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  • Wanted: Historic County Jails of Texas
  • Dan K. Utley
Wanted: Historic County Jails of Texas. By Ed Blackburn Jr. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006. Pp. 424. Preface, maps, illustrations, appendices, bibliography, index. ISBN 1585443085. $39.95, cloth.)

Retired Houston physician Edward Blackburn Jr. traveled to all 254 counties of the state to compile his recent detailed inventory of Texas jails. Focusing on the century from 1840 to 1940, primarily to include the early building types and to cover what is considered by many architectural historians the heyday of public building construction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he provides the reader with historical background on the counties through general sources, such as newspapers, The New Handbook of Texas, the Texas Almanac, and county history books. In addition, his interviews with local officials and historians, as well as newspaper editors and writers, serve to document both the history and the lore surrounding the early law enforcement centers.

Blackburn's work is a worthy companion to other public building inventories, such as The Texas Courthouse, by June Rayfield Welch and J. Larry Nance (GLA Press, 1971), and The Courthouses of Texas: A Guide, by Mavis P. Kelsey and Donald H. Dyal (Texas A&M University Press, 1993). It also provides important supplement to broader architectural studies, most notably Willard Robinson's seminal work, The People's Architecture: Texas Courthouses, Jails, and Municipal Buildings (Texas State Historical Association, 1983). [End Page 418]

As the first comprehensive and readily accessible survey of the state's historic jails, Blackburn's book will serve as a necessary reference tool for inquiries on a wide variety of historical topics, from architecture and criminology to local government planning. It will also hopefully serve as a point of departure for more focused analytical studies on related topics, including: architects like Eugene T. Heiner and brothers Oscar and F. E. Ruffini; contractors like the firm of Martin, Byrnes, and Johnson; and jail manufacturers, particularly Pauly Jail Building and Manufacturing, Diebold Safe and Lock, and Southern Steel Company.

Readers will appreciate the high-quality photographs that illustrate the brief histories. Drawn from archival collections, as well as the author's personal site visits, they depict a wide range of form and design, from the stately 1887 Ellis County Jail to the virtually unadorned Motley County Jail of 1891. Of particular interest because of their obvious architectural statements are the fortress-like designs of the twin-towered 1912 Scurry County Jail, the smaller 1881 Bandera County Jail, and the grand 1896 Austin County Jail. Such county castles were once common across the state, but those that remain, for the most part, now serve other purposes, including museums and visitor centers. Rarely, however, are their unique histories adequately interpreted for the public.

Broader societal concerns such as national security, economics, and human rights now drive jailhouse design, resulting in structures with less emphasis on aesthetics. While such change is inevitable and necessary, it is also, on a number of planes, regrettable. Fortunately, though, for those seeking more insights about a remarkable era of public architecture, Edward A. Blackburn Jr. has provided a suitable, entertaining, and enlightening means of exploring the state's landmarks of law.

Dan K. Utley
Texas Historical Commission


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pp. 418-419
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