Convicts in the Kitchen: Rural Jails in 1920s and 1930s America

sheriff-wife_washing turnips

A sheriff’s wife washes turnip greens in her home sink, possibly only a few feet away from the local jail cell. Image Source: CrimeReads

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Hello dear readers! Today, as a quick aside, I thought you all might enjoy this nifty true crime post which I ran across recently on one of my Facebook groups about 1920s history. This one comes from the folks over at CrimeReads, a “cultural website” that strives to bring you “the best writing from the worlds of crime, mystery, and thrillers,” with contributors ranging from mystery authors to publishers to librarians.

This particular post was written by Laurie Lowenstein, a new author whose debut mystery book, Death of a Rainmaker, comes out this month from Akashic Books. In the post, Lowenstein describes some of the historical research she did for her novel, which features a sheriff and his wife trying to solve a murder in a small Oklahoma town during the Dust Bowl in 193. As a result, she did a lot of research about rural police forces, and found something quite surprising and interesting: many rural jail cells in the 1920s and 1930s were actually part of the sherriff’s house!

One particularly memorable quote about this fact comes from a book called The Secret Life of the Lawman’s Wife by B. J. Alderman, which documented jail conditions in rural Michigan:

“The jail cells were behind the family quarters. Prisoners came in through the side door, went through the sheriff’s office and right into the cell area….the male prisoners were fed by lining up outside the kitchen door that had a 2 ½-by-2 ½-foot barred pass-through in the door between the family quarters and the cells.”

And the connections between a sheriff’s home and prisoners didn’t end there—his wife often had just as much a hand in dealing with the criminals as he did. In counties where funds and resources were scare, sheriff’s wives did everything from cooking meals and darning socks to booking prisoners and holding off angry lynch mobs with shotguns. As a result, jail time would have had an extremely different feel than, say, Chicago—and as Lowenstein points out, it offers a huge amount of dramatic conflict potential for anyone setting a piece of historical fiction in that time and place.

For more excellent bits of information about this topic, and to see examples of how Lowenstein worked these bits of history into her new book, check out the rest of Lowstein’s post over at CrimeReads—and be sure to check out the rest of their fascinating true crime material as well! 🙂

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About lupachi1927

My name's Megan, and I'm a writer with an interest in history. While I might not be a real historian, I'm a very thorough researcher. This blog is my place to post about all the interesting historical tidbits I find that can't use in the novel I'm working on, which takes place in Chicago in 1927. If you're looking for research help, writing feedback, or just want to say hi, feel free to drop me a line! :)
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2 Responses to Convicts in the Kitchen: Rural Jails in 1920s and 1930s America

  1. Super interesting! I might have to write a short story using this info… Thanks for posting!

    Like

    • lupachi1927 says:

      No problem! As a writer myself, I too was intrigued by the possibilities of such an intimate set up—plus the idea of chopping up a chicken while only 10 feet away from a possible murderer is downright creepy. Let me know how your story goes, I’d love to read it when you’re done!

      Liked by 1 person

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