From Fandom to Fanfiction to Nonfiction: Researching the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary

In 2008, when I rediscovered Alias Smith and Jones (ASJ), a 1970s TV show I watched as a kid, I had no idea that several years later I’d be writing a book about the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary.  Revisiting ASJ on DVD led me to online message boards about it and then to reading fan-fiction based on the show.  Eventually I began writing my own ASJ fan-fiction. 

black and white image. Two men in cowboy outfits and hats
Ben Murphy as Kid Curry and Pete Duel as Hannibal Hayes in Alias Smith and Jones; Press Release photo, December 15, 1970. Public domain image. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alias_Smith_and_Jones_1970.jpg

That’s when I got into researching the Old West.  I became more and more interested in the actual history of the West and less interested in writing fictional stories about it. 

In 2011, I visited the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary in Laramie with friends from one of the ASJ message boards.  It was a fascinating place and I wanted to know more about it. 

Although a book listing all the convicts who’d been incarcerated there was available, I didn’t see anything that was a general history of the penitentiary.  So I decided that I would write a book about it myself.

black and white image of two older buildings -- one is a prison
Image of the Wyoming Territorial Prison from September 1903. Buffum negative number 971 Source: University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center, B. C. Buffum Papers, Accession Number 400055, Box 32, Item 28

My first research trip was to the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection in 2012, followed by a trip to the Wyoming State Archives in 2013.  In 2017, I went to the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary State Historic Site to discuss my project with Ms. Deborah Cease, the site superintendent, and use the library at the site to continue my research.

We decided that the book would be a pictorial history, using images to tell the story of the penitentiary.  Ms. Cease told me the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming had lots of information about the prison.  I knew I’d have to return to Laramie and visit the AHC at some point.

I also knew I’d have to go to the National Archives in Washington because that was where most of the information about the penitentiary during Territorial times was located.  In the fall of 2018, I spent a week doing research there.  But I didn’t get through everything and have to return to NARA when I get the chance.

I knew the AHC offered travel grants to researchers who wanted to use their collections.  I decided that this year I was far enough along with my project to apply for one.  I received an email in June notifying me I’d been awarded a travel grant and made plans to visit in July.

woman posing sitting with hat, computer and book on desk.
Susan Schwartz presents her research findings during her visit to the AHC in July.

What a productive trip it was!  I searched through 22 collections during my week at the AHC.  It was exciting to find material I’d never seen before.  

I was elated to discover, for example, photographs of a doctor who worked at the penitentiary, UW professors who gave lectures to inmates, and an ex-convict and his wife.  I also found images of Fort Sanders, which confined convicts before the penitentiary was built, and photos and maps of Laramie, some of which pictured the prison.

In addition, I found correspondence about renovating the prison in 1889, 1890 census data for Wyoming, and an 1891 contract between James Marsh and the State of Wyoming for operating the prison.  Some of the collections I consulted included copies of articles from 19th century Laramie newspapers, which offered a different perspective of the penitentiary from the official documents that I found.

I’d like to thank all the people at the American Heritage Center who so kindly helped me with my research.  The wealth of material I located in the week I spent there will greatly enrich my book about the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary.


Blog contribution by Susan L. Schwartz, a 2019 travel grant recipient.

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