Historic Motley County Jail
Built in 1891 from stone quarried in Motley County, the historic jail with only 20 sheriffs since the county was organized, was occupied by law enforcement until the early 1980s. The Texas Rangers imposed Martial Law during the late 1800s to settle disputes between the early-day ranchers and the new settlers. The first four sheriffs (1891- 1894) of Motley County died with their boots on. The 2-story, brown sandstone structure had living quarters for the jailer on the first floor; and two, 4-men cells and hanging gallows on the second floor. It is a recorded Texas Historic Landmark, currently in Phase II renovation, funded by the Texas Historical Commission and private donations.
The first four sheriffs of Motley County (1891-1894) died with their boots on. Sheriff Joe Beckham turned outlaw, murdered his predecessor, and was hunted down and killed by the Texas Rangers in a gun battle at a dugout in Indian Territory in 1893. Thus began the early-day violent history of this county when disputes were settled by the Six Shooter; and law and order and crime and chaos were sometimes one in the same.
Early Days of the Historic Motley County Jail
Shortly after the official establishment of the county in 1891, the Matador Land and Cattle Company reported the first fatal gun battle. The shooting occurred at the ranch when a Mr. McCloud shot Jeff Varner, the first man to be buried in the local cemetery. It is reported that this incident resulted in the speedy construction of the jail. The brown limestone that was used for the edifice was hauled in wagons from Salt Creek, five miles west of Matador. The early-day pioneer county officials hired two local contractors, and the new building was erected in record time to harbor criminals. The small structure was built on the banks of Ballard Creek, an old Indian Encampment.
The two-story structure had an office and living quarters for the jailer on first floor and two 4-men cells on the second floor; a private cell used to house the criminally insane until they could be removed to the state hospital; and the hanging gallows. The gallows were never used, but they provide an interesting anecdote to the history of the jail.
Historians report that Digger Danby narrowly escaped his date with the gallows by pure chance and opportunity, and the fact that he was the best well “diviner” and digger in the county. While awaiting his fate at the gallows, he was allowed to leave the jail periodically to help the settlers dig their wells. Rumor has it that he disappeared one day while on such a mission and “deprived the jail of the only opportunity they had to boast of a hanging.” Later, the trap-door was sealed when the state prohibited hanging by local authorities.
The jail also had a “run-around” that opened onto the street. According to legend, the cowboys who had been thrown in jail for getting drunk and shooting up the town would call out “hello out there” to passersby in the hopes of getting a cigarette. A former resident related this tale to William Saroyan, an American author (1908-1981) who wrote a short one-act play in 1942 entitled: “Hello Out There.” In 2005 a screenplay based on this work entitled, The Lonesome Matador was presented at the Sundance Film Festival.
Motley County Jail Facts
- The jail is 118 years old, the oldest government structure in the county
- Construction was accomplished by local builders J.T. Cornett & J. F. Akin in 1891. These pioneer families still have roots in Motley County.
- Stone for the jail was hauled in wagons from Salt Creek, 5 miles west of Matador.
- Cells are on the top floor of the jail, and jailer’s living quarters were on the lower level.
- The jail has a “run-around” that opens onto the street. In the old days, the cowboys who had been thrown in jail (usually for getting drunk and shooting up the town) would call out to any passerby in the hopes of getting a cigarette: “Hello out there,” they’d yell.
- This story was related to William Saroyan, a playwright, who wrote a successful stage play entitled: Hello Out There.
- Various sheriff’s and deputy’s lived in the jail until 1981
- The hanging gallows were never used, and the state sealed the gallows
- The first sheriff of Motley County was Sheriff Joseph P. Beckham
- Beckham turned outlaw because of circumstances related to his position as sheriff
- Beckham had a gun fight with a former Matador ranch hand, Jeff Boone
- Boone was wounded in the arm, later died of gangrene, and Beckham was charged with murder
- These charges were dismissed, but he was not reinstated to his position as sheriff
- He left to go to Oklahoma to stake a land claim, and when he returned he was arrested for fraud
- Before his trial, the sheriff at the time (G.W. Cook), vowed to kill Beckham, and gunned for him in Seymour, Texas
- Beckham beat him to the draw, and killed Cook, then escaped to Indian Territory
- He joined an outlaw gang in Indian territory
- Beckham was killed by Texas Rangers on December 28, 1894
- There have been numerous escapes from the jail: The first prisoner housed in the jail in 1891 escaped twice! Once through the roof, and once by “bed-sheet” method from second floor.
- Two cow thieves escaped in 1904, and attended a tent revival meeting before making a dash for freedom. They were recaptured (found asleep in the old gin, just east of the jail)
- In 1913, two men charged with murder escaped by sawing out a window on the second floor. They were eventually recaptured, and sent to Huntsville. Evidence of this escape can still be seen on the south-east window of the run-around where the bars of the repair were placed horizontally, rather than vertically.
- There were numerous other escapes from the little jail, but all were recaptured, and returned to prison.
- One notable escape in 1957 was a 15-year-old burglar who escaped by squirming his way beneath the barred cell door, in a space about the height of two ordinary cigarettes. He was later caught and sent to State School at Gatesville, and escaped from there in 1957. He was recaptured in Briscoe County and brought back to Matador jail where he was lodged for the second time in less than six months.
- There is a “crazy cell” upstairs, a cage built to house the “criminally insane and women.”
Historic preservation is a primary focus in the establishment of this organization. According to the Texas Historical Commission, “Historic preservation is an economic engine that creates jobs, fosters cultural tourism, instills community pride, and contributes a sense of identity to our towns, cities and rural areas.”
- The jail is 118 years old and still standing – the oldest government structure in the county.
- Phase I repair restored the building exterior to stop the deterioration; and necessary site
work to remove non-historic fencing and buildings.
- Phase II will consist of repair and rehabilitation of the first floor to a preconceived era.
- Phase III will consist of repairs of deteriorated materials on the second floor to accommodate a future jail museum, including exposing the sealed gallows.
- Phase IV will include the renovation of Pioneer Park, located adjacent to the jail, to be used as a stopover for tourism buses; and an oral history project.
Visiting museums and historic sites are some of the most popular activities for travelers in the United States. Communities have found that sites developed for heritage tourism help provide revenues from sales tax derived from lodging and meals, while providing the visitor with positive images of the community.
The Five Principles of heritage tourism outlined by the Texas Historical Commission are:
- Preserve and protect resources – The jail is a recorded Texas Historic Landmark.
- Focus on authenticity and quality – Our museum will collect and archive photographs, documents, artifacts and other historically important materials.
- Make sites come alive for the visitor – Interpretation of historic sites can be accomplished with self tours by using videos, brochures, and step-on tour bus guides.
- Find a fit between the local community and regional tourism – the Lubbock Convention Center has placed the jail site on the regional tourism plan.
- Develop partnerships for sustainability – the museum will benefit by being co-located with county law enforcement.