This structure, built in 1867, was one of the first stores in South Pass City, Wyoming, and is believed to have served temporarily as the jail when the town was part of Carter County, Wyoming Territory (It was later in Sweetwater County and today is part of Fremont County). Library of Congress

EDITOR’S NOTE: There is speculation about whether Polly Bartlett really murdered guests at the Inn she and her father ran in Wyoming in the late 1860s — and whether she really was killed while waiting to stand trial in the once-thriving South Pass City. Polly was the subject of an article by Dean W. Ballinger published in Real West magazine in July 1963. It’s an intriguing story and provides an eerie introduction to J.M. Moynahan’s two-part article about the jails of what is now considered Wyoming’s best-preserved ghost town. 

By J. M. Moynahan

Fall was well underway in this community located at the 7,500 foot level of the Continental Divide. The days had a crispness that only this time of the year produced. The nights had a hint of impending winter, a winter that could get mighty cold.

On this early October day in 1868, the makeshift jail had a lone occupant, a young rather handsome looking woman, Polly Bartlett. The jailer had departed in order to conduct some business, leaving his prisoner to contemplate her impending trial.

Missing guests found dead

Polly, along with her father Stephen, had run the Bartlett Inn and Ranch that was located on Willow Creek. There had been suspicions for some time that things just weren’t right at the establishment. The Inn had many guests, some of whom never reappeared after checking in.

After extensive detective work by several people, including Pinkerton Agents, a search was made of the Inn and Ranch. Nothing was found during the initial investigation but in a subsequent search, a body was unearthed and identified as one of the missing visitors. Soon more bodies were unearthed until the final grisly toll was 22.

No escape

In the meantime, Polly and her father left for points West. Bounty hunters caught up with them and in the ensuing struggle Stephen Bartlett was killed. Polly was arrested by Sheriff Lombardi and transported to jail.

It was dusk when a lone rider made his way up the street and dismounted in front of the jail. Being aware that the keeper was gone and Polly was alone in jail, he removed a sawed-off 10-gauge shotgun from his scabbard. Entering the building he located its lone occupant and fired both barrels through the bars in the dayroom, instantly killing Polly. He turned on his heels, mounted his horse and rode off never to be identified.

A wild mining camp

This all happened in South Pass City, a wild mining camp in Wyoming Territory. It is in the remains of this city that is found one of the state’s earliest hoosegows — the “Damned Old Gaol” in Wyoming Territory.

South Pass City is a ghost town in western Wyoming administered by Wyoming State Parks and Historic Sites. There are caretakers and a handful of residents who live in the west end of town. The site has many original buildings and exhibits more than 30,000 artifacts. The former Sweetwater County Jail is one of the original buildings on display.

Like so many other mining towns, South Pass has had a history of boom and bust. Our concern here is with the first major boom that brought a great rush of people into the area. The neighboring town to the north, Atlantic City, could not hold a candle to the population increase experienced by South Pass, consequently it was here that the Sweetwater County seat was established.

In the 1860s gold was being discovered in many places in the west. The first major discovery in Wyoming Territory was in 1867 near the place where the Oregon Trail crosses the Rockies at South Pass.

Importance of South Pass

At 7,500 feet, the pass provided one of the easiest places to cross the Continental Divide for those going west. Once at South Pass, travelers knew they had completed one-half of their westward journey. It was a popular crossing point and the ruts made by the thousands of wagons are still visible today.

After gold was discovered, thousands of miners and business people poured into the region and South Pass City developed to become a regional commercial center. By 1870 there were 250 buildings in the town and an estimated 5,000 people in the region. It appeared the area was destined for continued growth and expansion — that is as long as the yellow metal kept coming from the earth.

Boom leads to crime

People with money always attract others who would like to part them from it. Along with the miners also came gamblers, fallen doves, con artists, outlaws and an assortment of petty crooks. In addition, many of the supposedly law-abiding citizens squabbled, fought and disagreed among themselves. This mixture led to a greatly increased likelihood of criminal behavior. Crime was a constant activity during the boom period.

A letter from Robert Morris, the deputy clerk of the court in South Pass City to his cousin, helps illustrate the amount of crime in the area. He writes “Last count there were 16 criminal cases tried which shows the state of society. Last night a man was shot and is not expected to live. That is nothing, ‘such things are very common.’”

Besides the deviant side of South Pass, there were, of course, the many law-abiding who never got into trouble. Many of the men who came into the region soon sent for their families. There were a number of “married folks” scattered around town. This had somewhat of a civilizing effect upon the area.

