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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