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Ellis County Jail 1888

Ellis County Jail - 1888

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BY John Hancock





Ellis County Jail shortly after completion, 1888.

The imposing brick structure, a block from the Ellis County Courthouse, was constructed in 1888 as the third Ellis County jail. Serving its original purpose until the late 1920's a major portion of the building still stands as a witness to the 19th century life in Waxahachie.

In September of 1886, the Ellis County Grand Jury, with T. J. Quinn as foreman, recommended the building of a new jail for Ellis County. The jury determined that the county jail was obsolete and too small to accommodate the number of criminals, which were being arrested. During the following year the County Commissioners Court began to make plans based on the recommendation. In August, Commissioners, H. H. Dunn and George G. Higginbotham were appointed as a committee to investigate jails throughout the country, gather facts on jail construction and report their findings to the Commissioners Court. The court resolved to build a new jail for Ellis County. By November the contract for the jail construction was entered with the PAULY JAIL BUILDING AND MANUFACTURING COMPANY of St. Louis, Missouri. This company had provided jail work for the county in connection with the previous jail. The Pauly Company asked for $44,000 for the construction of the jail and required no payment until the job was complete. In February 1888, the Court appointed County Judge B. McDaniels and Dunn as a committee to employ a mechanic to inspect the work and to see that the work was being done according to plans and specifications. D. Mahoney supervised the construction. Plans for heating the jail were handled by a committee headed by Judge McDaniels and B. F. Hawkins.

In February of 1888, the County Commissioners had levied a thirty-five cent property tax on each $100 of evaluation. Of that amount five cents was designated for use in paying interest on jail bond redemption. Judge McDaniels and Dunn, the jail bonds committee, had 50 bonds of $1,000 each prepared. The committee in charge of the jail bonds was appointed in August of 1888. In September the jail was completed, with one or two small exceptions, according to contract and specifications. The Court ordered that the jail be received.

When the jail was completed the Court turned over to S. N. Pickens, agent of Pauly Company, seventeen of the jail bonds as partial payment. This left a balance of $26,711.75 owed on the jail by the Commissioners. Some bills amounting to $288.25 were in dispute. In February of 1891 three of the jail bonds with interest were redeemed and destroyed in open court. At this time the remainder of the jail bonds, thirty, were owned by the county Permanent School Fund. So at the time all fifty bonds were accounted for, seventeen to the Pauly Company, three paid off and the remaining thirty being held by the Permanent School Fund. Available evidence showed that three bonds were paid off in February of 1892 and bonds 19, 20, 21, 30,31,32, and 33 at dates between then and 1898.

This two-storied structure which is located on the Northeast corner of the intersection of Rogers and Water Street in Waxahachie, Texas, was constructed of brick and stone. The anterior of the building, which faced Rogers Street, housed the residence of the sheriff and his family. At the time of the jail's construction W. D. Ryburn was the sheriff. The midsection contained the sheriff's office and the entrance for the incoming or outgoing prisoners. The rear section of the jail contained the cells, on both first and second floors. The basement was used for solitary confinement and possibly the storage of coal. The back part of the lot, at one time, (on the College Street side) housed a garage and stables for horses. In the early 1900's Ray's Stable faced Water Street. The Commissioners Court, in November of 1892, ordered that no livestock of any kind be kept in the jail yard. The stable area must have been leased.

There were about twenty cells in the building. All of the cells were incorporated within the rotary cell, with the exception of the solitary confinement and the death cells. The rotary cell was constructed on the first and second floors. The cell was cylindrical and had a wall of bars around the actual cells. The wall of bars had only one door built in it. The outside wall was built stationary while the cells moved inside (but only when a prisoner was to be placed in or removed from the cell). When one prisoner in a cell was let out, all the other cells were automatically shut. There were about ten cells in each section (20 in all). The door to reach the cell area was on the Water Street side of the building. Each cell had a cot for the inmate and a water closet. A cell could accommodate one or two prisoners.


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Drawing of jail layout.


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Elevation drawing of cells. Graphic by Mark S. Pannill, first published July 19. 1981.


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Top view of cell layout. Graphic by Mark S. Pannill, first published July 19. 1981.


