The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003 Page: 415
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2003 The Governor and the Bat 415
The perceived failure of alternative disciplinary tactics also may have
influenced decisions by later administrations to return to lashing.
Nowhere did the shortcomings of alternative punishments seem more
apparent than when eight African American prisoners perished in a
dark cell at the Harlem State Farm in Fort Bend County on September
6, 1913. Although a prison physician had characterized these dun-
geon-like boxes as "a disgrace to the System," and correctly predicted
dire consequences from their use, Cabell regarded them as "a place of
extreme isolation giving the offending convicts . . . a chance to medi-
tate and think . . . rather than receiving physical punishment." Cabell
and the other commissioners had issued strict orders regulating the
use of dark cells, and required frequent sanitary and ventilation
inspections by medical officers. Guards at Harlem had confined twelve
prisoners in a nine feet long, seven feet wide, and seven feet high sheet
metal box that could only receive air through four one-inch holes in
the floor and six one-and-a-quarter-inch holes in the ceiling.
According to a later investigation, commissioners concluded that
guards "had no reason to think there was anything wrong or that any
of the convicts were in distress." After all, it was "customary for prison-
ers confined in the dark cell to make these sounds and ask to be let
out and to keep up a continuous racket, regardless of the number who
may be in the cell."34
Fort Bend County authorities arrested and charged three prison
employees with negligent homicide as a result of the eight deaths by suf-
focation, but a justice of the peace dismissed the cases. The board's own
investigation concluded that the three were guilty of "very bad judg-
ment." Prison rules, however, did not govern the number of convicts to
be confined in a cell at any one time. Cabell was more critical than the
other commissioners, believing that prison staff had failed to diligently
implement board instructions concerning the use of dark cells. He sug-
gested that the farm manager should have exercised more oversight of
discipline and should have been more aware of the overcrowded dark
cell on the day of the tragedy. Indeed, it was Cabell's misfortune to have
presided over what he described as "a most unfortunate affair and one
always to be remembered in prison history.""
At the time of the Harlem tragedy, Cabell and the other two commis-
sioners were serving their last days as administrators. The Texas Senate
34 Cabell to Colquitt, Sept. 15, 1913, including an attached letter from Oscar Wolff to Dr.J. R.
Lay, Sept. 9, 1912 (1st quotation); Cabell to all physicians and surgeons of the prison system,
Aug. 21, 1912 (2nd quotation); Robert W. Brahan and Louis W. Tittle (prison commissioners)
to Colquitt, Sept. o20, 1913 (3rd and 4th quotations), all m Colquitt Governor's Records.
" Brahan and Tittle to Colquitt, Sept. 20o, 1913, Colquitt Governor's Records (1st quotation);
Cabell to Colquitt, Sept. 15, 1913, Colquitt Governor's Records (2nd quotation).
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003, periodical, 2003; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101223/m1/483/: accessed October 18, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.