"There is no law, no restraint in this seething cauldron of vice and depravity."—The New York Tribune, describing Abilene, Kansas
The men and women who settled in Kansas understood that their new home could be a dangerous place. They regularly struggled against nature to survive, but at times their fellow settlers posed a greater threat.
During the territorial period, abolitionist and proslavery factions destroyed towns and killed each other in battles over the laws that would govern the future state. After Kansas gained statehood in 1861, the population grew and criminal activity increased. In the 1870s and 1880s, cowboys herding cattle from Texas brought disorder to Dodge City, Abilene, and Ellsworth. At times, Kansas seemed lawless.
Jails were symbols of order and accordance to the law. After statehood, law enforcement became more organized. As cities and counties began to punish their criminals, officials found they lacked a method of retaining them. Building a jail was the obvious answer, but funds and materials were limited. As a result, city and county jails tended to be small, with space to house from one to three people, and made from materials that were easily available, such as stone or wood. Rooms in private homes or public buildings also served as early cells.
In 1866 the residents of Burlingame, Kansas, found themselves in need of a jail. A convicted murderer named Bates had escaped from a jail in Johnson County and appeared at the farm of A. M. Jarbo near Burlingame. He was looking for work and the farmer allowed him to stay. Later that night Jarbo discovered Bates stealing valuables and took him to the deputy sheriff in town. Because there was no jail, the deputy shackled him, but Bates grabbed the deputy's gun and shot him. Bates escaped capture for a second time. He was soon found, tried, and hanged for his crimes.
The town constructed two identical jails sometime after this incident. The jail shown here was donated to the Kansas Museum of History by the City of Burlingame in 1954. It is made of wooden planks and measures six feet by eight feet. While it is not known whether the jail was used indoors or outdoors at the time of construction, it was later used inside city hall until the 1950s. The jail's primary function was to house drunken revelers on a Saturday night. Early Sunday morning, the detainees were hosed off and sent home.
Ironically, one of the town's jails itself was the victim of a crime. Burlingame citizens used the jail in 1954 as part of a Kansas Territory centennial celebration. Early one morning, the building disappeared and was later discovered in Mission, Kansas. Some residents believed the jail was stolen as part of a publicity stunt. The mystery was never solved, and the perpetrator avoided spending the night in lock-up.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2006
Date Modified: September 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.