The state's first penitentiary was completed in Huntsville in the mid-1800s, and its first prisoner was a horse thief from Fayette County. But before the establishment of a statewide penal institute, our frontier communities maintained modest jailhouses of their own.
Although we've glamorized the lawless Texas Frontier to some degree, most of our prisoners served time as petty criminals, making the local hoosegow their home away from home. Life was hard (an understatement) for just about every Texan trying to make a go of it on the frontier, and plenty of opportunities to skirt the laws, especially when the authorities were few and far between, cropped up with some frequency.
"The lawlessness of frontier life in America has been pictured as a remarkable phenomenon," Paul Percy Harris, founder of Rotary International, wrote in the early 1900s. "In reality, it was the natural consequence of indiscriminate mixing of volatile substances." In other words, frontier hardship plus opportunity minus authority sometimes equaled ka-BOOM!
Remarkably, many of our early jailhouses are still standing, providing an opportunity to visit a jail cell without ever having to remain for an extended stay. Keepin' my hat on, boss!