Montz on Roth, 'Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo'

Author: 
Mitchel P. Roth
Reviewer: 
Zachary Montz

Mitchel P. Roth. Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2016. 448 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57441-652-7.

Reviewed by Zachary Montz (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-Texas (August, 2019) Commissioned by Linda Powell (Amarillo College and Wayland Baptist University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53546

From 1931 to 1986, Huntsville, Texas, played host to the famous Texas Prison Rodeo. Over four consecutive Sundays in October, crowds of both the incarcerated and free packed into an arena built alongside the city’s famed “Walls” prison unit to watch convict cowboys and entertainers put on “The Dang’est Show on Earth.” At the height of its popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, the rodeo was broadcast nationally on radio and television, and the total attendance of more than one hundred thousand made it the largest sporting event in Texas. Large crowds attracted politicians and later, big-name celebrities like Steve McQueen and Frankie Avalon, enticed both by appearance fees and the chance to pick up a little Texas dust on their boots. The key to the rodeo’s draw, however, lay not just in the chance to catch a famous act or to marvel at feats of riding and roping. Those could be had at any of the popular rodeos in the state. At the prison rodeo, promoters promised spectators they had “gathered together at Huntsville some of the wildest men” from the state’s prisons to take on Texas’ “wildest, orneriest” stock (p. 135). Here was a chance to thrill in Texas at its toughest. 

It is to the credit of Mitchel Roth, then, that his Cowboy Convicts: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo does not get swept up in the spectacle. To be sure, Roth entertains his readers, and the book is filled with tales of famous performers like Johnny Cash and unorthodox rodeo events like charity racing, mounted basketball, or “Hard Money,” where convicts tried to grab a cash-stuffed tobacco pouch tied between the horns of a bull. Amidst the excitement, however, is a bigger history of the state prison system and its place in Texas culture, conveyed largely from the perspective of convicts and the prison officials who created and promoted the event. It is a story that Roth, a professor of criminal justice, tells with respect for convicts and with balanced doses of praise and criticism for the Texas official who ran the prisons and the rodeo.

The prison rodeo grew out of “free world” traditions of working-class cowboy competition and of the Wild West show, but it was the particular problems of the prison system that spurred officials to put on the first show in 1931. As the agricultural economy collapsed in the early twentieth century, convict leasing, a system of state-managed quasi-slavery that Texas had relied upon to fund the penal system, became uneconomical. Reforms in the 1920s gave state prison bosses in Huntsville control over the state’s sprawling system of a dozen prison farms but provided scant money for the recreational and educational needs of convicts. The rodeo emerged as a solution. It meant recreation for convicts, while the curious ticket-buying public provided funding the state would not. In its half-century of existence, rodeo proceeds built a chapel and paid for books, eyeglasses, artificial limbs, and other things Texas politicians considered too luxurious for convicts (although, as Roth points out, a good chunk of the proceeds also paid for constant stadium expansions and bonuses for rodeo officials).

The rodeo gave convict spectators and competitors alike a break from prison life. The state’s prison farms, located far from towns or even major roads, had changed little from their nineteenth-century origins. They were places of hard labor and, as Roth details, shocking brutality. Guards whipped and beat inmates. Self-mutilation, where inmates would slash their own Achilles tendon to protest the work regime, was not uncommon, nor was rape by fellow inmates or guards. Against this horrific routine, the once-yearly trip to the rodeo was a rare spot of recreational relief. From their fenced-off section of the grandstand, inmates got a brief sense of life on the outside and could enjoy watching the convict cowboys and the spectators. For longtime prisoners on the farms, the ride to and from the rodeo offered their only real look at the twentieth century.

