O Sister, Where Art Thou?

In the early forties, eight inmates of the Goree prison unit formed one of the first all-female country and western acts in the country, capturing the hearts of millions of radio listeners. Then they nearly all vanished forever.

May 2003By Comments

SHE WAS SITTING IN HER wheelchair in the dayroom, staring at a television that flickered soundlessly in a corner. She didn’t turn her head when I said her name.

“Mrs. McDaniel?” I asked.

“Honey, that’s Mrs. Mozelle Cash,” said a woman sitting with two other women on a couch against the wall. It was last November, just after lunch at the Briarcliff nursing home in Tyler, and the residents were visiting for a few minutes before heading off to their rooms to take their afternoon naps.

“I was looking for Mozelle McDaniel,” I said. “At least that’s what her name used to be.”

“Mozelle McDaniel?” said the woman on the couch. “Who?”

“The Mozelle who used to sing,” I said.

Slowly, the woman watching television moved her head. With a wrinkled hand she tugged at the wheel of her wheelchair and turned to face me. She was thin, painfully thin, her arms like blue-veined Tinkertoys. “I don’t know what she’ll say to you,” said an attendant who happened to be walking by. “She goes in and out. She’s got some senility, you know.”

“I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time,” I quietly said to the woman, handing her some flowers I had bought on my way into town. Then, from my briefcase, I pulled a faded black and white photograph of a group of eight young women, taken in the year 1940. In the photograph, the women are dressed in light tan shirts, brown Western-style skirts, and white cowboy boots, with brown bandannas tied around their necks. They look as lovely as actresses, their skin like porcelain, their hair spilling out in ringlets from beneath white cowboy hats.

For several seconds the 83-year-old woman said nothing. She squinted as if to get the photo in focus. “Mozelle, are you all right?” asked another of the ladies on the couch. But she wasn’t paying her friends any attention. She began to point at each of the young women in the photograph.

“What you got there?” said one of the women, lifting herself with the help of her walker to get a better look at the photograph. “Is that you, Mozelle, in that cowgirl outfit? Why are you girls dressed up that way?”

Mozelle’s eyes remained glued to the photo. For a few moments, I assumed her mind was adrift, lost in a long-ago world. But then she stirred in her chair, and she turned her pale, watery eyes toward her friend.

“We just did a little singing,” she finally said. “That’s all we did, a little singing.”

ACTUALLY, THEY WERE ONCE A national sensation, one of the first all-female country and western musical groups in history. They called themselves the Goree All Girl String Band, and every Wednesday evening in the early forties, an estimated seven million Americans tuned their radios to WBAP in Fort Worth—then a 50,000-watt clear-channel station that was able to broadcast its signal across the country—just so they could listen to a musical variety show that featured the group. The Goree Girls, as they were popularly known, received fan letters from around the country. Their male admirers sent them candy, money, flowers, and handwritten marriage proposals. Some of their fans traveled for hundreds of miles just to get a glimpse of them during those Wednesday night radio shows, which were always broadcast live from an auditorium in the East Texas town of Huntsville.

At the end of the shows, many in the crowd would push toward the stage to try to get the Goree Girls’ autographs. But the band members never had much time to linger. They were quickly escorted away by uniformed guards and driven in a van down U.S. 75 to a two-story dark-brick building a few miles south of Huntsville with a sign in front that read “Goree State Farm.” At the time, the Goree State Farm was Texas’ sole penitentiary for women, and the Goree Girls were convicted criminals, serving time for such felonies as theft, robbery, cattle rustling, and murder.

It is a story that seems almost impossible to believe: a group of female convicts, few of whom had ever played a musical instrument or taken voice lessons, forming a country and western band and becoming, at least in Texas, the Dixie Chicks of their day. It is also a story that has been almost entirely forgotten. Today, when music historians write about the first female stars of country music, they mention the popular cowgirl singer Patsy Montana; the bluegrass vocalists Maybelle and Sarah Carter, of the Carter Family; Louise Massey Mabie, who was heralded as the “original rhinestone cowgirl” when she sang for NBC radio programs in New York in the late thirties; and the Girls of the Golden West, two sisters who claimed to be from Muleshoe but were actually Illinois farm girls. Perhaps because the Goree All Girl String Band never made a record or went on a national tour, the group does not even rate a footnote from the historians.

