The Old City
Jail - Corsicana, Texas
by Mary Love Sanders
Originally published in "The
Navarro County Scroll", Vol. XXII, 1977
Reprinted with permission of the
Navarro County Historical Society
a small (15' x 17') log jail had been built in
during the term of office of the town's third mayor,
Thomas J. Haynes, who was in office from November 1872
until November 1875 (Murchison 1974). This calaboose, as
it was called, was too small and unsanitary to
accommodate the growing numbers of inmates which
accompanied the growth of the town. As a consequence,
it was abandoned after the construction of a new County
Jail in 1876.
The City of Corsicana's first permanent brick
jail was built in 1908. On March 30, 1908, according to
the official minutes of the City Commission meeting, Mr.
H. B. Lochhead, a Corsicana architect, appeared before
the Commission are presented sketches, plans and
specifications for the proposed new jail, the cost
estimated to be $4,000. Upon action by the Commission,
these plans were adopted at this time.
The presence of the City Hall on the
northeast corner of City Block 266 probably dictated the
location of the new jail and although no official
mention was made at this Commission meeting concerning
the purchase of a building site, it seems almost certain
that a preliminary verbal agreement had been reached
with Mrs. Rebecca A. Croft, owner of the land adjacent
to the City Hall property, the logical site for
construction of the jail. Mrs. Croft was the widow of
Judge William Croft who had first begun practicing law
in Corsicana in 1850 (Love 1933, p. 256) and had the
reputation of being a tenacious as well as an extremely
fair attorney and judge. The Crofts' grandson, Charles
W. Croft, 1104 West 4th Avenue, Corsicana, a retired 78
year old banker, remembers that W. A. Townsend told him,
in 1920, that in the early days he had seen deer grazing
on what was later known as the "Croft property" (Croft
On June 1, 1908, during a regular session of
the City Commission, Commissioner of Public Improvement
(also Mayor) E. A. Johnson reported that low bids on the
erection of the proposed new jail had been received and
were held "pending the recovery of Chairman Walton of
the Building Committee". At a subsequent called session
of the Commission on June 3, 1908, the Commission
ratified the action taken by the City Council in
awarding a contract on the construction of the jail to
Berry and Metcalf at $5,275.
Further official action of the Corsicana City
Commission on June 15, 1908, in joint called session
with the City Council, authorized the purchase of a lot
25' x 85' known as the "Croft property" at 207 West 5th
Avenue, immediately west of the City Hall, on which to
build the jail. The Council approved the purchase of
this lot and appropriated $750 to cover the cost.
The land on which the Old City Jail now
stands was to be used as a county seat for Navarro
County (Taylor 1962, pg. 10) which was formed from
"originally granted to a Mexican settler
Jesus Ortez, by virtue of his certification of
settlement, dated March 16, 1838. This Certificate was
traded and passed through several hands, prior to its
final location, being at one time owned by G. A.
Campbell, and finally passing to David R. Mitchell, who
was Surveyor of Robertson County Land District.
He held in his name the title of this for
himself and associates Thos. I. Smith and J. C. Neill.
The title was finally cleared, and the
hundred acres known as the "Old Town Plat" was conveyed
to the Commissioners [i.e., the Commissioners for the
August 1849 term of Court] on June 30, 1850" (Love 1933,
Mitchell, Smith and Neill along with
C. M. Winkler, E. H. Tarrant,
Eliot and William Love had been members of a
committee which forwarded the organization of Navarro
County. They were assisted in this endeavor by Jose
Antonio Navarro, a signer of the Texas Declaration of
Independence and a member of the first State
Legislature, and they recognized his help by naming the
new county in his honor. In addition, the county seat
was named in honor of the home of Navarro's parents,
Corsica (Love 1933)
Early surveyors of necessity were involved in
numerous encounters and skirmishes with Indians of the
area who were anxious to protect their ancient hunting
grounds from incursions by white settlers. Thomas I.
Smith and J. C. Neill had been sent, in 1844, "to meet
at Tehuacana Creek in Limestone County, to enter into a
treaty with the chiefs of the Comanches, Wacoes,
Keechies, Caddoes, Anodayuas, Delawares, Cherokees,
Lipans and the Tonkawa Indians (Taylor 1962, pg 42.)
