under his arm, bolting toward the other side of the room. She heard him swear as she jumped over the legs of men sitting on the floor and darted around those who stood in clusters, talking. Behind her, she heard heavy boots thump against the stone floor along with the grunts and curses of the men the big man must have shoved aside in quest to reach her.

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Paty Jager said...

Kathy, You always do wonderful research and write great books. This one is a definite keeper.

Ginger Simpson said...

Wonderful post, and just my cup of tea. I love writing western historical novels and look forward to the release of my fifth, Odessa in January. I totally understand the fascination with research, but I still thank God for my critique group who keeps me on my toes. Thank you for sharing.


Kathy Otten said...

Thank you Paty. What a nice thing to say. I'm glad you like it, though you're on top of your game yourself where research is concerned. Indians, their customs and folk lore can be pretty intimidating research.

D'Ann said...

Great info! Enjoyed the post.

Kathy Otten said...


I love my critique group. For my WIP I had the heroine throw a pair of boots into a camp fire to burn. My friends pointed out that my fire wasn't big enough or hot enough to anything more than smoke. They are great for catching things like that. Good luck with your new release. Thanks for stopping by.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Anna,

Thanks for having me on your blog today. Your blog is a very busy place.

Sheri Humphreys said...

This was fascinating. Thanks for the info.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi D'Ann,
Thanks for stopping. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Sheri,
Thanks for stopping. I love the spelling choice for your name.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Welcome, Kathy. Great blog. Thanks for guesting today.

The blog is busier than normal because of the Holiday Cheer and you're great post. I don't usually blog everyday as I am now.

jl Oiler said...

Sounds great, a must for my to be read list.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Wow, that excerpt would be scary if Johnnie really was a boy, but for a young woman it's terrifying. Great writing and research.

Loreen Augeri said...

I always love to learn something new. Your book sounds very interesting.

Loreen Augeri said...

I always love to learn something new. Your book sounds very interesting.

Kathy Otten said...

JL and Loreen,
Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Kathy Otten said...

At the time Johnny was in the jail, they did have housing for women in another small building. Johnny however was thought to be a boy and it never occured to her she could have been jailed separately.

Cheryl Pierson said...

That just sounds horrible--I was like you, thinking that Matt Dillon's jail was what it might be like. We traveled to the first jail in Oklahoma a few years back in a little place called Tamaha. Very interesting. It was made of stone, and just set in a field of tall grass. I was nervous about snakes the whole time we were there. This book sounds great! I'm getting a kindle for Christmas--can't wait to read this.

Kathy Otten said...

That would have so cool to have seen that old jail. I've seen pictures of the one in McAlester, where my hero left his prisoners chained. It was just a crude log cabin with a porch.

Blanche said...

Enjoyed the excerpt. Good writing. Its always interesting what historical facts you uncover when researching. I too, was under the impression the jails were like what we saw on Gunsmoke. Thanks for sharing.

L. E. Brown said...

Wonderful characterization of the heroine just in this short scene. I love it! Such interesting material about the jail, too. I look forward to seeing the results in the book when I read it.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Blanche and L.E.
Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. In another ten years from when my story takes place, a new three story jail was built, which was much closer to what I had originally imagined. It is only the early days when things were more wild and conditions more primitive.

robynl said...

we have friends who live in a house that used to be the jail(it was in the basement); I have yet to ask to see the basement and see what it looks like down there.