I too had never heard of the Goree Girls until a few years ago, when I came across a photograph of the group hanging on the back wall of the cluttered Texas Prison Museum, which was then located in a small storefront on Huntsville’s town square. They seemed so strangely innocent, these Depression-era women dressed in their Dale Evans-like cowgirl garb. None of them was over the age of thirty. When I asked one of the museum’s volunteers if anyone there knew their names, he said, “I don’t think so.” He paused and stared at the photograph. “But they sure must have been something.”

Soon, I was scouring libraries, reading old newspapers, digging up Texas Prison System documents from the thirties and forties, and hiring a researcher to find anyone still alive who had been connected in any way with the original Goree All Girl String Band. My search would take me all over Texas and even on to Virginia and California. I was determined to find out what had happened to these women who had been able to mesmerize audiences with their raw, plaintive songs of lost love and bittersweet dreams and the hope for a better future. There had been talk during that time that some of them were destined for successful musical careers after their prison terms ended. But they had faded quickly into obscurity. It wasn’t until I found Mozelle McDaniel, the last known surviving member of the original band, that I began to understand why.

ALMOST ALL OF THE NEW Goree inmates would arrive on the famed One-Way Wagon, an oversized flatbed truck with a frame of heavy-gauge metal and wire mesh driven by Bud Russell, the Texas Prison System’s transfer agent who was in charge of picking up convicted felons from the county jails throughout the state. Although Uncle Bud, as he liked to be called, brought along his wife or one of his teenage daughters to keep the prisoners company on those long trips, there were times when nothing was said. Some of the women would just lean back on the hard benches of the truck and stare blankly out the side. Others would be nearly in tears. A few of them had been so desperate to stay out of prison that they had tried to get pregnant before the One-Way Wagon came to get them in order to take advantage of a state policy that granted furloughs to pregnant inmates until their babies were born.

The Goree State Farm was made up of fields and fields of crops, a henhouse, a fruit orchard, a cannery for the vegetables brought in from the fields, a barn for the dairy cattle, and a cemetery out back where the bodies of unclaimed inmates were buried. Inside the main building, which rose from a barren patch of land near the highway, the new inmates were issued starched white dresses that made them look like nurses and taken to their quarters—the white women to one set of dormitories, the black women to another. Iron bars were bolted over the windows. “In these dormitories for the women, the lights burn all night,” wrote a Texas A&M graduate student who toured the farm in 1932 for his thesis, “A Social Study of the Women’s Penitentiary of Texas.” “Many of the inmates spend several nights trying to become accustomed to the lights, before they are successful and finally sleep.”

On a typical day in the thirties, Goree contained about 150 inmates: one-time waitresses, shop clerks, nurses, laundresses, cooks, and housekeepers who had turned into gun molls and madams, burglars and bootleggers. The Girls in White, as they were called, ranged from skid-row prostitutes and dope peddlers to prim bookkeepers who had been caught slipping money out of their companies’ accounts. A few women were admitted to Goree on the same day their husbands were admitted to one of the male penitentiaries. Apparently, they had committed Bonnie and Clyde-style robberies, the husband doing the actual robbing and the wife serving as lookout or driving the getaway car. Other women had gotten into trouble only because their husbands had abandoned them. Desperate to put food on the table for their children, they had forged checks, stolen property, and even tried their luck at holding up a store.

