Celebrating 50 Years: A Treasure Trove of Criminal Justice History at SHSU

Felicia Williamson, head of SHSU Special Collections, reads from a historic journal collecting signatures against the death penalty.
Felicia Williamson, head of SHSU Special Collections, reads from a historic journal collecting signatures against the death penalty.

In the regal Thomason Room on the fourth floor of the Newton Gresham Library is one of the largest collections of criminal justice history in Texas.

In addition to rare and unique books, the Criminal Justice Special Collection offers manuscripts, legal papers, reports, records, newspaper articles, photos and personal accounts documenting the history of criminal justice in Texas and the U.S. It contains handwritten materials from the early days of a legislator and a Universalist minister fighting the death penalty; research into crime and punishment by leading criminologists in the field; legal cases that set precedents in criminal law; and annual reports from major police departments and organizations across the country.

A small portion of the criminal justice collection in the Thomason Room.
A small portion of the criminal justice collection in the Thomason Room.
Through generous donations and strategic purchases, the collection features the professional collections of prominent leaders in the field, including Sanford Bates (1906-1972) and James V. Bennett (1905-1971) of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Austin MacCormick (1923-1978), a prison reformer and criminologist Jane Howe Gregory (1705-1999), a women’s prison researcher; and Charles Spear (1840-1851), a death penalty abolitionist and Universalist minister. It also includes documents from such famous cases as Ashcraft v. Tennessee (Grover McCormick, Sr. papers, 1886-1968), which laid the foundation for the establishment of the Miranda Warning, and Ruiz v. Estelle (1976-1982), a class action lawsuit by inmates over prison conditions.

The collections of Sanford Bates, first director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The collections of Sanford Bates, first director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The collection represents a treasure trove for researchers and historians. It began with a donation from the Institute of Contemporary Corrections and the Behavioral Sciences, the predecessor for the College of Criminal Justice.

“All of these subjects are of interest to researchers in the criminal justice field, but people think these are issues of today only,” said Felicia Williamson, head of SHSU Special Collection. “But many of these issues go way back, and people were struggling with them 300 years ago.”

The collections date back to the 1700s.
The collections date back to the 1700s.
Among the issues highlighted in the collection are prison reform, the death penalty and women in prison, topics still prominent in the world today.

For Trent Shotwell, a special collections library associate and former employee of both the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Prison Museum, the most interesting part of the collection is a state-by-state survey of prisons conducted by MacCormick in the 1940s. At the time, Texas ranked among the three worst prison systems in the country. After publishing the results, the system undertook far-reaching reform.

Pamphlets from Americans' early opponents of the death penalty.
Pamphlets from Americans' early opponents of the death penalty.
For Dr. James Williamson, a digital resources librarian, his favorite discovery in the collection was a pair of pamphlets from the mid-1800s by opponents of the death penalty. The two yellowed brochures, “The Groans of the Gallows” and “A Hangman’s Letter to the Queen,” captured the debate in a ghoulish and nonsensical manner.

Pamphlets from Americans' early opponents of the death penalty.“It’s a little crazy and doesn’t make sense,” said Dr. James Williamson. “It was trying to show you how to make a gallows that was more humanitarian, but it never gave any specifics of how to do it.”

Felicia Williamson too found unique treasures among the collection. A leatherbound diary from the Charles Spear collection turned out to be a petition drive supporting prison reform, with signatures from such historical figures as Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe; John Jay, President of the Continental Congress and Poet Henry Longfellow.

“It even had replica signatures from (President) Abraham Lincoln and (Secretary of War) Edwin Stanton, indicating their support of the movement,” she said.

The collection includes extensive writings on women in prison.
The collection includes extensive writings on women in prison.
Felicia Williamson continues to search for new collections and manuscripts to add to the collection, and most recently purchased books on women in prison, a growing trend in the field.

The Criminal Justice collection is extensive and has been used by researchers worldwide. Joseph Spillane, as an associate professor of history at the University of Florida, used the collection for his book Coxsackie: The Rise and Fall of Prison Reform. https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/coxsackie.

“The work features Austin MacCormick rather prominently, and the Austin H. MacCormick Papers were absolutely indispensable to reconstructing his life and work,” Spillane write. “A wonderful collection, beautifully organized. I’m grateful to the staff who were so generous with their time and help during the time I spent at SHSU. It was a wonderful experience, and I’ve recommended the collections to a number of researchers in the time since then.”

A book autographed by Austin MacCormick.
A book autographed by Austin MacCormick
Several classes – from high school to graduate school – also used the collection as part of their course.

To view the SHSU Special Collections which also includes extensive history of the area, visit https://archon.shsu.edu/?p=collections/collections&browse. Many of these collections are featured on a blog for the Special Collection and SHSU Archives http://nglarchivesandspecialcollections.wordpress.com/


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