How the West was Jailed: A taste of Kansas’ iron-barred past

by Gerald Bayens, author of Frontier Kansas Jails

In the 1850s, pioneers of the westward expansion settled in the Great Plains. Kansas Territory would soon become the battleground to a pre-Civil War over the issue of slavery. Bloodshed was impetuous and criminals were plentiful. Bushwhackers, horse thieves, and murderers were typically restrained by armed guards in military encampments; if they weren’t strung up by a lynch mob first. In Leavenworth and other early townships, wooden structures made of hand hewn logs became the first jails in the state.

Many of these buildings were inadequate to hold even the most unassuming prisoner. That would change, when the first iron jail was built in Lawrence City. This state of the art lock up would soon be dubbed the most secure jail west of the Mississippi River.  As the century wore on, the passage of the Homestead Act and completion of the Transcontinental Railroad further expanded the population across the heartland of America.

This new frontier, now synonymous with the rugged days of the old west, didn’t settle easy. Massive longhorn cattle drives launched an era of unrest and the frontier cow towns of Kansas became legendary. Brothels were plentiful, whiskey was cheap, and cowboys arrived in town with several months of pay to spend. Local ordinances and statutes were passed to cope with lawlessness, but placed great demands on the sheriffs and city marshals to enforce the law and jail wrongdoers. Famous lawmen, such as Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Tom Smith, became legends based on their dealings with gunslingers, gamblers and outlaws in Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, and Dodge City. Vigilante groups formed in many communities, and the makeshift jails of earlier times were replaced by limestone, brick and concrete structures.

Jails quickly became formal institutions across frontier Kansas and they were deplorable places. Improvements to the jail design and construction did occur when foundries began manufacturing iron cells and elaborate locking systems. Prefabricated jail cells by P.J. Pauly, E.T. Barnum, R.C. Stewart and J. H. Van Dorn manufacturing companies were placed in newly constructed courthouses and sheriff residences.

As a result of these advances, attitudes toward work programs being rehabilitative for minor offenders gained prominence in Kansas. Prisoners were sentenced to serve their time on road gangs; their free labor to dig ditches, construct roads or work in the farm fields during the day and jailed at night. Towards the end of the 1800s, the business of jailing those awaiting trial broadened in most communities to include housing inebriates, vagrants, cases of wife desertion and non-support, prostitutes, and even the feeble-minded. Jails emerged as a convenient location to place anyone who exhibited deviant behaviors arising from mental illness. Their incarceration coming on the heels of overcrowded poorhouses and insane asylums across Kansas.

By the 1890s, changes in the law and government oversight guided how jails would operate into the twentieth century. Jails became bigger and more expensive to operate and continued to be troubled by prisoner escapes and other maladies.