When a jail cell is home-sweet-home

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a tragedy of Homeric proportions that explores the violent murder of the Clutter family and the lives of their killers. But there is much humanity in these pages, too. One humanizing detail is the Finney County Jail in Garden City, Kansas, where the two killers are initially confined.

As Capote describes it, “Institutional dourness and cheerfulness coexist on the fourth floor of the Finney County Courthouse. The presence of the county jail supplies the first quality, while the so-called Sheriff’s Residence, a pleasant apartment separated from the jail proper by steel doors and a short corridor, accounts for the second.”

Reading this passage for the first time I was astounded that a sheriff and his spouse (for still most sheriffs are men) would set up housekeeping only steps away from a grim row of jail cells.

But in Finney County, the arrangement was even more intimate than this, as Capote swiftly notes. “The jail contains six cells; the sixth is actually only an isolated unit situated inside the sheriff’s residence – indeed it adjoins the…kitchen. ‘But,’ says Josie Meier [the undersheriff’s wife], “that don’t worry me. I enjoy the company. Having someone to talk to while I’m doing my kitchen work…”

As I came to write my own book that involved a sheriff and his wife in the 1930s Dust Bowl, I considered that having one of the jail’s cells within the sheriff’s apartment was ripe with possibilities. Interactions between the lawman, his wife and a special prisoner could provoke a cyclone of tension.

After some digging around in county histories, I discovered that arrangements in which the sheriff’s residence and the jail shared the same building were not that unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My research did not reveal, however, if it was at all common to include a cell within the lawman’s apartment.

However, since I knew there was at least one instance of such a floor plan, I felt comfortable with putting a single cell in one corner of Etha Jenning’s kitchen. As with the actual Finny County set-up, my sheriff’s residence is on the top floor of the courthouse. The cell within the apartment is primarily used for female prisoners, which are few in fictional Jackson County. Therefore, Etha feels comfortable storing her root vegetables there — until a young man is suspected of murder and everything changes.


Site Visit to CCC Project #2

Standing atop a hand-hewn rock overlook on a hot summer afternoon I was struck by the ingenuity and sheer physical labor of the 200 or so young men who quarried and shaped the stone at this, one of the first Civilian Conservation Corps camps established in the country.

It was spring of 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” was just getting started about 200 unemployed boys arrived at what is now Gambrill State Park, about seven miles northwest of Frederick, Maryland. In exchange for food, shelter and a small paycheck, the corps set to work.

According to the Maryland Park Service, “A top priority for the local CCC camp was the development of Gambrill State Park. When the ‘boys’ began working at Gambrill in 1933, there were no roads, no picnic areas, no buildings, and no water supply. By 1940, the ‘CCC boys’ managed to build essentially all of the facilities that exist in the park today. They built the roads, three stone overlooks, three wooden picnic shelters, the Tea Room, the Ranger’s residence, and part of the Nature Center building.”

Today, almost 80 years later, my husband and I explored the accomplishments of these young men. A wedding was taking place at the Tea House, a lovely building constructed by the CCCers with native stone and wood. Picnickers spread out tablecloths and Tupperware containers in the picnic shelters. The three overlooks hosted a continuous stream of hikers who gazed across the heat-hazed valleys below. There is also a bronze statue of a CCC member erected in 2011 to honor the young men who built the park.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stuck on the 1930s

Spending years researching and writing a book taking place in the 1930s, not to mention earlier years studying the period in graduate school, I have watched a lot of films set in this era. I watch not only to learn but also for pleasure.

Here are three of my favorites. Please share your favorite movies, either made in the 30s or set in the 30s!

Paper Moon (1973): A Bible-selling conman and a young girl, who may or may not be his daughter, team up in Peter Bogdanovich’s poignant and funny film brimming with naïve store clerks, side-show floozies, widows, lawmen and ministers. Ryan O’Neal and daughter, Tatum, star. Madeline Kahn is unforgettable as Trixie Delight.

Pennies From Heaven (1981): A unusual musical which contrasts the fantasy world constructed by popular music of the time and the grim reality of the Depression. Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters star, but a tap-dancing Christopher Walken steals one scene.

Chinatown (1974): A L.A. private detective gets mired in a complex case that evolves from a seemingly simple tailing job to murder, intrigue over water rights and incest. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway star.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s