On November 26, 1927 Montague County commissioners contracted with Southern Prison Company to build a new jail building, the third such building for the county. At a cost of $34,000, the building was completed July 11, 1927. The building stands on the southeast corner of the courthouse square. For 53 years it served as the county jail. After the new jailhouse was built in 1980, this old building was seldom used except for storage. In 1996, the Montague County Historical Commission gained permission to use the building as the group’s meeting place. It is now opened to the public as a museum.
The outside dimensions of the building are approximately 39 feet long by 28 feet wide. The layout of the jail consisted of jail cells upstairs and living quarters downstairs. throughout its use, the Sheriff and family occupied the downstairs portion as their home. The living area contained two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen. There was one other room that was used as an additional bedroom or dining room, depending on the size of the family. Four adult and two juvenile cells made up the jail portion. The adult cells were nine by eight feet in size, each having four metal bunks bolted to the walls. The juvenile cells measured eight by eleven feet, each with two bunks. A total of sixteen adults and four juvenile offenders could be housed at any given time.
At least eleven sheriffs and their families made the jail their home during their terms. These sheriffs were John W Wales, R T Anderson, Lee A Husband, Herman Chandler, Kate Chandler, Dick Lawrence, Bedford Henley, Helen Henley, J L Jameson, J T Lindsey, Howard Middleton and W F Conway. Both Kate Chandler and Helen Henley finished their husband’s term when they died while still holding office.
The Old Jail is certainly one of those “if these walls could talk” buildings. Oh, the stories they could tell. These sturdy cells held criminals that had committed crimes ranging from drunkenness to murder. Other offenses included theft, bootlegging, forgery, and insanity. Some notorious outlaws called the Old Jail home, even men associated with the Barrow gang of Bonnie and Clyde fame.
In 1938, known associates of the Barrow gang, Floyd Hamilton and Ted Walters were arrested in Montague County for burglarizing the W W Gilmore drugstore in Ringgold. The duo had stolen about a hundred dollars in inventory and $15 in cash. They were incarcerated along with horse thief Ervin Goodspeed. Together these three plotted a jail break on April 30, 1938. On that night the only jailer on duty was the twenty-three old son of Sheriff Kate Chandler, Kenneth Chandler. When Kenneth went upstairs to the jail cells to deliver cheese and crackers to the inmates, he was ambushed. Goodspeed had managed to cut his cell bars and was waiting for the jailer as he approached. He stabbed Kenneth in the leg with a pair of scissors. It is believed that Goodspeed stole the scissors from the barber when he visited to the jail to give the inmates haircuts. After stabbing the jailer, Goodspeed unlocked the cells of Hamilton and Walters. Once downstairs, the trio offered to dress the jailer’s wound, but he refused. They then helped themselves to jail’s arsenal, taking three shotguns and two pistols and disappeared into the night. Goodspeed was caught in Nocona within a couple of days. After stealing a car, Hamilton and Walters led law enforcement across a tri-state area on a massive man hunt. They were both eventually captured in August of 1938. Hamilton was eventually sent to Alcatraz. He survived a botched escape attempt from the famous island prison. He was released in the late 1950s and live the life of a model citizen in the Dallas area until his death in 1986. Walters spent the next few years in and out of prison. He apparently managed to skip by under the radar of the law enforcement until he is shot and killed by a Texas Ranger in 1971.
Another jail escape occurred in 1941. Rex Beard, Jr found himself housed within the confines of the Montague County jail for robbing the banks in Nocona and in Bowie. Due to his method of carrying a paper sack into the bank with which to conceal his weapon as well as to carry out his stolen loot, he became known as the Paper Sack Bandit. He escaped from the Old Jail, but was caught in Wichita Falls after another robbery. Beard was responsible for robberies across the state including theaters, banks, department stores and liquor stores. One newspaper article described his antics as “the Paper Sack Bandit has so many prison sentences officers are not certain how long it would take him to serve them.” While waiting sentencing in Abilene he attempted another escape. In the process, he killed Deputy Sheriff Wade Willis. During the gunfight, Beard was critically injured. He survived these injuries, but was given the death sentence for his crime. He was executed by the State of Texas in September of 1943.
Today the Old Jail stands a memorial to all of those in law enforcement that served Montague County with pride. It is now known as the Old Jail Museum. It is opened Fridays from 12:00 – 5:00 pm and on Saturday from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm.
There is more to the stories of Hamilton, Walters, Goodspeed and Beard. I hope to add more posts this week under the ‘More of the Story’ section. To learn more about the Barrow gang and Bonnie and Clyde, visit Frank Ballinger’s website.