Huntsville is a Texas town just north of Houston and is home of the Texas State Penitentiary. The Texas Prison Museum sits on the side of the highway greeting drivers, and the elementary and high schools are next to two prison units. Nestled in between college housing for Sam Houston State University is a quiet patch of land that serves as the final resting spot for inmates within the Texas prison system whose bodies are not claimed by their families. I stumbled across this little treasure of a place when I was looking for interesting things do in Huntsville and noticed the cemetery on Google maps. Curious, I looked it up and was instantly intrigued. This cemetery has a rich history and what follows are photos I took on my visit, accompanied by what I learned in doing some research on the Captain Joe Byrd Prison Cemetery.
As you can read in the Texas Historical Marker above, the cemetery was first established in the 1850’s but records were not kept, including names of the people buried there. Early on, it was referred to as “Peckerwood Hill” due to the fact that those buried there were poor. The two men who owned the land donated it to the Texas prison system and for the first 100 years, wooden crosses marked the graves. When those began to rot, they were replaced with concrete ones. It was not until 1962 that the cemetery got a facelift.
It was then that the assistant warden of the Huntsville Unit, Captain Joe Byrd, cleaned up the grounds with his crew and discovered 900 graves at the cemetery. Walking around, I could distinguish different time periods because each section had different types of markers. The older sections were on top of the hill, near the main entrance, and the newer sections, including freshly dug graves, were at the bottom of the hill opposite the entrance. I came across many blank concrete crosses, while others only listed the inmates’ number and date of death. The latter form of markers took place in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are many interesting markers at the cemetery, but the most prominent one stands on top of the hill and belongs to Kiowa chief Satanta. I googled him and found photographs and several online articles about him. In an effort to combat the extermination of his people by white settlers, Satanta took part in raids throughout the Plains, Texas, and possibly even Mexico. Eventually, he agreed to a treaty that contained the Kiowas to a reservation, but this did not restore peace and conflict continued. Whites retaliated to further raids by decimating entire Indian villages, including killing women and children. Satanta surrendered in fear of more violence and was taken hostage for three months until his release was secured.
After more uprisings occurred and culminated in Satanta’s involvement in the Salt Creek Massacre, he went to Texas to stand trial for murder in 1871. Found guilty and originally sentenced to hang, he was commuted to a life sentence in Huntsville. However, he was paroled a couple years later and returned to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Yet troubles continued and Satanta was rearrested in 1874 for violating his parole and sent back to the Huntsville penitentiary. in 1878, he committed suicide by jumping out of a window in order to avoid a life of confinement. In 1963, under the request of his grandson, Satanta was re-interred at the cemetery in Fort Sill.
Joe Byrd Cemetery is also the burial site of Lee Smith, who was either a cowboy or a rodeo clown in the prison rodeo. He was killed in 1941 when he was caught trying to steal another inmate’s commissary goods. His headstone was purchased with donations made by other inmate cowboys.
I did not discover until after my trip to the cemetery that two rather infamous serial killers are buried there. Henry Lee Lucas, whose crimes spans over two decades, was originally sentenced to death but that was commuted to a life sentence. There is a true crime series on Netflix about him. Second is Kenneth McDuff, who potentially had upwards of 14+ victims beginning in the 1960’s, and was executed in prison. According to the Find-A-Grave, he has a simple concrete cross with “X” for executed, his inmate number, and date of death, but no name.
The first two photos above are of what I suspect are the graves of women buried in the cemetery. I only found a handful of markers with female names on them out of the more than 3,000 graves on the 22 acre site. Below that are some of the older markers I found from 1905, 1911, and 1918.
I saw a few gravestones that identified inmates who had been executed. Several markers had the EX and EA initials you see above. I’m not exactly sure what they stand for, although one article stated that EX means executed.
Then there’s several markers like those above whose engravings are cut off and buried in the ground. The markers are cut and engraved by a small crew of inmates who work in the trailer above, which may explain why some of the markers are a bit off. These inmates additionally attend the burials to pay respects to those being buried, as oftentimes there is no one else there attending. They carry and bury the caskets as well.
The services take place under the covered pavilion. Near the pavilion is a well, and down the hill near the trailer is an overgrown garden that looks fairly neglected.
Only a few of the newer markers have flowers or any sign of being visited. Approximately one quarter of the 450 inmates who die in the Texas prison system each year get buried here. It is estimated that the cemetery will run out of space in roughly the next three years.
Joe Byrd Cemetery is an old place tucked inconspicuously in the center of bright new college housing. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition of past and present. The students who live on either side of the cemetery may never stop and think about the thousands of people buried there, or they’re reason for being there. Not just that they were inmates, but that they did not have anyone who could or wanted to claim them when they died. Many of them are just a number – carved into a concrete cross – their names long forgotten.
Thanks for reading,