Law and order required a new jail 

             Lately, with all the talk about gun control and crime prevention, I sometimes get the feeling we live in dangerous times, until I read about the early days of Wharton County.
Well into the 20th century, young girl’s who rode horseback to the Wharton Public School from Pierce and Burr carried guns with them for protection. The guns were checked in by the principle and returned to the girl’s when it was time to return home.


          In those days, much of the violence centered around the Courthouse Square, which served as gathering place and community center. Annie Lee Williams, described happenings there as follows:

          “ The Courthouse Square was the scene of many cold-blooded murders during the years … of brother killing brother, and friend killing friend. The gun was the answer to arguments and disagreements, and incredible as it seems, many fully expected to die by the gun.

“ Sometimes the murders were over gambling debts, sometimes over getting the wrong cut of meat at the butcher shop, and sometimes over a spur-of-the-moment argument.”

Sometimes, the body of the slain victim would be taken into the courthouse until the undertaker came.

One of the murders that gave me pause was the murder of Hope A. Adams. Adams was shot dead in the street just outside of W.O. Register’s store, located where the original Security Bank was built, known today as The First National Bank of El Campo. Locals who witnessed the shooting said the gunman fired his rifle threw one of the upper windows of the courthouse. No charges were ever brought. Now, each time I walk past the courthouse, I wonder which window the gunman used, imagining modern –day images of the assignation of JFK and the shot fired from the Book Depository. Good or bad, I am once again reminded, that the Courthouse has been witness to many important events.

           In 1888, Wharton County needed a new jail to contain this culture of violence and so Commissioners Court asked Eugene T. Heiner, to design a jail to act in conjunction with the courthouse he also designed.

Heiner, known for his “scientific” approach to jail design, was a wise choice.

The 1888 Wharton County Jail that Heiner designed was constructed in the High Victorian, Italiante style. The two-story building was constructed with solid brick walls and cells provided by the Diebold Lock and Safe Co. of Canton, Ohio. The Heiner jail replaced an earlier jail that was built in 1854.After the new Victorian jail was built, the 1854 jail was sold to George Quinan Rust, who remodeled the building into a home. The 1854 home stands to this day near the corner of Resident and Milam streets.

In addition to a good jail, strong men were needed to uphold the laws of the land. In 1890, one such man stepped up to make the commitment and gave his life for the struggle.

His name was Hamilton Bass Dickson. Sheriff H.B. Dickson played an important role, as did many others who worked to develop Wharton County. The gunfight that took Sheriff Dickson’s life took place on Feb. 7, 1894.

The whole episode began at Northington’s store in Egypt. It was there that Sheriff Dickson met up with Sheriff J.L. Townsend of Colorado County to track a fugitive that had been seen in the area. The outlaw, Dee Braddock, had recently killed a constable while escaping from jail.

Details of the shooting became state news, an account of which is as follows:

“While entering a thicket on the east side of the river about three miles below Rancho Grande, Braddock was suddenly discovered. He fired at close quarters upon Sheriff Dickson, who was killed instantly. Immediately one of the posse made short work of Braddock. The murderer was shot and killed in an instance.

“The body of Sheriff Dickson now lies at the home of Judge Northington in Egypt. Sheriff Dickson was universally loved, honored and respected and his loss is of worth and moment to our county.”

The Death of Sheriff Dickson had a profound effect on the people of Wharton County and beyond. Consider the following note John L. Croom wired to Colonel A.H. (Shanghai) Pierce, which read:

“Dear Friend: The funeral of the best friend you ever had takes place at 2:30 p.m. I want you to come over without fail….Everything in town is closed up again and will not open until the burial. It  shows how the people esteemed our good friend. Wilie ordered yesterday $5 worth of flowers to come this a.m. to decorate his grave.”

Wilie, who is referred to in the note, is Judge W.J. Croom.

Now remember that just a few years earlier, Pierce sued Judge Croom over the construction of the courthouse, and yet the Croom family is asking Pierce to come to there home to morn the loss of a mutual friend.

This goes to show that even though quarreling may be our heritage, so too is the act of forgiveness.

On December 17, 1894, commissioner’s court erected a 21-foot tall memorial to honor Sheriff Dickson made of white Italian marble. You have probably seen it on the courthouse lawn along with other memorials dedicated to the many patriotic citizens who gave their lives in the struggle for a better world. 

Originally, the Dickson monument was placed mid-way between the north gate and the main entrance to the courthouse fronting Milam Street. The monument was moved to the North East corner of the courthouse lawn in 1928 .

Hopefully, as awareness grows about the importance of restoring the courthouse, we will not forget about the Heiner-designed Victorian jail, which stands in need of repair. Perhaps, it is also time to restore the Dickson Monument to its original location so that young and old alike, can appreciate the efforts of Sheriff Dickson, each time they enter the courthouse, as was the case in the late 1890’s.