David R. Mitchell at one time kept an inn
"located about midway of the South side of Block 263, of
the Old Town Plat...sometimes called the Lower Hotel"
(Love 1933, p. 81) and also operated a store on the west
side of the Court House Square (Taylor 1962, p. 13).
After his death in 1853 he was buried in Oakwood
Cemetery in Corsicana, a part of the original 100 acres
of the Old Town Plat (Love 1933, p.245) in 1899 grateful
citizens erected an imposing monument to his memory.
The inscription of this monument voices the sentiment
which he had been know to express: "He was ever ready to
smoke the pipe of peach but warned the Red Man he came
Limited data are available concerning other
names present in the abstract which details the changing
ownership of the piece of land on which the jail was
built. R. N. White, born in North Carolina in 1810
(Taylor 1962, p.40), was the first County Clerk of
Navarro County and served in that office for eight
years. Fifth Avenue was originally called White Street
in honor of White who "assisted in securing a railroad
for Corsicana, and later was a member of the shoe firm
of Bates and White" (Love 1933, p.255). He was also one
of 16 people who organized the Third Avenue Presbyterian
Church in Corsicana in 1853.
G. L. Martin was an original trustee of the
Presbyterian Church (Putman 1975, p.117) and was a
signer of a resolution to vote for secession in 1861
(Love 1933, p.106). Robert Morrell very early operated
a saloon on the south side of the Court House Square
(Love 1933, p. 84); Morrell's daughter Mattie M. Brown
also figures in the abstract. A copy of this abstract
is appended to this paper (see Back Cover) because of
its unusual clarity and completeness and its value as a
document of historical interest.
Final acceptance of the new jail took place
at a regular meeting of the City Commission on October
5, 1908. The official name of the building and the year
of its construction are still clearly visible on the
exterior of the structure.
As designed by the architect the jail was a
two story red brick building of I-beam construction
facing north northwest, built on a beam foundation about
two feet above ground level. The exterior walls
consisted of three thickness of brick laid in even
courses from foundation to roof, and there was a
decorative patterned brick trim below the roof line.
The roof was flat, sloping slightly to the rear, with
wooden screeds laid in concrete, covered with wooden
decking and a mopped surface. Access to the jail was
through wide iron doors, two in the front and one at the
rear; some of the inside doors and latches were taken
from the Old County Jail (Edens 1976).
Downstairs there was a small lobby with two
cells in the rear, "the one on the left for drunks and
one on the right for Negroes an Mexicans" (Patterson
1976). On the second level were the police chief's
office and another small lobby. Wooden frame, double
sash windows, protected by heavy iron bars, furnished
light and ventilation. Amenities and comforts were few
and the facilities were strictly utilitarian.
When a new City Hall was built in 1924 on the
site of the old City Hall immediately east of the jail,
the chief's office was relocated in the new structure
and slight alterations were to the 1908 jail in order to
provide a larger and more efficient arrangement of cell
space (see plan drawing in Back Cover pocket). Two new
cells were installed upstairs, one for women and one for
persons who were considered dangerous. Iron plating
separated the rooms, and the second story cells were
free-standing and iron-barred, set into place as
separate unites. The ceilings were of plaster, and a
wooden stairway with a metal railing connected the first
and second stories. Sanitary facilities were minimal.
The jail remained essentially as described until the
present restoration (1976) except for minor improvements
In 1974 the jail and the immediately adjacent
City Hall property were purchased by the First National
Bank of Corsicana which occupies the remainder of the
block, in order to preserve these buildings which have
played such an important role in Corsicana's municipal
history. Upon completion of a new Government Center,
police offices and jail were moved to the new Center.
Restoration and stabilization of the Old City Jail have
been carried out by the bank for the jail's new
occupants, First Travel Agency under the supervision of
Mary Ann Stroube, travel agency owner and Allen Eden,
Jr., co-owner of the Builder's Supply Co. of Corsicana
(Wyatt 1976). The integrity of the original building
has been maintained and repairs have taken into
consideration the appearance and character of the 1908
structure; wherever possible original materials have
been reused in making necessary repairs (Stroube 1976).
