The Many Unanswered Questions About the Death and Burial of Texas Prison System Convict Jim Norton
By Jim Willett
In the center of an old cemetery near the top of one of the many hills of Huntsville, Texas lies more than just a grave. Sitting in the shade of a big tree is a head stone marking the site Jim Norton’s body was laid to rest. The Southend Cemetery is not located on the south side of Huntsville. It was once. But since Jim Norton was buried here the town has grown farther to the south, and in all other directions, leaving the Southend Cemetery closer to the center of town than the south end of town.
Jim Norton was incarcerated at the Huntsville Penitentiary in 1915. He was prisoner number 37763 to be sentenced to the Texas State Penitentiary since the gate first swung open in 1849. The fine folds of Jefferson County had enough of Norton and decided that he needed to do some prison time. Oddly, Norton came to prison for an unusual crime at that time. He’d broken the V.L.O. law. He’d stolen a vehicle. He arrived at the Huntsville Penitentiary on July 8, 1915. Although his expiration date, the date he was to be released from prison, was May 28, 1917, Norton was pardoned by the governor, the notorious Governor James E. “Pa” Ferguson, and left the pen on October 15, 1916.
How Jim Norton wound up in prison for this crime is somewhat of a mystery as the law on the books at that time allowed for a maximum sentence of one year in jail. Jail. Not prison! On a two-year sentence. Not a one-year sentence.
More than a decade passed when on December 17, 1927 Jim Norton was handed a 99-year sentence for robbery out of Dallas. He’d robbed the Irving State Bank. Officials of the bank identified Norton as one of the men who on August 25, 1926, backed them into a vault and took $7,000. The jury deliberated for less than five minutes. After the trial Norton was place in a cell where he reached through the bars of the cell and struck A. P. Mauk, cashier of the bank, in the face and told Mauk: “I’ll get you yet.” The prisoner was then placed in solitary confinement. Norton had used a firearm in the robbery. Matt Akers, alleged to have been implicated in the same robbery with Norton, was already serving a 35-year term. Akers’ statements resulted in Norton’s arrest. For whatever the reason, Jim wasn’t delivered to the Penitentiary until June 8, 1928. He was issued a new prison number 59342 to go along with his new prison sentence. Norton was not forty years old. He was 5’ 9” and weighed 160 pounds. His education was listed as “Poor”, but he could read and write a little. This article was written in 2022 and Jim would still be in prison with four more years left on his sentence.
On June 16, 1928, Jim Norton was assigned to the Ferguson Farm, located seventeen miles north of Huntsville. He was reassigned to the Huntsville “Walls” Unit on August 3, 1928. Jim got into a heap of trouble on New Year's Day of 1929 when he mugged a guard, apparently to escape. The management of the prison thought it bad enough to give Jim Norton 2,878 hours in Isolation. Plus, a loss of his overtime (called good time today) that he had accumulated. Exactly four months later April 1, 1929, Jim Norton was charged again for attempted escape by hiding out inside the Walls.
In a remarkable turn of events, on November 11 of 1929, the General Manager restored all of Jim’s overtime. Only five weeks and two days later, the last entry in Jim Norton’s file reads: “Died December 1, 1929, Cause of Death (blank).”
The State Penitentiary has had their own cemetery in Huntsville since 1858 and buried convicts on that site even prior to then. The cemetery, once called Peckerwood Hill, was renamed the Joe Byrd Cemetery in the 1960’s. But Jim Norton was not buried in the Joe Byrd Cemetery. As stated earlier, Norton is buried in the Southend Cemetery, which is not associated in any way with the prison system. Yet, Jim Norton’s prison number, 59342, is stamped on the top of the headstone, like the inmates buried at the Byrd Cemetery.
And as the oddities add up concerning Norton, the date of death on his marker is written as December 25, ten days later than the date on the prison system’s record on Norton. And to end this series of anomalies in Jim Norton’s life, Jim was white, and the Southend Cemetery is otherwise filled with graves occupied by blacks.