One of the intriguing rumors I heard about Goree was that some of the inmates were forced to undergo sterilization operations by prison doctors who believed that females, supposedly the more docile sex, committed crimes because they had some sort of genetic flaw. Sterilization programs were certainly in existence in prisons around the country during that time, and though I could find no record of such a program being funded at Goree, descendants of various inmates told me that their relatives had mentioned to them many times that they had been sterilized against their will so that their supposed hereditary defects would not be passed down to another generation. “You should have seen the tears form in my aunt Ruby’s eyes when she’d talk about a certain doctor tying her tubes so that she could never have children,” said Judith Bergeron, a resident of San Diego, California, whose aunt, Ruby Mae Morace, arrived at Goree at the age of nineteen after she and her boyfriend had hitchhiked a ride with a man near the Texas-Louisiana line, robbed him, tied him to a tree, and then sped off in his car. “She told me that a part of her life was taken away, that she was made to feel like she didn’t deserve to be like other women because of that one mistake she had made on that highway.”

Six days a week, the manager of Goree, “Captain” Marcus Heath, a stern, six-foot-two-inch-tall veteran employee of the Texas Prison System who liked wearing Stetson hats and khaki work clothes, had the women awakened at six o’clock and at their prison jobs an hour later. Some of the inmates were assigned to the fields or the orchard, others to the dairy barn or the henhouse. Most of the women worked at the prison’s garment factory, where they sat in front of sewing machines, turning out all the clothing and bedding for the entire prison system: uniforms for the inmates and guards, underwear, caps, pillowcases, sheets, and nightshirts. After their ten-hour workdays, the women were fed dinner, and four nights a week, they attended school. Then it was back to the dormitory and in bed at nine o’clock.

If an inmate violated a prison rule—attempted to escape, engaged in “bull daggering” (the phrase then used at Goree to describe lesbian sex), got into a fight in the dormitories, or refused to work—she would be punished. Those who committed the most severe violations were either confined to one of the tiny solitary cabins behind the main building for 36 hours, where they were provided only bread and water, or they received a beating from the Red Heifer, a strap of leather two and a half inches wide and 24 inches long, attached to a long wooden handle. It was, by all accounts, a vicious punishment: According to an investigator who later conducted a study of the state’s prisons, the sound of the lash against the buttocks of an inmate was “very much like the report of a pistol.”

There were always a few inmates willing to risk the Red Heifer. One was caught with a knife, which she had used to stab another woman in a brawl, attached to her sanitary belt. Another woman, unable to give up her thieving ways, was discovered to have hidden a fellow convict’s diamond ring in her vagina. “Cocaine” Nora Harris, of San Antonio, was so intent on bull-daggering other inmates that a solitary cell was constructed just for her. The women who followed Heath’s rules, however, were granted limited privileges. They were allowed to gather in the prison auditorium on Saturday nights to watch a “modern talkie,” usually a western or a love story, and on Sunday afternoons, they could spend a few hours walking the prison grounds, taking photographs of one another and playing such sports as softball, tennis, or croquet. On the Fourth of July, they could go fishing and swimming in one of the ponds on the Goree property, and on other holidays, like Thanksgiving, they could have dances, the only catch being that they had to dance with each other.

To prepare the women for the day when they would leave prison, classes were offered in typing, shorthand, cooking, and even “beauty culture,” for those who wanted to be beauticians. Captain Heath’s wife, Clyde Oree Heath, who officially served as Goree’s “matron”—she worked in the main office, read and censored all the inmate mail, and gave tours of the prison to visiting politicians and nervous ladies’ church groups—was constantly giving the inmates self-help talks about the advantages of acting more ladylike. “I remember my mother would go downtown to the stores to buy things for the girls, like certain kinds of makeup or toiletries that they couldn’t get at the Goree commissary,” said the Heaths’ daughter, Sybil Vick, of Huntsville, who in the thirties grew up in a house next to the main building. “She’d put on a nice dress, high heels, and earrings, and she’d walk by herself through the dormitories just so she could talk to them about their problems. She even put in a flower bed in front of the main building because she thought it would give the girls a greater sense of self-esteem.”