For the sake of safety and convenience steps
now lead up to a small entry porch. Both steps and
porch are reconstructed of cement aggregate with red
brick trim, conforming to the original appearance of the
building. A porch railing has been constructed from
the original inside stair railing. The outer iron
front door is original while the inside wooden front
door originally hung in the Senator James H. Woods home,
504 West 2nd Avenue, Corsicana, built in 1900 and marked
with a Texas Historical Medallion. (This house is now
the property of Mr. and Mrs. Allen Edens, Jr.) The
wooden period door has been added merely for
convenience. There is no longer a rear entrance to the
Outside brick and brick trim have been
pointed up where necessary and new decking and a new
mopped surface conform to the original fall of the
roof. Windows on the east side of the jail have been
bricked up with the original bars left intact on the
inside; this non-structural alteration was made because
of the close proximity of the jail to the old City Hall
(about 12" clearance) and for the sake of more efficient
heating and air conditioning.
The inside walls of the building have been
scraped and cleaned so that brick still forms the
interior wall surface. Wooden window frames have been
painted and repaired with only two windows requiring
replacement because of deterioration. Stationary single
pane windows have been used in both instances. The
heading on all windows are original. A small bay window
has been constructed in the area formerly taken up by
the east iron front door and will serve as a display
area as well as provide additional lighting. Original
inside iron cell bars protect the glass sides of this
All electrical conduits have been removed
from the outside of the building for the sake o safety
and new conduits have been attached to the exposed
inside beams which were encased in rough cedar siding, a
practical disposition of necessary features. The
outside light fixture, to be placed over the front door,
was in use in the old jail, and inconspicuous base plugs
have been installed to furnish modern lighting suitable
for business offices.
Some of the original iron cell bars and metal
sheeting have been left intact or incorporated into
partitions and walls during restoration, at the top of
the partition enclosing the Consultation Room and as a
floor to ceiling divider for the Manager's Office. Flat
bars, where encountered, are known to be the oldest type
in use. There are double louvered doors at the entrance
to the Consultation Room and also on the Coffee Bar nook
and closet which open onto the original jail hallway.
Embossed metal ceilings have been installed
in the Lounge area and in the small overhang which
protects the front entrance, replacing the badly
deteriorated original ceilings. These embossed ceilings
were at one time a part of a contemporary structure, the
old Merchants Opera House on Beaton Street in
Corsicana. A historical marker now commemorates this
building, occupied for many years by the Builder's
Period furniture will be used wherever
practical and possible, in the Lounge and Reception
areas, in an effort to combine the demands of
functionalism with the evidences of history.
On the first floor, room areas have been only
slightly rearranged for maximum utility. There is still
a small lobby and reception area and cell space has now
been designated as a Consultation Room, Manager's
Office, storage space, a coffee bar and electric hot
water heater, heating and air conditioning room and a
public Lounge area. A circular iron staircase with
wooden steps has replaced the wooden staircase which
had almost collapsed at the time the jail was sold it
leads to the second floor where rotten flooring has been
cut back to the first beam. Perforated iron grating
from the original jail forms a three-quarter south wall
of this room entered through the original iron door.
This second story room will be used for travel
presentations, displays or other civic uses.
Mr. Claude A. Patterson served on the
Corsicana Police Force from 1914 until 1957, first as a
police officer and later as chief of police for the last
six months of his career and has been a valuable source
of information concerning the building of the Old City
Jail and of events connected with city law enforcement
in the early years of the 20th century. Mr. Patterson
carries on an active life in retirement; at age 90 his
clear memory for names and dates and his continued
interest in good government and efficient law
enforcement mark him as one of Corsicana's most
Another well-known early law enforcement
officer was the highly respected
Will S. Knight who had served as a deputy sheriff of
Navarro County then had been elected City Marshall
before he was appointed Corsicana's first chief of
police. Originally from Robertson County, he came to
Grove, a Navarro County community, as a young man
and worked for a time on the farm of Dr. I. N. George
before becoming a law enforcement officer. Knight
served as chief of police from October 1906 until his
death in June 1936. Other police chiefs were: Bruce
Nutt, 1936-1954; Pete McCain, 1954-1956; C. A.
