When Jails Were Few And Far Between


jail-treeIn the rough and tumble towns of early Arizona, churches and jails were mostly conspicuous by their absence.  Holbrook became the county seat of Navajo County in 1895 and didn’t get around to erecting a church until 1914 when Sidney Sapp’s wife convinced him the town needed one.  During that time, it claimed to be the only county seat in the United States that didn’t have a church.

At the other end of the frontier social spectrum were jails.  Most of these early day hoosegow’s or calabozo’s were made of adobe and the inmates could dig their way out with very little effort.  Since the majority of rascals were locked up for public drunkenness and were turned loose after they sobered up, it didn’t seem to make much difference anyway.

Overcrowding was a problem even in those days.  One Saturday night in Jerome the jail was overcrowded with drunks so the remaining were chained to a large mill wheel.  The next morning the thirsty imbibers picked up the wheel and carried it down to the nearest saloon and demanded an ax to widen the door so they could haul it inside.

The citizens of Wickenburg chained their rowdies to a big mesquite tree and when the tree became overcrowded, usually every Saturday night, the surplus were chained to a huge log.

The town of Payson also had a jail tree, a big oak on Main Street. During rodeo week overzealous drunks were given “time outs” by town Marshal, Walt Lovelady. He’d handcuff them to random posts along the street then his wife Belle and daughter Dorothy would inspect to see who was sober enough to release. They’d be released to make room for more imbibed celebrants.
One night Big George Sayers, a notorious reprobate from Gunsight, became drunk and disorderly.  After a long struggle he was finally chained up to the log.  Big George had the dubious reputation of possessing the most lurid, creative and varied vocabulary in the entire territory.  It was said he would lie awake at night inventing new oaths which he would languish on dogs, people, his horse, all animate and inanimate objects he might encounter.  He awoke the next morning un-repented, thirsty and bellowing like a range bull, awakening the whole town and half the county. When nobody responded, Big George took matters into his own hands, shouldering the log and heading for the nearest saloon.  He demanded a drink and, incidentally, he got it.

When the citizens of Clifton finally got around to building a jail they wanted it to be escape proof.  So they hired a hard rock miner named Margarito Verala to carve one out of solid rock near the banks of the San Francisco River.  When he was finished Varela took his pay and headed for the nearest saloon on Chase Creek where he proposed a toast to the “World’s Greatest Jail Builder.”

Apparently the other imbibers weren’t all that enthused about having a jail in town and refused to toast; whereupon Varela got mad, pulled his six-shooter and shot a hole in the ceiling.

They pounced upon him and carted him off to the new calabozo.  The “World’s Greatest Jail Builder” became the first inmate in the jail he’d built.

Justice was much more practical and expedient on the Arizona frontier than it is today.  Take for instance, Tucson.  During the 1860’s the Old Pueblo was being terrorized by a bunch of scoundrels who’d been chased out of California by vigilantes.  Captain John C. Cremony wrote in his classic book, Life Among the Apaches, that southern Arizona was “cursed by the presence of two or three hundred of the most infamous scoundrels it is possible to conceive.  Innocent and unoffending men were shot down or bowie-knived merely for the pleasure of witnessing their death agonies.  Men walked the streets and public squares with double-barreled shot guns, and hunted each other as sportsmen hunt for game.”

Tucson wasn’t exactly the kind of community where one would want to raise a family, so city fathers, led by businessman Mark Aldrich, decided upon a novel idea to rid the town of these unwanted scalawags for good.

Since Tucson had no suitable jail, a public whipping post was set up in the plaza.  The standard punishment for crimes was a public whipping.  But there was a catch.  The culprits would be given their punishment in two doses on successive Saturdays.  Following a speedy trial, the town marshal would give the rascals a severe public spanking.   Afterwards, they were told to come back next Saturday for the second installment.

It goes without saying that when the following Saturday rolled around those villains made sure they were a long ways from Tucson.

What do you think?

Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian, board president of the Arizona Historical Society and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen; History Press, 2015. 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