Hollywood Jails and the Real Deal

hollywood jails true west magazine
Wickenburg jail tree.

Hollywood movie sets were built pretty similar. They always had a window in back because the script called for a crony to slip them a pistol or could tie a rope around a bar, take a dally around his saddle horn and yank it out.

There were as many different kinds of jails as there were towns and some were quite primitive.  I’ve seen a number of old jails that had no outside windows at all. It was too easy for a crony to slip you a gun through the bars.

Toilet facilities usually consisted of a “slop bucket” or an outdoor privy. One might get to take a bath once a week.

Some jails were pretty elaborate. In 1874 the citizens of Helena Montana spent $11,000 to build a jail that would be the envy of jail keepers everywhere. It was a tall red-brick structure with six cells, an exercise hall along with kitchen and bunkhouse for the guards.

The venerable jail in Truckee, in California’s Sierra Nevada, built in 1875 was a sturdy strongbox of brick and steel with no windows unless you count the small air vents for each cell. It was used until 1964.

Most jails were very crude. Jail bars in a big window frame is quite unrealistic. Most windows had corrugated steel, set crossways, so that it let only a fraction of light in.

In Tombstone, in the early days of the camp, the jail was an overgrown, wooden box with two by fours stacked up to create a tight crib with a tiny slit for a window, which had bars like we see in the movies, but the opening was so small and narrow, no prisoner could get through it. Some sheriffs even resorted to tying prisoners to logs, telegraph poles or even trees. The Wickenburg, Arizona Jail Tree is today a popular tourist attraction.

There were so many drunks Payson, Arizona during Rodeo Week in Payson, Arizona, the own marshal, Walt Lovelady, would handcuff them to fence posts. Later his wife and daughter would patrol the area to see who was sober enough to be set free. Those would be set free to make room for a new crop of inebriates.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu.

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