In the Eagle Rock of my new historical fiction novel Cat’s Cafe, the Clancy Clan plagues the town with unrestrained theft and intimidation, Sheriff Zane Gunther is the ineffectual face of the law, and the real power lies squarely with Mayor Luther Armstrong who is as corrupt as the worst criminals but under the cover of personal wealth and the favor of the Mormon Church. It’s not a fair system, but it is well understood.
And when people step outside of the lines (or simply cross Luther), they land in the town jail. Eagle Rock did have an actual jail building. But not all western detainees were as fortunate.
Small late-19th-century western towns had all sorts of ways to confine people who needed to sober up, straighten out, or receive sentencing and possible transport to a regional prison with the U.S. Marshal. Small structures might serve as the sheriff’s office and contain one or more iron or steel cells. Or prisoners might simply be tied to something too heavy to move, or lowered into a deep holding pit until they’d served their time.
Photo source: Dreamstime
Where confinement was indoors, there was usually poor ventilation, no plumbing, and little or no light. In cases where prisoners were tied up or put into steel strap cages or barred cells
outdoors, they were left outdoors regardless of the weather.
A fascinating easy read complete with photos is Old Prisons, posted May 1, 2020, which describes the variety of town jails, county facilities, and federal prisons in the Old West. There were no “typical” jails, the article explains, nor any real guarantee they would actually thwart escapes. The article refers to one jailhouse that was so lightweight a group of Montana cowboys came into town one night and simply lifted up one side of the building so the detainee could crawl out under a raised end to freedom.
When Cat’s Cafe, Book One of the Eagle Rock Trilogy opens, the head of the Clancy Clan has just finished serving his most recent prison sentence and his sons are riding into town to proclaim they will be back soon with their pa just as the 4th of July weekend celebrations are warming up. Amidst a cloud of dust, thunder of horse hooves, and rampant gun fire, the boys strike a little fear into the crowd before riding out of town. Pop Clancy has had time to reflect on his past sins and may decide to make some changes. Horse stealing isn’t what it used to be. Perhaps trains hold more promise …
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