Birthplace of women’s suffrage

An interesting fact is that South Pass City was the birthplace of women’s suffrage. Born in New York state, she had made her own way in the world and became a successful businesswoman. Esther married and somewhat later her husband died and she was subjected to what she considered unjust property laws. Consequently, she dedicated herself to the improvement of women’s rights, especially the right to vote.

During a campaign for the election of representatives to the territorial legislature, Mrs. Morris invited both candidates to a tea party. She extracted a promise from both to support women’s right to vote. The victor, William Bright, (mine owner and saloon keeper) was true to his word. Receiving encouragement from his wife as well as other women, he introduced a bill into the territorial legislature.

Wyoming women get the vote

Although his bill met with fierce opposition, it was passed and on Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming Territorial Governor John A. Campbell signed it into law. Wyoming Territory was the first place in the United States where women could vote. This brought fame to South Pass City that overshadowed its future booms and busts.

A second significant milestone in women’s rights also occurred at South Pass City when on Monday, Feb. 14, 1870, Esther Hobart Morris was sworn in as Justice of the Peace for South Pass City. Not only did this make her the first female justice of the peace in the United States but she coincidentally became the first woman to hold political office.

Need for law and order

With the lawlessness of the area, the need for law and order was apparent to most. From the time the city was developed and the county was formed in 1867 there were a series of sheriffs and constables who worked at enforcing the law. Undoubtedly their hands were full. To support the enforcement area there were a number of judges during the period of 1867 to 1872. In the early years, there wasn’t a permanent location for trials. Temporary locations included hotels, stores and — like in the movies — saloons.

Mrs. Morris was one of these judges. Apparently some strong feelings prevailed about having a female judge. She was never able to get the docket from her predecessor. Morris set the tone for her tenure as a judge by starting out with a clean new docket.

Permanent jail needed

If there were going to be arrests, trials and sentences there had to be a place to hold individuals. The jail was, of course, the next step in the criminal justice process.

There was no permanent jail in South Pass City until 1870. Prior to that prisoners were either held in temporary quarters in town or taken to Green River City where there was a temporary jail.

South Pass City was probably the home of four temporary jails from 1867 through early 1870. Folklore has it that a rock cabin on Dakota Street in South Pass City was used as a temporary jail. This cabin was built in 1867 and if used as a jail it was probably used in 1867 and possibly 1868. According to legend, the back room of this structure was used to confine prisoners. The sheriff’s office was on the same street not far from the cabin.

From 1867 onward there were continual movements to build a permanent jail in the city. In 1869 the measure was to come before the voters. The South Pass Press News supported the idea and said:

The question of jail or no jail, will soon come up for the citizens of Carter country to vote upon, and it seems that such institutions are absolutely necessary in all communities; therefore we would advise all those who have a voice in the matter to decide that the most propitious movement for its construction is immediately.

The decision to build the jail had been made on several occasions. A permanent structure simply did not appear. One can only surmise that economics was the major factor.

Temporary jails

A room at the back of Houghton and Cotters Store (now the Carissa Saloon) was used as a temporary jail. The room windows were secured with iron bars and there was a strong and heavy door leading to this “cell.” According to county records, the commissioners paid the owners $75 a month for the use of the cell. A. L. Houghton was sheriff at the time. He paid Ora Chapin $10 a day to serve as the jailer. Commissioners thought this an extravagant sum. It was probably convenient for the sheriff to have a cell in the back of his store, but the jailer’s salary was another matter! This site was probably used in 1869.

A third site of incarceration in the city was a house owned by A. G. Sneath and located on the north side of South Pass Avenue. Mr. Sneath offered the house to the county commissioners at a rental fee of $20 for two months. This was an offer too good to be refused. This building was probably used in 1870. Sneath saw the need for a jail as six months prior to his offer he had filed a complaint against four men for the murder of Robert Evans. (There is no record as to the disposition of that case.)

A fourth site of a temporary jail may have been in the residence of the City Constable, James Smith. If his house was actually used it was probably in 1869 or 1870. Smith presented the commissioners a bill in early 1870 for $122.56 for boarding prisoners. Smith’s cabin was a two-room structure located on South Pass Avenue about where the current Collections Administration Building is located.

The fifth jail site is that of the actual jail which is still standing. READ MORE about this jail — which you can still visit in Wyoming — in Part 2 of “That damned old gaol in Wyoming Territory.”

J.M. MOYNAHAN is Professor Emeritus in Sociology and Criminal Justice, Eastern Washington University.