What were Old West jails like?

Richard Olson
Bagley, Minnesota

For the most part, the Hollywood cliché of a frontier jail, with open bars on the window and cell, did not exist.

Some Old West jails were elaborate. In 1874, the citizens of Helena, Montana, spent $11,000 ($214,000 in today’s dollars) on a tall, red brick structure that contained six cells, an exercise hall, a kitchen and a bunkhouse for the guards.

Most jails were crude. Prisoners were tied to logs, telegraph poles or trees. In Lincoln, New Mexico, Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty and outlaw pals were kept in a pit jail—a hole in the ground with a trapdoor beneath the jailer’s house.

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

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