For the convict riders, the rodeo offered a break from routine, an opportunity to distinguish oneself through competition, and a shot at prize money. As one rider interviewed by the author recalled, “for a few weeks I feel like I’m not as much in prison.… It gives me something to look forward to all year” (p. 345). Roth provides fascinating accounts of the convict cowboys. Some, like N. E. Perkins, were experienced riders or even rodeo competitors from their days on the outside. (Perkins, naturally, was in jail for cattle theft.) More common were inmates selected through try-outs on the prison farms. Over its half-century run, the rodeo produced some bona fide legends. Chief among them was O’Neal Browning, imprisoned for killing his father with an axe, who won “Top Hand” a record seven times in his thirty years of competition. Browning was lauded for his toughness. In 1970, he broke his leg in the first Sunday rodeo. He was back in the saddle just a week later. 

Most rodeo participants, like most Texas inmates, were men. Women were excluded from competition until 1972, and even then were only allowed to compete in a few female-only contests like the greased pig chase. Women convicts played a larger role as rodeo entertainers. Roth gives particular attention to two acts, both examples of how these performances drew upon gender roles and stereotypes. On one hand were the Goree Girls, named for the women’s prison in Huntsville, who sang songs filled with “notions of home and domestication” (p. 119). On the other was former exotic dancer Candy Barr, imprisoned for shooting her husband, who made her first rodeo appearance as a member of the Goree Girls in 1960, but returned later to thrill audiences with solo singing performances.

Rodeo entertainment at times also reinforced the state’s Jim Crow culture. Promoters played to stereotype and to the state’s plantation past when they featured African American performers, as when black convict singers were advertised to white audiences as offering “Darkyland’s favorite spirituals and native songs” (p. 97). However, readers may be surprised to find out that while rodeo entertainment conformed to the state’s racial order, the competition itself did not. One of Roth’s more important contributions comes from drawing attention to the fact that the decision to hold an integrated rodeo beginning in the 1930s came at a time when other Texas institutions were moving in the opposite direction. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, state and local lawmakers busied themselves segregating every aspect of public life, including, by the 1930s, the prison system. The sport of rodeo itself, which had originated in the integrated world of white, black, and Mexican American cowboys in the late nineteenth century, had become segregated by the 1930s as well. As Roth points out, there was a terrible irony in the fact that one of the few arenas where racial minorities in Texas had the freedom to compete on an equal footing with whites was in a place where most other freedoms were denied.  

Roth does not spend much time detailing convicts’ past crimes. He takes their imprisonment as a matter of fact, with portrayals characterized neither by condemnation nor celebration of outlaws. In his depiction and criticism of prison conditions, he holds fast to the humanity of people in inhumane institutions. Cowboy Convicts is at its best where Roth focuses on the stories of individual inmates, and the several in-depth treatments of rodeo participants really shine. But Roth does seem to be constrained by a shortage of historical sources related to the lives of the incarcerated; much of the sourcing reflects, by necessity, the view and concerns of prison officials. The voice of inmates does come through in The Echo, the prison-produced newspaper, although readers have to wonder just how much the inmate opinion expressed therein was shaped by wardens and administrators.

However, paying attention to the management side of the rodeo allows Roth to fully flesh out one of his main arguments—that chronic underfunding forced prison officials to be entrepreneurial and turn convicts’ reputation as bad, hard men into a saleable asset. Roth is quite skeptical of “populist” Texas politicians like Pappy O’Daniel who used the rodeo and inmates as campaign props, and he calls into question the reformer reputations of certain prison bosses like Marshal Lee Simmons. In general, however, the book is largely sympathetic to the challenges facing prison officials in a state that has historically done much to ensure a large prison population but little to pay for it. 

At times, the book’s interesting stories and compelling arguments can be lost in the official statistics. Roth describes the business of the rodeo in exhaustive detail, noting, for example, not just the growth of attendance over a decade, but providing a year-by-year account of precise changes in attendance figures and stadium capacity. A very thorough report of other financial matters, such as ticket and concession prices, is also provided. But the trees do not obscure the forest. Convict Cowboys offers useful insights for specialists in Texas history, penology, race, and working-class culture, but its strength rests in its appeal to an audience of general readers interested in the fascinating culture of Texas. 

Citation: Zachary Montz. Review of Roth, Mitchel P., Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo. H-Texas, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53546

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