Hubert Harvey hadn’t fatally stabbed that young Austin
man on Halloween night in 1916, he might have lived to see the fine
new Texas Highway Department building go up where the Travis
County Jail once stood.
But that’s not how it worked out. At 1:50 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1918 Sheriff
George Matthews sprang the trap on the gallows inside the jail and
Harvey paid for his crime at the end of a rope.
Harvey, 34, had the distinction of being the last of nine men legally
hanged in the castle-like stone jail, built for $100,000 in 1876 at
the corner of 11th and Brazos streets — present location of
the Dewitt C. Greer Building, headquarters of what is now the
Texas Department of Transportation.
Who knows? Maybe Harvey’s spirit has something to do with the mysterious
footsteps and strange noises some TxDOT employees have reported hearing
at night when the building’s supposedly empty. But for anyone who
believes in ghosts, there are plenty of suspects.
Hardin, Texas’ deadliest 19th century outlaw, cooled his heels
in the still-new jail until his transfer to the state prison in Huntsville.
John Ringo, another famous outlaw, did some time in the Travis County
slammer before moving west to Arizona.
A more genteel inmate was William Sydney Porter, a popular young man
with a penchant for puns, pilsner and games of chance. Later known
world-wide as O. Henry, the short story writer got to reflect on the
literary life for a while after being booked on a federal bank embezzlement
rap in 1898.
Until 1923, under state law the sheriff of the county in which the
condemned person had been convicted bore the responsibility of carrying
out an execution. After that time, executions were by electrocution
at the state prison in Huntsville.
For the superstitious, these are the other potential Greer Building
18, hanged for rape, Aug. 22, 1879.
21, hanged for rape, Jan. 12, 1894.
Burt, hanged May 27, 1898 for killing his wife and two children.
Police found their bodies in a cistern at 207 E. 9th St.
30, hanged Jan. 27, 1899 for murder, rape and robbery.
30, hanged Nov. 24, 1899 for murder, rape and robbery.
30, hanged May 2, 1904 for murder and rape.
hanged July 12, 1912 for murder.
hanged May 30, 1913 for murder.
While none of these men ever had to worry about the infirmities
associated with the passage of time, by the late 1920s, the jail
had begun to show its age. And so had the adjacent county courthouse
at 11th and Congress. When Travis
County officials decided to construct a new courthouse at 11th
and Guadalupe in 1930, the plans included a larger, state-of-the-art
jail on the top floor of the new building.
The Highway Department, crammed in a state office building across
the street from the old jail, saw the impending move as an opportunity
to get land for a new headquarters. Negotiations soon began with
to buy the property.
“We wish to renew our recommendation that the State Highway Commission
be permitted to erect a building to house the State Highway Department
in Austin,” read the fifth
of nine recommendations made in the department’s seventh biennial
report. “Such a building,” the 1930 report continued, should include
“a laboratory, research department, and ample other space for carrying
on its activities, now and in the future.”
Despite the transportation agency’s interest in the jail property,
some Austinites suggested the old jail should be remodeled and transformed
into a public library named in honor of O. Henry.
In the end, practicality trumped preservation
and the state razed the old jail. The department used free labor
to clear the site, ordering a class of Highway Patrol cadets then
in training at Camp Mabry to do the job.
At a cost of $455,151.74, the new building opened in the summer
of 1933 — only three years after it was requested. Impressive as
the new Highway Building was, nearly another 20 years went by before
the agency got around to installing air conditioning. That cost
$170,642 in 1951.
The building has seen various rennovations since then, but no ghost
October 14, 2010 column