Yet nothing could disguise the fact that Goree was a bleak purgatory for the state’s female outcasts. The Girls in White were cloistered, with little to remind them of life outside the farm except for the photos that they were allowed to tape on the wall beside their beds and the occasional visits from relatives who took the bus to see them or showed up at the prison gates in old cars billowing doughy exhaust. Their days moved at a snail’s pace; the Texas A&M graduate student who visited the prison noticed that one weary inmate had written on a blackboard in one of the prison’s makeshift classrooms, “19 x 14 = 266. France is in Europe. Six more years.” Another inmate spent her free time staring out a barred window at two horses in a field, always ready to place a bet with another inmate on which of the horses would reach the opposite fence first. One afternoon, a woman working her ten-hour shift behind a sewing machine went berserk. Captain Heath was called in to take away the scissors she was clutching in her hand.

“It wasn’t a place you wanted to be,” Mozelle McDaniel told me during my visit with her in Tyler. In 1938, when Mozelle was a seventeen-year-old living in the tiny town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, she and her younger sister had driven into town in the family automobile “to see the crowds.” They met a couple of boys and were sitting in the car with them when their stepfather, “Daddy Jack” Watkins, appeared, furious that they had stayed in town past nightfall. He drove the girls home, saying, “I ought to whip you.” Mozelle walked inside the house, picked up a .22-caliber rifle, walked outside, and shot him eleven times, pumping one shell after another into the chamber of the rifle. When he finally crumpled to the ground, she calmly leaned the rifle against the door frame and went back inside the house. “I shot Daddy Jack to protect the family,” Mozelle testified at her trial, which was covered by all the Houston newspapers. “I was afraid he would kill us.” Although it was clear that Mozelle had spent much of her childhood at the mercy of a seething, hard-drinking man, jurors in those years were not ready to forgive a woman, no matter how young, who believed that the only way to escape abuse was to resort to a violent act herself. Mozelle was sent to Goree for seven years. She told an interviewer not long after she arrived that she doubted she would be able to survive Goree for more than a year. She could not have possibly imagined that her trip to Goree was about to turn her, and a few women just like her, into stars.

IN MARCH 1938 WBAP RADIO in Fort Worth introduced a show that it called Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. Broadcast from the auditorium of the all-male Walls penitentiary—just fifty yards away from the concrete-and-steel cells of death row—the show was devoted entirely to acts performed by Texas prison inmates. In that golden age of radio, when personalities like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Fibber Magee and Molly dominated the airwaves, no one expected Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls, which didn’t have any commercial sponsorships and ran at ten-thirty on Wednesday evenings, to have much of an impact. WBAP executives were simply looking for a public-service program to fill the station’s late-night schedule. Officials of the Texas Prison System, which had been battered by news reports about escapes and beatings and even gunfights within the prisons, saw a chance for a little favorable publicity.

The acts for the show were initially drawn from the ranks of the more musically experienced male inmates. Jack Purvis, who had traveled the world playing jazz trumpet before being nabbed for robbery in El Paso, was asked to put together a swing band. There was also a guitar duo, a harmonica player, a fiddler, a country and western band called the Rhythmic Stringsters, an operatic singer who wanted to be known only as the Anonymous Baritone, and a mariachi group led by Humberto Boone, whom the show’s inmate announcer often referred to as “the diminutive Mexican singer.” To find more talent, one of the program’s directors would wander the hallways of the various men’s prisons, listening to the singing coming from the cells. Perhaps because there were so many black performers who wanted to sing spirituals—among the groups were the Cotton Pickers Glee Club (“those eleven dusky songsters from the prison cotton fields,” the announcer would intone) and the Negro Quartette from the Clemens State Farm—four good old boys from the Walls Unit formed the White Quartette and sang “Home on the Range.”

Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls was part Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour and part Hee Haw. (Although no known recordings exist of the show, a transcript of the first three years is filed in the archives of the Eugene C. Barker Texas History Collection at the University of Texas.) The musical acts were interspersed with interviews with various inmates about how prison had made them better people: The oldest man in prison gave an interview, as did a man who had escaped and been returned, as did the star pitcher of the prison baseball team, the Tigers. For comic relief, one white inmate came out to do an imitation of hogs fighting, and two black inmates nicknamed Fathead and Soupbone did minstrel routines. (“They gave me life for just goin’ off and leavin’ my wife.” “Leavin’ your wife? How did you leave your wife?” “Why, I left her dead.”) Each show would end with Jack Purvis’ orchestra playing the peppy “We Gotta Go.” Of course, no one was going anywhere except back to his prison cell.

The show caused an immediate stir, if only because there had never been anything like it in radio history. There were plenty of radio dramas, like the Lone Ranger, that dealt with the apprehension of criminals. But no show had ever been aired about what criminals were like once they had been caught. People began tuning in all over the country. Fan mail arrived from almost every state, including a letter from, of all places, Crooksville, Ohio. “We were especially delighted with the Anonymous Baritone and the Mexican boy,” one letter writer proclaimed. A man in the Arctic Circle wrote the prison to say that he traveled up to 45 miles via dogsled every Wednesday night just to get to a radio.

During the show’s first two years, a few female soloists with professional experience were featured. Patsy Hutchings, who had listed her occupation as “singer” when she arrived at Goree to serve a sentence for robbery, sang such torch songs as “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home Tonight.” But she received her parole papers soon after the show began. Hattie Ellis, a black singer who had probably performed in the Deep Ellum nightclubs in Dallas before coming to Goree on a murder charge (she had shot another woman after a drunken argument), gave such haunting renditions of blues standards like “St. Louis Blues” and “Stormy Weather” that the famous music historian John A. Lomax came to Goree to record her after hearing her on the radio. After performing on several episodes, she too was paroled but soon returned to prison for parole violations and was never allowed to return to the stage. A cigarette-smoking Arkansan named Jerry Lee Norris appeared for a while singing nothing but Hawaiian songs, “Sweet Leilani” being one of her favorites. And a group of Goree women, who were rarely introduced by name, occasionally gathered around the WBAP microphone to perform such docile fare as “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again.”

At some point, one of the women from that group suggested that Goree have its own band. Reable Childs was a startlingly beautiful brown-eyed country girl who had been raised in poverty on an East Texas farm and had always dreamed of becoming a singer. She had gone so far as to take singing lessons at the Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Carthage. But in 1929, at the age of seventeen, she married Marlie Childs, a prominent businessman and former county treasurer in the town of Center who was a decade older than she and lived in a pretty home with a fish pond in the front yard. Their marriage apparently began to crumble when Marlie, who was slightly crippled from polio, adamantly told Reable that he didn’t want children. Walking past the drugstore one afternoon, Reable met a likable, good-looking former high school football player from the town of Jefferson named Terrance Bramlett. The two began a heated affair, meeting at tourist courts in other towns and once even having a tryst in Marlie’s office when he wasn’t there. Reable eventually asked Marlie for a divorce, but he refused.

On April 23, 1936, while Marlie stood brushing his teeth at the kitchen sink of their home, someone standing outside the house fired a .22-caliber rifle through the window and killed him. The police learned about Reable and Bramlett’s affair and had them both arrested for “murder with malice aforethought.” Bramlett admitted to the murder, but even after a fierce interrogation, a Texas Ranger was unable to get Reable to confess to any knowledge of Bramlett’s deed. Still, the district attorney demanded the death penalty for Reable—a punishment almost unheard of for a woman at that time—claiming that she was a treacherous jezebel who had lured an unmarried man into an act of evil.

