Brutal “Oregon Boot” made state penitentiary famous

Oregon BootBy Finn J.D. John

In 1866, Oregon State Penitentiary Warden J.C. Gardner had a problem. The state prison had just moved to its present home, in Salem. Its old home had been in Portland, but the city didn’t really want it there — especially after an incident in the early 1860s when the state tried to save some money by subcontracting the facility out to a private operator. This solved the overcrowding problem in fine style: every single prisoner escaped.

Things would be better now that the penitentiary had a home. However, that home was just a big piece of bare land. Gardner was expected to build a prison facility on it — or, rather, have the inmates build one. And therein lay the problem. If the inmates were building the joint, they obviously would not be living in it; they’d be housed in construction shacks. And what was to keep them from simply walking away from those shacks?
Gardner’s answer would not only solve the problem for him, it would make him a nice income over the ensuing decades — and make him one of the most hated prison wardens in the nation. It was called the “Gardner Shackle,” but it was better known as the “Oregon Boot.”
The Oregon Boot consisted of a heavy iron or lead band that locked around the prisoner’s ankle. To this band was welded or bolted a heavy iron support strap that attached to the heel of a heavy shoe or boot.
The whole contraption weighed up to 28 pounds, and it was attached to only one leg, with the result that the prisoner was perpetually off balance. The idea was kind of like how farmers deal with chickens that learn to fly the coop: clipping the wing feathers on only one side.
Like barnyard birds, jailbirds found it very hard to fly the coop when asymmetrically hobbled like that.
The solution took care of Gardner’s problem nicely, and a few years later, the prisoners were securely settled into their freshly built prison facility, behind brick walls and iron gates.
Time to take their “Oregon Boots” off, right?
Not a chance. Gardner had, over the previous months, become a believer in the boot’s effectiveness under all circumstances. Prisoners continued to hobble around their new prison, wearing shackles that now were starting to do serious damage to their feet, ankles, knees and hips. Gardiner — and many of his successors — thought that, walls or no walls, the only way to control the prisoners was to keep every single one of them booted at all times.
A cynic might suggest that Gardner was in it for the money, like an early-day Robert K. Mericle (the juvenile-facility owner behind the 2008 “cash-for-kids” scandal in Pennsylvania). Gardner had a patent on the boot, and the state was paying him royalties for using it. But it’s impossible to say.
In any case, the problems with the boots eventually became too widespread and serious to ignore. Some prisoners ended up bedridden for weeks at a time in excruciating pain. Finally, in 1878, the superintendent gave in: Thenceforth, the Oregon Boot would only be used when it was needed for disciplinary purposes or on inmates who posed a serious flight risk.
However, field law-enforcement officers loved the boot. It was far tougher to escape from a county deputy while being transported to the penitentiary if the inmate was hobbled with an Oregon boot, and there was also a stockades-style public shaming aspect to being seen in public wearing one. Many inmates en route to the pen felt the humiliation of wearing one more than the discomfort.
By the turn of the century the Gardner Shackle was one of the most popular pieces of prison equipment nationwide, and everywhere it was called the “Oregon Boot.” It certainly was used abusively in many places, and no doubt hundreds, if not thousands, of ex-cons limped for the rest of their lives as a result.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Oregon Boot’s history comes from legendary Portland shanghai artist Joseph “Bunco” Kelley, who was sent to the prison for 13 years on what many people considered a politically motivated frame-up orchestrated by a competing shanghaiier.
Bunco was working in the prison bathhouse when the body of David Merrill was brought in. Merrill, you may remember, was the brother-in-law and partner-in-crime of Wild West outlaw Harry Tracy, and in 1902 the two of them shot their way out of the penitentiary in Oregon’s bloodiest jailbreak (before or since).
The official story of Tracy and Merrill’s escape from the pen and two-month flight from justice includes a scene on the banks of the Columbia; after Tracy supposedly learned Merrill had offered to cooperate with authorities in return for lenient treatment. Tracy, the story goes, murdered Merrill in cold blood before crossing the river into Washington alone.
Didn’t happen, Kelley says.
“I do not believe it was Merrill’s body that was brought back to the penitentiary,” he wrote. “Merrill was a smooth-skinned man, and he had a burned ankle from the time he wore the Oregon Boot two years before.
There was a big scar on his ankle from the burn and the band of the boot wore a dent into the skin to the bone. Every day when he packed hot iron (in the prison foundry where he worked) the boot would cut into the flesh and bleed, and there was a hole in his ankle half an inch deep. ... Merrill is alive today, or was a year ago (meaning 1907).”
Did one of the state’s most notorious outlaws get away scot-free to start a new life? If we can believe Kelley (not always a smart thing to do), maybe so.
The Oregon Boot was still in use after the First World War, but humanitarian concerns were always an issue, and after automobiles started being used to transport prisoners instead of passenger trains, there was no real reason to use them. The last time an Oregon Boot is known to have been used on an Oregon inmate was 1939, when one was installed on a Mill City prisoner for his trip to the state pen.
Today, they’re like stockades and lashes — just another memento of the bad old days.
(Sources: McAfee, Ward. “The Formation of Prison-Management Philosophy in Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 1990; Kelley, Joseph “Bunco.” Thirteen Years in the Oregon Penitentiary (1908), publisher anonymous; Rondema, Jessica. ”Oregon State Penitentiary,” Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

Image above: Popular Science
This small article ran in the August 1922 issue of Popular Science Magazine, demonstrating that the “Oregon Boot” was still in regular use in the early 1920s. The caption claims it weighs 50 pounds, but that figure is almost certainly a typo or a mistake; the heaviest one used at the Oregon State Penitentiary was 28 pounds.

 

McKenzie River Reflections

McKenzie River Reflections is the weekly newspaper serving Oregon's McKenzie River Valley. Available by mail for $23/yr in Lane County, $29/yr outside Lane. Digital subscriptions are $23/yr. Subscribe at: http://mckenzieriverreflectionsnewspaper.com/catalog/subscriptions-0. Purchase copies online at: http://mckenzieriverreflectionsnewspaper.com/catalog/back-issues-0. Read about area communities including Cedar Flat, Walterville, Camp Creek, Leaburg, Vida, Nimrod, Finn Rock, Blue River, Rainbow and McKenzie Bridge.