Announcements

Christmas Sale Through December 7

Barbara Sloan will be at the Museum Saturday, December 6 from 10:00am-5:00pm to sign her book Last Statement.

Special information for school tours.

The Curious Sentence of
Convict #86388

There are many infamous inmates in the long history of the Texas prison system. Then there are those whom the public has most likely never heard of whose story is interesting. The story of convict Dorothy Thompson is out of the ordinary, but my bet is that most folks today know nothing of it. Here is her story.

Dorothy Thompson entered the Texas Prison System on October 6, 1937 as convict #86388, doing two years for forgery. She turned herself in as a voluntary surrender at the Huntsville Prison, went through processing there where she received her prison number. Convict Thompson was 5’ 6” and weighed 174 pounds, with auburn hair, blue eyes, with fair skin. Records indicate that she had three small scars, one being from an appendix surgery. She was 29 years old. Her former job was listed as house-keeper. Dorothy admitted to drinking and smoking cigarettes. She was transferred the same day to the Goree State Farm for women. A trusty drove the vehicle over with Dorothy in the front seat and a guard in the back. Upon arriving at the Goree prison, she was turned over to Mrs. Heath, wife of the Goree captain (warden), M. V. (Marcus) Heath.

Ms. Heath escorted the new convict to the hospital where she instructed the nurse to pour coal oil over Thompson’s head. According to Thompson, she complained about the oily disinfectant, to which Mrs. Heath suggested she wash her eyes with soap. By now Thompson was in tears. Mrs. Heath reacted by telling Thompson that in the seven years she’d been there, no one had ever acted this way and told Thompson that she was “acting like a baby.” A trusty nurse dried her hair and Mrs. Heath told her to wash her hair after supper. Mrs. Heath then escorted Thompson to her assigned bed in the medical dormitory.

Later Thompson was told to report to the captain. Captain Heath quizzed Thompson, and scolded her for her attitude with Mrs. Heath earlier. According to Thompson a trusty named Clara then stated, “It’s a good thing I wasn’t there when you sassed Mrs. Heath. I’d have clawed your eyes out.” The trusty then helped Thompson wash her hair, as Thompson said, “with scalding hot water” over her long hair that she said she’d been growing for seven years, and had just reached the stage she’d been aiming for. Tears came down her face again as a Captain Heath instructed an inmate to cut her hair. Thompson was also subject to what can be perceived as amusing but not real threats, mostly about shaving her head. Thompson says that she left the scene determined to be a model prisoner.

Back in the dorm, the other girls told her about solitary confinement, “the hole”, as they called it. She learned that bread and water was the menu, and that you got a blanket. She learned that this little out building wasn’t built tight enough to keep out the small varmints, and even a snake had crawled in with one girl who was doing time there. Dorothy Thompson was sure that she wanted absolutely no part of solitary.

From that point, Dorothy listened and asked questions and learned all that she could about the State Farm for women. Dorothy woke the next morning to sound of breakfast being called. She learned to rush to get ready and rush to eat. Dorothy was learning about prison life but not at all liking it. She made her bed properly and made sure the window next to her bed was void of any items, because the girls had told her about a girl who got put into solitary for leaving something on the window. That day the girls pointed out the solitary confinement row, actually three small wooden buildings that left a lot to be desired. Dorothy was even more sure that she wanted no part of living there.

That night Dorothy became nervous and afraid that something would happen to her. So she decided to write O. J. S. Ellingson, General Manager of the Texas Prison System. Dorothy had even read the rules that were attached to the wall and found that she could send this letter sealed, whereas regular mail was not allowed to be sealed. Dorothy gave the letter to the head building tender to give to Mrs. Heath.

The next day Dorothy felt better and went to work with renewed confidence. That afternoon she was told to report to the captain’s office. Dorothy hoped Mr. Ellingson was there to visit with her. Not so. Captain Heath was there and looked angry. Mrs. Heath was in the office, too. Captain Heath quizzed Dorothy and let her know that he was not happy that she’d written Mr. Ellingson. And he told her that he was going to place her in solitary. Dorothy’s worst nightmare was upon her. She informed Captain Heath that she was not really a convict but a reporter from the Houston Post. She said that she was Velba Newton and that Mr. Ellingson had given her permission to come in under the disguise of an inmate in order to write an article for the Post. She asked Captain Heath to please call Mr. Ellingson and verify her story. Captain Heath flatly refused. Dorothy told the captain that she was not going to solitary. He called a guard who brought in six inmates who were told to take hold of Dorothy, three to each side. At that point, Dorothy decided to go as ordered. The convicts did as they’d been instructed and took her to the “hole.” Captain Heath followed them.

Once in the cell, the door was closed behind her. Dorothy filled cracks that she could find with the pockets from her dress that she tore off. There was a spider high on the ceiling and a scorpion on the wall that she killed. Dorothy said that there was nothing to do but sit and hope and pray. She found writing on the walls that told of others who had spent time there. Some were obscene and some prayerful, but all pitiful to Dorothy.

Dorothy hoped that surely Mr. Ellingson would get her note and come to rescue her. Instead, the door opened at various times throughout the day to deliver first a blanket, then an empty bucket, a lard bucket filled with water, and later a tin plate with two slices of bread on it. As dark came, so did the mosquitoes. The blanket would not reach head to toe, so Dorothy improvised by using her slip as a hood. It was hot, but Dorothy better to be hot than bitten by the army of mosquitoes. The hounds barking and the light shinned by the guard checking on her made for short naps during the night. Morning brought fresh bread and a new bucket of water.

The doctor from the “Walls” prison came by while making his Saturday visit to the Goree prison. He was brought to the solitary cell to check on Dorothy’s health. Dorothy told the doctor her story and begged him to relay her situation to Mr. Ellingson.

A short time later Captain Heath came to check on her. Mr. Health questioned her about being a reporter and told her that he half-way believed that she was a reporter, either that or crazy. Dorothy once more begged Heath to call Mr. Ellingson on her behalf. Captain Heath said that he’d already called Mr. Ellingson twice and that Mr. Ellingson did not seem interested. He further stated that the general manager didn’t know anything about a reporter being at the Goree farm. The captain said that Mr. Ellingson might come out and he might not.

Mr. Ellingson did come. He’d received the note but could not recall who Dorothy Thompson was and “Goree” was not on the envelope. The board member who was supposed to inform Mr. Ellingson of the alias name had been late getting the information to him. The doctor’s message had convinced the general manager to visit Dorothy. Captain Health kept Dorothy in solitary until he called the “sentencing” judge to verify the situation. The finally opened as the sun was setting. Dorothy was allowed to freshen up and call the Houston Post to have someone pick her up. While waiting for her ride, Dorothy, now back to her reporter self, Melba Newton George, spent the time visiting with Mr. Ellingson and Captain Heath and Mrs. Heath. She was also taken for a tour of the new modern brick prison building that the women would soon be moving into.

In her article for the Post, Melba Newton George, reporting for convict #86388, praised General Manager O. J. S. Ellingson, but did not have glowing comments toward Captain Heath.

(Ms. George’s articles about her experience in the Texas Prison System and the prison system’s convict file on Dorothy Thompson #86388 were the sources of information for this article.)

Previously Featured Articles