Florence, Arizona, sitting 61 miles southeast of Phoenix, is a historic town, a prison complex town, a dusty low-slung town, and boasts one of the most unique historical societies and museums I have ever visited.
I had gone there as part of my research on Pearl Hart, which led to different research on the old West and then the changing West. Arizona was the last state in the continental U.S.* to be admitted to the Union, changing names on February 14th, 1912 from "Arizona Territory" to simply "Arizona". The name change didn't, however, change Arizona's nature very much. It remained the last bastion of the Wild West until well into the 20th century. Some say it still is the Wild West and I cannot argue with that. Cattle rustling is still a popular sport and the criminals, cattlemen, cowboys and cops can all attest to the rough and tumble of this part of the United States.
There are high mountains and deep canyons and stretches of arid desert so lonesome, it would be a fool's errand to cross them and sure danger of some sort should one's car break down on a road that saw a truck go by three days prior. As I traversed from the very populated and modern Phoenix metropolis to the midhinterlands of Florence and then northeast to the real hinterlands of Superior and Globe, I thought I had made a very dumb decision to take this journey alone. I did survive, though, as we can see from me now safely typing away at my office desk in Oregon.
If Phoenix is hot, Florence is hotter. The air wavers over the top of the sun-bleached earth and scrub. On my way in to town, I passed a group of buildings and high fences that I can only describe as behemoths in the flat desert. These are technically called the Arizona State Prison Complex. I had no business there, so continued to my destination, the Pinal County Historical Society and Museum. Here I am at the destination, posing with the head honcho of said museum, Chris Reid. Note to fellow desert travelers: do not wear jeans. These felt like hot glue. I was tempted to buy a pair of scissors at the food mart and cut them off.
The museum was cooler inside, this due to the adobe brick and interior cinder block. It was a smallish museum, one floor, stuffed with exhibits and glass cabinets and the requisite historical society objects. Small plaques of paper glued to particle board or foam board told a bit about the objects themselves. An 1880s brougham had pride of place as did an assemblage of cactus furniture, which looked really weird and should have set off my odd meter immediately.
To be fair, I thought it creatively practical, and the rugs gave it all a certain joie de vivre and style. I wandered past the brougham, which is a common site in historical societies, as are the headless mannequins dressed in various Victorian garb. One was a full set of widow's weeds and I thought the poor woman who once wore them no doubt cursed her dead husband with every sweat-soaked step she took in the Arizona heat.
Then came cases with old eye glasses, old typewriters, the contents of Tom Mix**'s car after he fatally crashed in a dry wash outside of town, portraits in oil and tintype of scions and founders and who knew who. Of interest was an entire frontier dentist's office, replete with red velvet chair. When called out to people's houses, he often took the undertaker, as that often saved a trip. I still don't understand his need for the bone saw, but there it was, displayed as part of a DDS's gear. Between the homage to Tom Mix's grisly death in a yellow 1937 Phaeton and the dentist's apparent lack of skills, my stomach tensed. This museum had a fondness for death. Beyond the fact that everything in the place was once owned by someone long dead and gone, there seemed a quiet glee in pointing it out.
But I was in the kiddie section. There was more. Far more. Past the saddles and re-creation of a homesteader's cabin and mannequins with heads to hold sun bonnets and hats. Past the Pearl Hart wall exhibit and the best sombreros I'd ever seen. So far so good, if somewhat dissappointing. Then there was this:
Dolls freak me out. This doll freaked me out. Then Chris Reid strolled up, pointed at it and said, "That was knitted by Winnie Ruth Judd - also known as the Trunk Murderess - who, in 1931, killed two of her friends, cut them up, and shipped them on the train to Los Angeles. They stunk when they got there. She got caught and then spent time here at the penitentiary and Melvin Belli got her off and she knitted things as thanks to her attorneys." I think that's how the story went. My head was making a wah-wah noise and I'd lost track somewhere around the dismemberment part of the story.
"Let me show you the nooses," she said, keen on my need for a change of subject. I made a slow slow turn on my heel, following the direction she pointed. I didn't want to, really really didn't want to. But there they were, noose after noose after noose on the wall, behind glass, each circling the photograph of the prisoner whose neck once wore it.
The above photo is courtesy of the museum itself as the wah-wahs in my head had flattened to a high-pitched shriek, and I literally could not lift the camera to snap a shot.
"That one's Eva Dugan. She was the only woman hanged in the state. They didn't measure the rope right and..." I did not want to hear the rest, though I did, as it's lodged in my brain forever and I will leave it there and not share it here. I chose to stare at the double chair and wondered if this was another Arizona frontier fashion, perhaps for a young married couple to wile away the hours watching the sunset from their front porch.
"Oh, that's the lethal injection chair built for two brothers. After Eva, the state turned to lethal injection. More humane. Do you want to see the gallows trap door? We also have a gas chamber isolation door."
"I think," I said, "I'd like to look at the sombreros." Which I did. Here's a picture of a fine one.
I cannot unremember this museum. It is a paean to death in many forms, and a mishmash of the lives lived and lost in this midsection of Arizona. Its beauty and fabulousness lay in its contradictions and chaos.
Maybe its just me. I'll take a museum of cactus furniture and hanging ropes over staid granite buildings with brass plaques and historically important airs any day of the week. I'll take the chaos, even if my head might explode in the process.
I highly recommend you stop there. Let me know when you got the wah wahs.
Have a favorite historical museum or society you want to share? I'd love to hear from you and add it to my travels.
*Alaska and Hawaii were admitted January 3, 1959 and August 21, 1959 respectively.
** One of the original silent film cowboys, world famous in his day, and a fast driver with a fancy car.
Next post: Five westerns featuring kick-ass women.
K.T. Blakemore grew up in the United States West and never left. Her upcoming novel THE GOOD TIME GIRLS is the first in the Wild-Willed Women of the West Series, featuring women who take no prisoners and succeed through sheer grit, determination, and a parcel of luck.
She has hung her hat in California, Colorado, and currently the Pacific Northwest. The rain does not deter her research whether it be train timetables from 1905 or the best way to catch a loose horse.
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