October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 26, 2023

Flashback Friday: Visit to the Penitentiary in 1875

The year 1875 saw two uprisings at the Nebraska State Penitentiary south of Lincoln. In January prisoners took the warden, William Woodhurst, and inside guards prisoners as part of an escape plan before they were persuaded to surrender by the warden’s wife. In May there was another attempted escape, in which prisoner William McWaters (prominent in both incidents) was killed. Perhaps to allay public anxiety about the institution and conditions there, the Omaha Daily Bee dispatched a correspondent to tour the penitentiary later that year and published his observations on October 12, 1875:

“Yesterday being one of the brightest of our Indian summer days, your correspondent availed himself of an opportunity to visit the state penitentiary two miles south of the city. . . . We were first shown the prisoner’s library, of 600 volumes, consisting of some very ‘solid’ histories, encyclopedias, etc. Each prisoner is allowed one volume per week, and the majority avail themselves of the privilege. We were next shown the new system of keeping the prison books, inaugurated by Captain Wyman, and for which too much praise cannot be awarded him. Under the old order of books-several of which we examined-it was rather difficult to be certain of anything; but now the workings of each department are kept in separate volumes; all requests or orders must be in writing, and a statement of meals furnished each day is recorded. . . .

“We next inspected the kitchen, washing room and cloth department, in which latter all suits of the prisoners are made. The material is a mixture of wool and cotton, . . . [W]e felt no desire of wearing a suit of it, ‘store clothes’ being good enough for us.

“The new prison building on which the convicts are employed now, is progressing rapidly. The outside walls are nearly finished, and when completed it will be a structure of which the State may be well proud. It will be 340 feet long, 50 feet wide, with towers 70 feet in height, and is built of limestone from the Saltillo quarry, and is to contain 320 cells. The west wing and warden’s house will probably be ready to move into the 1st of August next.

“The prison force comprises Capt. L. R. Wyman, Warden; Mr. Nobes, Deputy; 15 guards and keepers, and three inspectors. The inspector’s duties are to visit the prison once a month, examine the books and building[,] audit the bills and report if anything is amiss. There are at present fifty-four prisoners-one female and fifty-three males.”

The correspondent concluded by praising the “executive ability displayed by Capt. Wyman in re-organizing his force, and the many improvements introduced by him in his treatment of prisoners.”

Collage of illustrations of Lancaster County federal buildings including the State Penitentiary.

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