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A Jail Without Walls

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Not long after Robert Stewart of Mason County came down with a sudden case of lead poisoning and was put to sleep with a shovel, a company of Maj. John B. Jones' Texas Rangers arrested J. C. McGrew in Kimble County for knowingly and intentionally infecting the late Mr. Stewart with a .45 caliber dose of the fatal disease.

In May 1875 the Rangers took McGrew to the courthouse in Mason for an examination hearing before Judge Hay. There being more than enough evidence to hold McGrew for trial, the court charged him with murder and ordered that he be taken 65 miles to the jail in Kerrville.

The Hoo Doo War was raging in Mason County at the time. Nothing was secure in Mason just then, not even the jail.

A contemporary newspaper described J. C. McGrew as a rancher and a typical old-time cattleman. He would also prove himself to be a guy who knew how to maneuver his way out of tight spots.

After a short stay in the Kerr County Jail, McGrew escaped. He remained on the dodge for several weeks until authorities arrested him in Jack County and locked him in the guardhouse at Fort Griffin near the Clear Fork of the Brazos River north of Albany.

One night after the changing of the guard, McGrew busted out, stole a horse and bolted for the brush. Authorities arrested him a third time several months later in Comanche.

Sheriff Frank Wilson of Comanche County brought McGrew back to face the music in Mason, but given McGrew's talents as a locksmith and escape artist, the court sent the prisoner to Fredericksburg to await trial.

This is where the story gets really interesting.


A few days after J. C. McGrew arrived in Fredericksburg a friend walked by the jail and saw the prisoner, unshackled and unguarded, sitting on a bench outside, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, reading a newspaper just like a free man on the front porch back home.

It was a peculiar sight, given McGrew's fondness for the wide open spaces and his inclination to skedaddle when given half a chance.

Curious to know how a prisoner under felony indictment, who had already walked out of two jails like they were circus tents, enjoyed such freedom, the friend asked McGrew what he was doing on the loose. The March 18, 1937 edition of the Fredericksburg Standard reported McGrew's answer from 60 year earlier.

"But I ain't out of jail," McGrew insisted. "I'm very much in jail. Just using the streets for a run-around." "I made a trade with the sheriff," McGrew explained. "He's a fine man and mighty busy." "I decided to help out all I could, so one day I says to him, 'say Sheriff you need't be pester'n with bringing my meals to me. You just leave the door unlocked and when it comes time to eat I'll go to the boarding house and come right back, and when bed time comes I'll turn in and you can bet on me doing just what I say I'll do.'"

"So the sheriff agreed to it, and that's the way we've been working it ever since."

"Oh I've fudged on the sheriff a little for once in a while I step over to the saloon and take some nourishment and I've moved my bed to the outside on account of the hot weather."

"Don't know whether the sheriff's in town or not. I ain't seen him in a week."

Apparently the unconventional arrangement worked like a borrowed mule. McGrew stayed put, just like he promised, and Sheriff John Wagner was able to conduct his regular county business without worrying if his prisoner would go AWOL on the way to the outhouse.

When the court in Mason convened later that year Sheriff Wagner and J. C. McGrew drove over together in a buggy.

A jury tried McGrew and acquitted him.

Sources:
"State News, Mason County," Galveston Daily News, August 13, 1875.
"The Sheriff and Prisoner Made a Trade," Fredericksburg Standard, March 18, 1937.
"Texas Items," The Weekly Democratic Statesman (Austin), November 19, 1874.
"Texas Facts and Fancies," The Weekly Democratic Statesman (Austin), May 27, 1875.
"Texas Facts and Fancies," The Weekly Democratic Statesman (Austin), July 1, 1875.
David Johnson, The Mason County "Hoo Doo" War, 1874-1902 (Denton: North Texas State University Press, 2006), 203.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" January 15, 2022 Column



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