Patterson, 1956-1957; W. A. Massey, 1957-1960; Glen
Shepherd, two months in 1960; W. C. Onstott, 1960-1969;
Doug Hightower, 1969-1971; and Don Massey, 1971 until
Mr. Patterson's recollections about his
decision to become a policeman offer a good deal of
insight into community life during the era when the Old
City Jail was built. "I was working in a cafe on the
east side of Beaton Street, cooking for a Mr. Walker,"
he recalls, " and I was getting paid $10 a week. A man
across the street named Sol Waddle offered me $14 a
week, to be his night cook, and, well, I had to think
about that. No woman ever went on the east side of the
street - the 'sawdust block,' they called it, and no
Negro ever went on the west side of the street. if he
had, he'd have been thrown out. Well, I went to work
for Mr. Wadley and I was taking a few days off when one
Saturday evening a policeman, Jim Sheets, told me Will
Knight wanted to see me. I thought he wanted my street
tax. In those days every man between 21 and 45 had to
pay a street tax, so I said well, I'd see him in a few
days. Jim said, 'There's Will Knight right there,
across the street. Why don't you go see him now?'
Well, I did and Mr. Knight asked me to go to work for
him in the Police Department. I stayed there until
1957." (Patterson 1976).
Law enforcement officers relied on their own
ingenuity and initiative in their peace-keeping
activities, usually arresting lawbreakers
single-handedly and bringing them to the jail on foot
"or just about any way we could get them there,"
according to Mr. Patterson. "There were no lights in
the alleys in the early days and this afforded
convenient hiding places for lawbreakers. Ed Sheets,
the man who ran the City Pound, rode horseback and later
on, Bruce Nutt rode a horse when he patrolled several
parts of town, but mostly the whole town was patrolled
on foot. If necessary, police officers would walk
several miles to answer a disturbance call or make an
arrest. Our first patrol car was a Model T. Ford."
Sometimes private citizens would give a police officer a
ride if he needed to answer a call in a hurry, as was
the case when Mr. Patterson and a fellow officer went to
investigate a complaint involving a broken Peace Bond.
They arrived on the scene just in time to witness a
murder, later ruled self defense.
As far as is known, no member of the 1908
Police Force pictured in Fig 16 [not reproducible for
this page] is still alive but Mr. Patterson is
responsible for the following details on the jail,
police department and associated activities at that
time. Other more precise details are lacking since
police department records and Daily Reports were
destroyed by a former chief. Contemporary news reports
are also lacking since several pertinent volumes of the
local newspaper, The Corsicana Daily Sun, were lost in a
fire some years back.
In 1914 seven men served on the Corsicana
Police Force under Chief Knight; they were Jack Ricker,
Ed Sheets, Jim Sheets, E. W. Hornell, Bruce Nutt, Louise
Weaver and Claude Patterson. The Daily Schedule for
police personnel consisted of two shifts, a day shift (6
a.m. - 7 p.m.) and a night shift (7 p.m. - 6 a.m.) with
a designated day jailer and night jailer. Until 1914 no
itemized reports of arrests were kept. The police
uniform at that time consisted of a blue serge suit with
brass buttons and a white felt hat. "We didn't go into
regular police uniforms until Will Knight died in 1936,"
according to Mr. Patterson. "They had been ordered
during the winter but didn't get there until it got hot,
and those 14 oz. wool uniforms nearly smothered us to
Salaries of the Police Force in 1914 were
scaled to a seven day week with eleven hour shifts,
lengthened in times of emergency. The beginning salary
for a policeman was $65 a month, increasing to $85 after
six months service and to $100 after one year. No
special pay was earned for service as a jailer.
Although the cells in the jail were small,
they were seldom empty and there were times when they
held as many as 80 persons at the same time. In cold
weather there was a gas heater in the jail and the
prisoners had cover. "They were pretty comfortable in
there," Mr. Patterson recollects. "They had mattresses
but no springs to sleep on." Women prisoners were
detained in one cell, men in another, while Negroes,
Mexicans and drunks were incarcerated in yet another
The daily jail menu consisted of sandwiches
twice a day and all the water the prisoners could drink,
but no ice water or coffee. Once, when the jail was
full to capacity and running over, security came very
close to total disruption when a drunk man who had been
picked up at the Southern Pacific Depot tore up the
plumbing and flooded the jail, an occurrence which
brought down the wrath of the chief on the whole
Most of the people brought to the jail in the
early days were charged with misdemeanors such as
drunkenness, unruly behavior or petty thievery, although
quite a few arrests were made for the illegal distilling
of whiskey and several murderers were brought to the
Other particular problems resulted from the
discovery of oil near Corsicana which brought many new
people into the community, although the reputation of
Chief Knight as a no-nonsense peace officer acted as a
strong deterrent to prolonged rowdiness or to any
suggestion of lawlessness. Chief Knight followed a
policy of hiring local men as police officers rather
than the transients who were following the oil boom who
regularly applied to him for jobs. Knight's men were
well known to him and he was able to achieve continuity
with a cohesive, well-disciplined force. His aim was
not for personal popularity for himself but respect, for
the police and for the community.
