Clio Logo

In the Reconstruction period between 1865 and 1877, corruption, lawlessness, and racial divides were commonplace as outlaw gangs ran riot statewide from the Red River to the Rio Grande. According to George W. Tyler in his History of Bell County, the gangs had allies who would aid and abet them, including breaking them out of jail if they were captured. During and after the Civil War, deserters from both sides of the conflict, as well as outlaws and thieves, flocked to the cedar breaks and caves around Bell County. Lawlessness, theft, and other criminal acts abounded. Returning to a law-and-order society after the Civil War was a challenge for law enforcement. Mob violence erupted on many occasions and the Bell County jail was often at the center of the conflict. This was the case on May 25, 1874, one of the most violent days in the history of the county.

Early Bell County Jail

Cloud, Sky, Building, Window

Original limestone

Flowerpot, Rectangle, Wood, Window

Historical marker

Commemorative plaque, Font, Building, History

Belton Jail Prisoners Grave at South Belton Cemetery

Plant, Sky, Leaf, Cemetery

Bell County's second jail was constructed in 1873 by Reed, Whitson, and Co., at a cost of $6850. It replaced the original log cabin jail on the same site. The jail was constructed of native stone, two stories high with steel cages for cells and surrounded by a high board fence. Barely a year old, the building witnessed one of the most violent vigilante acts in Texas history. While Sheriff Halley was away on official business, a mob of one hundred vigilantes from throughout Texas rode into Belton, tied up the jailer, broke the five-pound lock, and proceeded to gun down nine prisoners convicted of horse theft and murder. Some accounts estimate the number of vigilantes at between three and five hundred.

The Bell County Correspondent published an account of the massacre. Armed with axes, hatchets and crowbars, the vigilantes gained access to the cages and began firing on the prisoners. Within five minutes, they were all dead. Eight of the men were accused of horse theft; the ninth had allegedly killed his wife in Coryell County. In late May, 1874, the Waco Advance listed the names of the dead: John Alexander (alias Daily), William Henry Grumbles, William S. Smith, J.S. McDonald, Marion McDonald, and Lloyd Colman, the alleged wife-killer. Three other victims--Wingfield, Beckneal and Crow-- are remembered by their surnames only. A 10th member of the group, Tyre Thompson, escaped death because illness had caused him to be moved to another area of the jail; he was later tried and given a life sentence.

According to one version of the incident, bodies of the dead men were to be carried to a cemetery (now known as South Belton Cemetery) for burial in a common grave; however, the county's presiding justice E. Walker apparently decided against this course and ordered separate coffins and graves for the men. On May 26, 1874, according to court records, John H. Johnson was authorized $70.55 for burial of the nine men "recently killed in the county jail." Johnson and Isaac Williams were also allowed $15 for "superintending" the burial of the nine dead men. On September 29, Charles A. Wear was "allowed $6 for painting the names of the nine murdered prisoners on their headboards."

The jail building was rented to the City of Belton in 1884 when the third county jail was completed. It later was sold and became a private residence. Originally built of native stone, the building’s exterior was encased in plaster and scoured to look like cement blocks. Inside, the warehouse planked floors were covered with narrow hardwood pegged flooring, and evidence of bullet holes and shotgun blasts may be seen upstairs. The building received a Texas Historical Marker in 1967.

Clark, Harper Scott. “Old Jail Has Haunting Memory from 1874.” Temple Daily Telegram, June 9, 2009.

Limmer, E. A., Jr. Story of Bell County, Texas. Austin, TX.: Eakin Press, 1988.

Belton Chamber of Commerce. Belton: National Historic District Walking Tour, 2001.

Tyler, George W. The History of Bell County. Belton, Texas: Dayton Kelly, 1966.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Photo by Terry Jeanson, 2007

Photo by Jerry Jeanson, 2007

Photo by Terry Jeanson, 2007

Photo by Chris Varville