Indiana State University Newsroom

Professor unearths stories from prison graveyard

July 20, 2012

The Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville is the final resting place for inmates who died in the Texas prison system and were unclaimed or whose families simply could not afford to bring them home, including infamous Serial Killers Henry Lee Lucas and two-time Death Row Inmate Kenneth McDuff as well as Kiowa Indian Chief Satanta, imprisoned in 1874 for leading raids on Texas settlers.

But those are not the stories Frank Wilson wants to tell.

The Sam Houston State University Ph.D. graduate and assistant professor at Indiana State University is writing a book about "America's common ground" found among the headstones on a quiet hill on Bowers Boulevard, just a few blocks from Sam Houston State University and the Walls Unit in Texas.

"As I went through the cemetery and took pictures of each of the 3,000 headstones, I could see some were veterans and I saw that some families had placed flowers and trinkets on the graves," said Wilson. "I reflected on the statement: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.' I could have wound up here had certain things not happened in my life. What you are looking at here is America's common ground. You have individuals that everyone in the world has something in common with. That's what the book is about."

Among the neat rows of headstone and crosses, Wilson found a man who fought in three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. In fact, he found more than 70 veterans buried in the cemetery.

"When you look back and see his enlistment materials from Hoboken, NJ and then he fights in three different wars, and ultimately his end culminated in a prison cemetery in Southeast Texas, you have to wonder what was this individual's story," said Wilson. "You have over 3,000 individuals here that clearly have similar stories, maybe some not as interesting, maybe some more interesting."

The cemetery, named in honor of a longtime assistant warden at the Walls Unit who had led a renovation of the graveyard in the 1960s, has been in operation since 1850 and is the cemetery for inmates from the Texas state prison system whose bodies went unclaimed. More than 3,000 people are buried here from prisons across the state, including about 2 percent who were executed at the Walls Unit. Those graves are marked with an "X", an "EX" or their inmate numbers begin with "999," signifying Death Row.

Wilson spent the summer of 2011 photographing each headstone in the cemetery. While many headstones now include a person's name and death date, older graves are marked simply with the date of death and a prison number. More than 300 of the earliest graves remain unidentified; even prison officials don't know who is buried there.

"One of the reasons for the book is to dispel some of the myths that surround the cemetery, given its placement near the Death House in Huntsville," said Wilson. "Most people assume that the people included in the cemetery are the bad of the bad or the worst criminals. While in some cases it may be because that person didn't have a family to claim them, but in most cases it is the fact that the family couldn't afford to bring them home for a burial."

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice pays about $2,000 toward each burial, which includes a simple casket placed inside two plastic shields. The chaplain of the Walls Unit leads the graveside service at a central altar and, if no family is present, the Walls Unit warden or his representative, along with officers and inmates responsible for maintenance of the cemetery, attend the service.

This summer, Wilson returned to Huntsville to research archival information on the cemetery at the Texas Prison Museum, the Walker County Historical Commission and other museums throughout the state, uncovering stories behind the men and women buried here.

Wilson became interested in the cemetery while a student at SHSU. It was part of his daily running route and he always wondered why and how a person's life could end in this remote prison cemetery. While Dennis Longmire encouraged him to document the prison cemetery as part of a dissertation, the final push for the book came from his then 71-year old mother, now 83. "To this day, she doesn't mention NASA or anywhere else about her visit to Texas," said Wilson. "It is the prison cemetery she reflects on."

Wilson said one of the most important lessons he learned from SHSU was to develop his own research agenda and explore new and innovative ideas. A lesson he says he learned from such mentors as Rolando del Carmen, Longmire and Wes Johnson. It was his mentor's support that allowed him to study crime and media while at SHSU, and as a result, he has founded the Annual International Crime, Media and Popular Culture Studies Conference, which attracts scholars from 15 counties. He also became the editor of the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture.

Wilson said he hopes his study of the cemetery will lead to a new area of research in the criminal justice field.

"There is so much history in these cemeteries that people shy away from because it doesn't fit the traditional standards of what is considered criminology research at this time," Wilson said. "It is not a database, not producing numbers or not leading to grants -- yet," said Wilson.

Wilson said prison cemeteries offer a wealth of information.

"There are over 3,000 headstones here," said Wilson. "As a social scientist, it makes me wonder what events in their lives lead them to be here."

Writer: Elizabeth Kuhls, Sam Houston State University, publications officer