One sunny Saturday, my friend Sam and I decided to take a day trip down to Huntsville, Texas. She had never been but I went to college there and called it home for almost three years. After a 2 and half hour drive south down Interstate 45, we are in Huntsville and see the first visible prison. Sitting across the highway was the Texas Prison Museum.
“Want to check it out?” I ask.
“A trip to Huntsville wouldn’t be complete without a lesson in the penitentiary system.” She replies.
After an exit and quick turnaround, we pulled into the parking lot. The red brick walls of the museum mimic those of the most notorious prison in the state, The Huntsville Unit, also known as the Walls unit. It is mostly known as the last stop for the over 200 men on Texas’ death row.
We walk inside and are immediately greeted by a friendly guy behind the desk, who takes our admission fee.
“Let me know if you have any questions,” he says.
The museum has an open floor plan; the walls on the inside are also red brick, as sign tells us it is “To get the feel of life inside the Walls Unit.” There is a structure made out of more red brick in the center of the room. It is not immediately clear what it is.
We start on the right side and follow the wall. The history of the Texas Penitentiary system is unfolding as we make our way towards the ever ominous structure in the center of the room.
We get to see art made by inmates while serving their time. We also get to see all the contraband they made. This includes a huge display of all the weapons that have been confiscated. Men in prison are very creative when it comes to making weapons out of nothing at all.
“This shank is made entirely out of magazine pages! And it was used to kill a guy!” Sam is simultaneously shocked and impressed by the ingenuity of the inmates.
Next we walk over to a row of mannequins dressed in different prison guard uniforms throughout the ages. They are poorly dressed and not the most impressive mannequins.
“Why does this male corrections officer have such dark lip liner on?” Sam does not have an answer for me.
Finally, we make it to the mysterious structure. As we turn, we notice it is 3 walls with the 4th removed to allow you to see into the “room.”
The sign on the wall says, “Capital Punishment Exhibit,” and seated in the middle of the “room” behind a glass railing to deter you from going near it, is Old Sparky. Texas’ now decommissioned electric chair.
“Wow! How many people do you think died in that thing?” Sam asks me.
I read the sign slightly to the right,
“According to this, 361 prisoners were executed with Old Sparky.”
This is also shocking news and a little eerie after we thought about it for a moment. Of course, not enough to stop us from taking some pictures in front of it.
“Are you for or against the death penalty, Sam? I need to see how you feel in this picture!”
Our photo shoot may have been considered in poor taste. Once we ran out of idea for poses in front of Old Sparky, we moved along, continuing to follow the wall with the other exhibits about the prison. The last thing to see is the example they have set up of an actual prison cell.
“Wow, this is tiny! And you can touch the toilet from the bed! I don’t think I could I handle this space.” Sam says, while I am closing the cell door to lock her in.
She walks over to the toilet and starts laughing.
“What is so funny?” I walk in and look in the toilet to see a sticker inside that says,
“FOR DISPLAY PURPOSES ONLY!” in big black letters.
“In case you thought peeing in a museum exhibit was otherwise ok!” Sam adds.
We take some more ridiculous pictures in the cell and then that is it. We are already done. It didn’t take nearly as long as we thought it would to explore the entire history of the penitentiary system. But at least we were able to make a lot of jokes about it which is really what is important.
We are about to head for the door when a woman busts her way in pushing a stroller with a child too old to be pushed around. She is wearing cloth shorts that are too short, a tie dyed t-shirt that is too big, socks with sandals and her dry, frizzy hair is set on top of her head in the messiest of buns. Her makeup appears to have partially sweated off and you can tell by her demeanor she has been in the car for too long. We immediately pause, caught off guard by this new development. We exchange glances and without saying a word, agree we are going to wait and see how this plays out. We walk over to the art exhibit again and pretend to be reading it.
The man at the desk greets them, as he did with the us, and has probably done with every other guest that has walked through those doors. Before he can finish his offer to answer any questions, she blurts hers out loud enough for the entire room to hear,
“What prison is Leather Face in?” her accent is thick and country.
Sam and I freeze, we know we can’t react and it is the hardest thing we have ever done. There is a moment of silence, seemingly in the entire museum. It feels like forever, as everyone patiently awaits his response.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
“Leather Face!” she yells again, “What prison. Is. He. In?!”
She is pausing after every word to get her question across. The tone in her voice is that of annoyance and she is speaking to him as if he is a complete moron for not understanding her question the first time.
Again, no one makes a sound. Everyone is looking down at something, refusing to look at each other, knowing it will set off a domino effect of laughter. The man behind the desk clears his throat,
“Ma’am, Leather Face is not real.” He says this, very calmly. His voice is struggling not to waiver.
She rolls her eyes at him, “Yes he is. My neighbor did time with him!”
At this point, I don’t think either Sam or I are breathing. She grabs my arm and starts to squeeze as we try not to look directly at the train wreck.
Again, the man calmly responds,
“No ma’am, he is a fictional character based on a serial killer from Wisconsin. He does not exist.”
She is very quickly getting agitated with the stupidity of the man behind the desk.
“Barbra Walters interviewed him on 60 minutes!”
Before he responds again, he reaches under the counter and retrieves a pamphlet, he is shaking his head no and handing it to her as he says,
“Here, this pamphlet explains everything.”
She snatches the pamphlet and stares at it as if it is in another language. Before she is able to respond again, the man she is with comes walking in the door. She turns to him and with the same volume she has been using the entire conversation, says,
“Hunny! Leather Face ain’t real!”
He tilts his head, crinkles his brow and says,
“Yeah. I know.”
With that, the discussion was closed.