I didn’t really know what to expect as I walked into the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville.
All that I knew about prison life had come from B-movies with titles like “The Big House”, “Caged” and my all time favorite, “Reform School Girls”. Johnny Cash sang about it in his classic tune “Folsom Prison Blues”, lamenting how “I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when . . . ” But the truth is doing time behind bars is something that most of us can’t imagine.
Setting an immediate mood is the lack of color inside the museum. Exhibits are sandwiched between a gray concrete floor and the black ceiling high above. Many of the display cases are done in the same simple scheme, while others are wrapped in “brick” for an added splash of authenticity.
The men were all drawn to a display of weapons issued to Texas prison guards over the years. There was a Thompson sub-machine gun with a round drum magazine, a variety of shotguns and a “gas gun” used to lob tear gas canisters into groups of unruly inmates.
Kids seemed to most enjoy the colorful memorabilia from the world famous Texas Prison Rodeo encased behind glass and chain link fencing. Held from 1931 until 1986, the Texas Prison Rodeo was dubbed “The Wildest Rodeo in Texas” and featured traditional rodeo events with inmate “cowboys” riding the bulls and broncs. Performers such as Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker were regulars every October in the Rodeo’s heyday.
The women couldn’t help but pose for photos behind the bars of a replica prison cell with its bunk bed and stainless steel “facilities”. With both hands gripping the bars the faux felons would consistently smile for the camera in the first shot and then change expression to a “woe is me” look for a second.
On display was a nickel-plated 1911-style pistol taken from the Bonnie and Clyde “death car”, along with discolored newspapers recounting the events in which the notorious duo was ambushed and killed on May 23, 1934 on a Louisiana back road.
“Last Statement”, an artistic photo exhibit of black and white images and text by Barbara Sloan and Kelly Prew, chronicles the impact of murder and execution, and how those actions affect families and friends on both sides – the victim and the convicted.
Some of the last statements profiled express sorrow, while others talk about regrets, or ask for forgiveness. On the other hand there are several that offer nothing but contempt for the system. Johnny Frank Garrett was executed on February 11, 1992 for the murder of a 76-year-old nun named Sister Tadea Benz. In his last statement Garrett thanked his family for loving him and then told the rest of the world to “kiss my ass!”
By far the star atrraction was Old Sparky, the Texas electric chair used to execute 361 prisoners between 1924 and 1964. Displayed in a dimly lit “death chamber”, Old Sparky glowed beneath a single accent spot light. It was easy to imagine why death row cons sent to Old Sparky were said to be “Riding the Thunderbolt.”
Where there had been much chatter in other parts of the museum, an unexpected quiet surrounded Old Sparky. I think everyone who stepped up for a look realized at that moment that this simple straight-backed wooden chair had ended many lives over the years. No one spoke, and no jokes or comments were made. The only sound was the clicking of camera shutters as visitors paused to ponder.
The Texas Prison Museum is thought provoking and presents a piece of Texas history that, though not always pleasant, is real. It’s about life and death. It’s a must see stop when in Huntsville.
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The Texas Prison Museum is at 491 Hwy 75 North in Huntsville, Texas. Call (936) 295-2155 or visit www.txprisonmuseum.org