Lone Star Adventure: Texas Prison Museum - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

Lone Star Adventure: Texas Prison Museum

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The Texas Prison Museum literally takes you inside the state's penal system, with a wealth of antique artifacts that chronicle its fascinating history.

"This is a replica cell," said Jim Willett as he led me into it. "It is almost exactly what you would see if you go in a cell."  Willet is a retired warden who runs the museum probably best known for "Old Sparky," the antique electric chair that sits smack in the middle of the display floor. "This is probably the biggest draw that we've got. Everybody wants to come in and see Old Sparky. It was used from 1924 to 1964 and 361 men died in that chair."

Just across from Old Sparky another display case, with the instruments of executions.

"From 1924 to 1964 executions were done in the electric chair and that's what this section is about. They shaved their head and their ankle and used a wet sponge to conduct electricity. 

Right off I-45 in Huntsville,  the museum is increasingly drawing visitors from around the world, including a couple from Germany.

"The prison system in Germany where we come from," said Mirco Gokeler, "is very different."

"(Texas prisons are) known in Europe from films and so on so we like to visit Huntsville," Sandra Herden told me.

There are incredible works of inmate art.  Displays of prisoner ingenuity and talent, contraband both remarkable and frightening. Lots of weapons, including a five-barrel shotgun constructed in a prison shop, discovered before it could be used.

"When they got it back up to the warden's office," said Willett, "somebody was messing with it and it went off, so they knew it worked."

More than a century of history is on display here, some of it really dark. 

"In 1974 3 inmates got these three pistols smuggled in," said Willett, as he pointed out the pistols in a display case. "And for 11 days held the people in the education department hostage." Two female prison employees would die in the resulting shootout, along with two of the inmates.

Clyde Barrow spent time in a Texas prison and in 1934 came back with Bonnie Parker to break some friends out, incurring the wrath of prison boss Lee Simmons. 

"In the process of breaking those people out they killed a guard and Mr. Simmons went to the Governor and asked if he could hire an ex Texas Ranger to go find Bonnie and Clyde."

That was the beginning of the bloody end for the outlaw pair. A pistol found in Bonnie's lap when the ambush was over made its way back to Lee Simmons and is now here.

"There is one thing different. At the time of her death it had wooden handles and he later put those nice looking pearl jobs on it."

There's lighter stuff too. A great display on the famed Texas Prison Rodeo which ended in the late 1980s but is still the stuff of legends.

And Jim Willett is the perfect guide -- from part time prison guard to long time warden. The museum job, he told me, is a whole better.

"I don't have to worry about anybody trying to escape or stabbing one another," he said with a smile. "It's a nice place to be."


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