The Depression days of the early 1930s
created unusual problems for the Police Department.
"There were some good people that got in that jail,
White and Colored," says Mr. Patterson. "Lots of things
happened that I don't ever want to see happen again.
Grocery stores stayed open until midnight on Saturday
nights and lots of good people hung around until the
stores closed just to see what the grocers would throw
out in their garbage. I was Night Jailer at that time
and I went into the jail every evening to try to cheer
up the people in the jail. Sometimes they said they
were hungry, after working at the City Park or the
cemetery all day, under guard. They said two sandwiches
a day just wasn't enough. Well, I'd go around to Sol
Wadley or to Richard Cunningham or some of the other
cafe men and they'd give me bread or cakes or sometimes
some Irish stew or maybe a gallon or two of coffee for
the prisoners. Sometimes they even gave me
cigarettes. I used to spread out the food in the lobby
of the jail then let the inmates out of their cells to
eat it. I did that lots of times."
One incident with an unusual ending occurred
during the Depression. Mr. Patterson received a postal
card from Long Branch, New Jersey from a man who said
he'd been a hobo and had spent time in over 300 jails
from coast to coast. He was writing to say that the
Corsicana jail was the best one he'd ever been in. His
experiences had impressed him so strongly that upon
returning to his home in New Jersey he had taken up law
enforcement work and had become a policeman himself.
Mr. Patterson has received a Christmas card from the
ex-hobo every year since that time.
One jailbreak has occurred during which a new
and inexperienced policeman inadvertently allowed an
inmate to retrieve a gun which was hidden in the
prisoner's coat pocket, and one "free-for-all" fight
took place in the jail with several resultant injuries
to policemen and prisoners.
The close proximity of the City Jail to the
Navarro Hotel, just across the street, was frequently
the cause of complaints by hotel guests who during the
spring and summer months could hear quite plainly the
loud and bawdy laments of jail inmates, especially
during the late hours of Saturday night and early Sunday
morning. Once, in the 1920s, when a youthful prankster
was caught and placed in jail, he repeatedly called in a
loud voice for someone to "call my Mama. She'll come
get me outta this jail!" Finally, when a hotel guest
could stand the uproar no longer, he shouted across the
street from his open window, "What's her number? I'll
call her if you'll shut up and let me get some sleep!"
The telephone number was gratefully supplied and the
call made from the hotel guest to the boy's mother who
promptly came to the jail and rescued the prankster
According to Mr. Patterson, the presence of
an Army Air Corps Primary Training Field on the
outskirts of Corsicana during World War II presented no
serious problems to law enforcement officers although
there was an influx of several hundred active young men
who generally spent their off-duty hours in Corsicana.
Mr. Patterson attributes this situation, potentially
troublesome in other areas, to the presence of good
military leadership and community cooperation.
The members of the Navarro County Historical
Society consider that the Old City Jail is eminently
worthy of recognition as a historical site because of
the part its presence has played in local law
enforcement and because of the uniqueness of its
architecture, typical of 1908, at the present time when
because of unfortunate economic or utilitarian
circumstances many contemporary buildings have been
razed or disfigured by poor restoration. The Old City
Jail is recognized as an important landmark by the
people of this city; its restoration assures its
continued use as a functional entity in the community.
Croft, Charles W., 1976, Personal interview.
Edens, Allen, Jr., 1976, Personal interview.
Eliot, George W., 1976, Personal interview.
Love, Annie Carpenter, 1933, History of
Navarro County. Southwest Press, Dallas, Texas.
Murchison, William P., 1974, The Mayors of
Corsicana. In The Navarro County Scroll, Vol.
Patterson, Claude A., 1976, Taped interview
by Wyvonne Putman and Mary Love Sanders. March 10,
1976. Navarro County Historical Society Archives,
Pioneer Village, Corsicana, Texas.
Putman, Wyvonne, Compiler, 1975, Navarro
County History. Nortex Press, Quanah, Texas.
Stroube, Mary Ann, 1976, Personal Interview.
Taylor, Alva, 1962, Navarro County History.
No publisher listed.
Wyatt, W. D., 1976, Personal interview.