I’m so excited! My fourth novella collection with Barbour Books—The Secret Admirers Romance Collection—is coming out in a matter of days. DAYS! May 1 is the official release date. Last month, I told you a tiny bit about my heroine, Maisie Blanton, when I talked about where to eat out in the Old West. Remember, she’s a waitress in the town café.
This month, I’m telling you a bit about my hero. Lucky Tolliver is a hired hand at an area ranch. Only there’s a hitch to that. He’s also a former cattle rustler who spent time in prison for his crimes. As you might imagine, his past haunts him through the story, and he winds up spending a bit of time in the town’s jail.
But what were jails like in the Old West? Hollywood would have us believe that every western town had a jail—and a fairly modern one at that, a clean little facility with metal bars and comfortable bunks. Not so. Often, the jail facilities were one of the last things to be built when a fledgling town cropped up on the frontier. Some were cutting-edge and modern for their day. Others were quite crude. (Lest we forget just how crude—there was no indoor plumbing in that day so you can bet there was a rather unpleasant odor to such places).
In the mid-1870’s, Helena, Montana, had a very well-appointed jail. The town spent $11,000 to build a red-brick building with six jail cells, an exercise room, a kitchen, and sleeping quarters for the guards. In that day, it was quite modern and upscale.
Jails in the Southwest were often made of adobe since it was an inexpensive and plentiful building material. However, the problem with adobe was…prisoners could easily dig through adobe, thus making it easy to escape. Oops.
Again, Hollywood wants us to believe that each jail had a large barred window overlooking the outside. How many times did old westerns show someone breaking out their friends by using a rope to pull the bars from the window? Or a sidekick dropping a weapon through the bars? Perhaps some jails were like that, but…probably not many. In fact, some jails were simple boxes made of brick and metal with no windows at all, except for a few small air vents that allowed some tiny bit of air circulation. Just such a jail could be found in Truckee, California. The facility was built in 1875, and it was such a serviceable building that it wasn’t retired until the 1960’s.
|The Jail Tree, Wickenburg, AZ|
So what did lawmen do if they didn’t have a jail? They got creative! The most straight-forward answer was to subject the prisoner to constant direct supervision by various armed deputies. But in many cases, the “jail” became a telegraph pole, a tree, a boulder, or any large, cumbersome, and/or immovable object that the local lawman could chain the lawbreaker to until he could stand trial or serve out his punishment. Can you imagine being chained to a tree, forced to sit in the elements, on display for all the world to see? That would be both embarrassing and uncomfortable.
Another option was to dig a deep pit in the ground, place wooden boards over the top, and make a trap door in the center of the boards. To make this one extra-secure, the jailer would sit on top of the trap door so no one got in or out of the pit without his knowing it. I’d hate to have been one of those jailed in a pit jail like this. With the boards across the top, they were relegated to sit in darkness until their trial or punishment was done. (And here’s an interesting fact. Billy the Kid and some of his outlaw buddies spent time in one of these pit jails in Lincoln, New Mexico).
So far, I’ve chosen to depict any jails in my stories in a rather Hollywood fashion, but don’t be surprised if one day, a pit jail shows up in my story, or I chain a fictional outlaw to a tree. Sounds like great fun to me.
It’s your turn: The Secret Admirers Romance Collection is my fourth release. As the title indicates, the stories all revolve around someone being a secret admirer of another. My other collections are The Oregon Trail Romance Collection (featuring couples going West on the Oregon Trail), The Convenient Bride Collection (featuring Marriage of Convenience stories), and The Courageous Brides Collection (featuring women acting courageously to save others from hardships or dangers). Of the four, which sounds most interesting to you and why? Leave me a comment, including your email address, and I’ll choose one of you to receive a copy of your choice of collection (it doesn’t have to be the one you named as the most interesting). The winner will be drawn on April 27, 2017.
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.