Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Texas State Penitentiary, Huntsville

By:   Julie Lence 

Hello everyone. I'm western historical romance author Julie Lence. This is my first time blogging on Cowboy Kisses, and I thank the ladies here for inviting me to join their group.  
I've always had a love for cowboys, horses, and anything to do with the 'old west'. I also had a love for the television show, Dallas, and still do. I couldn't get enough of the back-stabbing, the glamour, and the family saga. When I began writing romance, I started with the contemporary genre and soon switched to writing western historical romance, because someone once told me to write what I know and what I love. I know cowboys and horses, but writing about them wasn't enough. I wanted more. After further thought, I incorporated Dallas' family saga element into my work and The Weston Family Series was born. 
The series was, by no means, easy to write. Many things, I knew. A lot of things I didn't. It was those missing elements, particulars that I wanted to be as true to the genre and era as possible, that led me to research. One subject kept me engrossed for the better part of a morning: The Texas State Penitentiary, Huntsville, Texas. 

One might ask why I was researching a prison. Well, my love for the 'old west' doesn't stop with the cowboy. Outlaws played an important role back then and I had one from my first two books who desperately needed a story of his own. Buck is ornery and temperamental, and had always escaped the law in his looting, raiding, and shooting. He was also in need of a good eye-opener as to why he should settle down with the woman he loves, and what better reason could there be than having been sent to the calaboose for a crime he didn't commit, with a sentence to be hung? I'd figured out his escape, but the prison itself kept bugging me. Or rather, what prison I could place him in. Since his story, Zanna's Outlaw, takes place in Texas, I wanted him somewhere close to that state. My first thought was Yuma, but for the year of the story, Yuma didn't exist. Thanks to the internet, I discovered that the Huntsville State Penitentiary in Texas did.  
While researching the penitentiary, I'd hoped to find a photo of what the inside looked like back then. I didn't, and had to take liberty with that. But I did learn a few fascinating facts that I incorporated into the story. For instance, the prison was Texas' first enclosed penitentiary for convicted felons and nicknamed, 'The Walls'. For some reason, this term spoke to me. Maybe it was because I could imagine Buck calling the calaboose just that, 'The Walls'. He did, and so did my other outlaws in the Revolving Point, Texas Series. Another interesting fact about Huntsville was that it was a working prison, so the cost of housing the inmates wouldn't be a burden to the state's taxpayers. The inmates planted, grew, and harvested cotton and sold it to the army during the Civil War for a profit. Of course, Buck wouldn't have anything to do with picking and seeding cotton; hence one of the reasons he ended up in solitary. The last thing I incorporated into Zanna's Outlaw was the bell tower. To me, that seemed to make the institution stand out, something people would notice and remember throughout their lives. 
  The Huntsville State Penitentiary is still in existence today, and still in use. It has been modernized, to include a museum featuring the history of the penitentiary. If I ever get to Texas, I plan on visiting 'The Walls' and seeing firsthand where my ornery outlaw spent six months of his life.   

If you'd like information on my Zanna's Outlaw, you can find the description on Amazon


Exterior of the prison museum


Ginger Simpson said...

Welcome, Julie. Way to jump in with an interesting and informative blog. I'm so glad you're here.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Julie, isn't it amazing how much research we do? I spent half a day trying to research Huntsville, too, because I needed one line in my book BLUEBONNET BRIDE about where a woman would be sent. At the time of my book, it was Huntsville, but shortly after that, the women were moved to a farm southwest of there. Great post. I think someone on Sweethearts of the West did a post on Huntsville with a photo of the interior, but I may be mistaken about where I saw this photo.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Hi Julie - Interesting post. I too researched Huntsville because Matt Slade, the hero of Sing My Name spent 3 years there. I even called the prison and talked to a nice lady who told me they are still cataloging much of the research material they have.

What impressed me most, though was the brutality. Between poor nutrition, brutal treatment, and hard labor, the death rate was terrible. At times prisoners from those working prisons were leased out as slave labor under even worse conditions. Prisons today are ugly in a different way. Hard to say which is worse.

Meg said...

Great photo, Julie! It's always hard to find specific details when researching the Old West, but glad you came up with gold after digging!

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Julie Lence said...

Hello Ladies: I'm so sorry I've been missing--I've been on vacation. Huntsville was so much fun to research, as well as hard, because there wasn't much about day-to-day particulars from back in the 1860's. But like others, I spent most of the day glued to the internet. The labor was hard growing and picking that cotton, but for my outlaw, he was so ornery, I just couldn't see him doing that; hence his ending up in solitary. Glad you all enjoyed the post.

Lyn Horner said...

Welcome, Julie. Glad to have you in the group. Thanks for sharing your research about Huntsville. Very interesting!