This Week’s Book Review – The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Texas Calaboose’ a study of small lockups

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 15, 2019

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 344 pages, $35

“Locked up in the calaboose” sounds like a line from a cheesy Western. It was reality for thousands in 19th and 20th century Texas.

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore is the definitive study on Texas’ small lockups.

Moore defines a calaboose as a small jail, typically less than 300-square-feet, with one or two cells. They were intended to house lawbreakers for short stretches; overnight or until they could be transported to the county jail.

Most small Texas towns had one. Usually one of the first buildings constructed after a town incorporated, it was almost always the sturdiest. They were austere: bare walls, minimal amenities, no electricity and no heating or cooling system. A night in the calaboose didn’t coddle, nor was intended to.

They were also homespun, built by locals with materials at hand, and for a minimal cost. Wood, brick, stone, concrete or iron and steel were used depending on availability. Some were simple cages, open to the elements. No two were alike.

Moore became fascinated with small jails, viewing them as markers of Texas society. They were tenanted by the more eccentric members of small-town society. Occasionally, a famous name occupied a calaboose. Bonnie Parker spent a night in the Kemp lockup.

These small jails passed out of use starting in the 1950s. The automobile and better roads made it easier to take lawbreakers to the county jail, eliminating the need for local lockups. Yet because they were sturdy buildings, many survive today. Most are used for storage. Others have become museums. Some are neglected and will disappear. A few have (or had) more eccentric uses, such as a chicken coop and an upscale room for rent.

Moore’s book catalogs all surviving calabooses, small jails and cages in Texas. This includes details and descriptions of their construction: size, footprint, materials used, location, current owner and (when known) date built. He includes photos of every specimen; illustrating these building ran from basic concrete cubes to elaborate crenelated castles.

“The Texas Calaboose” captures Texas’ past in a new and entertaining way.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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