This rotary cell was one of a limited number in the United States. The pivots were located in the ceiling and the basement. The cell was constructed with one opening that went around the cells.

The solitary confinement cell was situated in the basement. Perpetrators of heinous crime were placed there. Along side this cell is a larger room. The purpose of this room is not clearly defined but it could have been another solitary confinement cell. These basement cells are located on the west wall of the room. The smaller of the two rooms is on the right side as one comes down the steps. There are four iron rings in this particular cell, three along the floor and one high on the wall facing the doorway. The cell measures about 6'x 8'x 9'. Officers could chain a prisoner in any way they wished so that he could not escape. Next (to this cell is the larger one. This cell measured about l5'x 15'. There are no rings in this room. There was a window on the south side of the wall near the ceiling. The ceiling was made of corrugated steel (these two cells are made of sandstone). Outside these cells are several concrete supports that fill the remaining area of the basement. On the walls are the evidence of the now bricked-over windows and an old coal chute. The lower pivot base of the rotary cell is located in the center of the room.

Facing the front of the building, on the left, is a turret-like tower with a conical roof covered with metal. The entrance to the sheriff's residence was located at the front also. In the middle of the jail (exterior), at ground level, was the main entrance. On this side (the side facing Water Street) there was a series of bar-covered windows and two iron doors, one going into the main foyer and the other being the coal chute. At the ground level there were several small barred windows that led into the basement. The whole area of the jail lot was enclosed by a fence of iron bars, eight foot high on the sides and extending to the back of the yard. In the front of the jail the fence was only four feet high.

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Crowded conditions, lack of safety, prevalence of unsanitary conditions and frequency of escapes brought about the decision to replace this jail.

In the late 1920's plans for a new jail were made and in 1929 Ellis County's present jail was built. This old jail was abandoned as a house of detention after the building of the new one. The Commissioners Court authorized the County Auditor, G. A. Neal) to advertise for bids for sale of the property; however, it was not sold during the 1930's. In September of 1933 the Commissioners authorized the Relief Work Commission to use the building for its welfare type activities.

On October 3, 1941, the Commissioners accepted the bid of Victor J. Hudson for the removal of the metal from the old jail. Hudson was to complete this removal within 45 days. Other conditions of the bid: Hudson was to pay $355 in cash at the beginning of the work, pay $355 upon the removal of fifty tons of metal and $355 as each ensuing fifty tons of metal were removed. Hudson paid $7.10 per ton for the metal, which was removed at his expense. The iron was to be weighed by a public bonded Waxahachie weigher. Supports were to be left in the building for a reasonable length of time so that the county could replace them with permanent ones.

On February 14, 1947, the jail property was sold at public auction to the highest bidder, which was $10,000 to Forrester Hancock, local attorney, who represented Thomas Hipp. Shortly after Hipp acquired the structure, he had it altered to accommodate his automobile business. Part of the second floor was removed and a garage and office space was added. This work was done by J. O. Byars and sons in 1948. In the basement a lift for raising cars was installed. Hipp resided in the front part of the jail and made interior alterations there. After Hipp's death, the property was sold to W. T. Esselman (1955) who operated his electrical business there and rented the front part of the building as office and storage space. After Esselman's death the property was purchased by the Citizens National Bank.

The jail as it appeared in 1980.

The lot where the jail stands first belonged to Emory Rogers. W. T. Briggs obtained it (lot 36) from Rogers. In December of 1855 Briggs sold the lot to the county for $50. Thomas Hipp bought the lot from the county in 1947 for $10,000. Citizens Bank bought it from the Esselman estate in April 1977, for $72,500.

This old Ellis County Jail has been entered in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Ellis County Courthouse Historical District. It currently serves as a law and insurance office and remains in good condition..


Byars, Wilburn, Interview by John Hancock. May 1978.

Cook, Herman, Interview by John Hancock. April 1978.

Ellis County Commissioners Court Records. Ellis County Clerk, Waxahachie.

Ellis County Deed Records, Ellis County Clerk, Waxahachie.

Esselman, Douglas, Interview by John Hancock. April 1978.

Godfrey, Horace, Interview by John Hancock. September 1977.

Hailey, William, Photograph.

Reddington, Penny, Interview by John Hancock. April 1978.

Waxahachie Enterprise.

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