At her trial, the courtroom was so crowded that some people offered $5 to anyone willing to give up his seat. Reporters came from all over the state to watch her testify that she had never discussed a plan to kill her husband with Bramlett and that when he did say once that he was going to get rid of Marlie on his own, she had told him that she would never marry a murderer. Unconvinced, the jury gave her a 25-year sentence. Reporters gathered at Goree to watch the distraught young woman, then just 24 years old, as she was escorted into the main building, where she presumably would stay locked away until her sentence was concluded, in 1961. She later told one interviewer that she felt as if she were walking into “a living death.”

Reable did her best to fit in at Goree, learning nursing skills in the infirmary, working in the main office with Mrs. Heath, and writing a column titled Across the Back Fence that attempted to extol the pleasant aspects of Goree life for the monthly inmate-produced newspaper, The Texas Prison Echo. She wrote about the Goree prison softball team, the best domino player in the unit, and a Valentine’s Day party in which the women sat in a circle and traded hand-drawn valentines. No matter how hard she tried, however, some of her columns could not hide her despair. One winter month she wrote, “We, on this unit, are eagerly awaiting the coming of spring . . . and the time we can hear the birds singing . . . a breath of fresh balmy air at the windows . . . rainbows on the bevelled edge of the mirror . . . dew on the lawn . . . the sound of happy laughter . . . a pleasant word . . . a bit of good news . . . a letter . . . a peaceful five minutes.”

Mozelle told me that Reable “shouldn’t have been with us. We wanted her to run off.” When I asked Mozelle why Reable wanted to start a band, she replied, “Reable said we could sing our way out of Goree. Sure did. Said we didn’t have to live like this.” When I asked what Reable might have meant by that comment, Mozelle didn’t answer. (Many times during our conversation, her mind would drift away.) But I could guess what Reable had been thinking. At that time, the governor of Texas was the rambunctious W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the former manager of the Light Crust Doughboys who had campaigned for governor by traveling the state performing with his new band, the Hillbilly Boys. O’Daniel loved Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls, and he seemed to have a special fondness for the musicians on the show. When he made an appearance on one of the anniversary shows, he gave one of his typically overblown speeches about inmates being given second chances: “If the great benefactor who gave us all we have goes further than that and prescribes the manner by which he can forgive the most terrible sinner spiritually, isn’t there some reason in believing that we as human beings should find some method of permitting men and women who make mistakes to redeem themselves and reestablish themselves amongst us?”

I think Reable must have figured that if she and her fellow inmates could create a female version of the Light Crust Doughboys, they would get noticed by Governor O’Daniel and perhaps receive an early parole. (They had, after all, seen other singers on the show get early parole.) At the least, Reable wanted to prove that the women of Goree, the state’s most notorious female outcasts, were capable of doing something that no one believed they could do. “She said we could be better than those men,” Mozelle suddenly blurted out after a long silence, and then she started to laugh. “That’s what she said.”

REABLE CHOSE TO PLAY THE steel guitar and the banjo. Three women were chosen to play acoustic guitar: Georgia Fay Collins, a blond, curly-haired divorcée with false teeth who had been caught after a burglary in the East Texas town of Winnsboro; the leggy Ruby Dell Guyton, who had been convicted with her husband of cattle rustling in Wheeler County; and the full-figured Bonnie Scott, who had come down to Texas from Colorado to commit robberies with her husband. Lillie Mae Dudley, a waitress from Denison who was spending seven years at Goree for assaulting a man and then taking his money, agreed to play the bass fiddle, and four-foot-ten-inch Burma Harris, who had pleaded guilty to a charge of heroin possession in Houston, took on the task of learning the violin. The main singers were Ruby Mae Morace, the woman who had helped her boyfriend rob the man at the Texas-Louisiana line, and young Mozelle McDaniel. Before prison, Ruby Mae had done some singing in honky-tonks in her hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana, to help support her family after her father had gone blind. Mozelle, meanwhile, had taught herself to yodel.

They began practicing in January 1940. The Heaths’ daughter, Sybil, then a high school pianist, taught some of the band members how to read music. Members of the Rhythmic Stringsters, the country and western band at the Walls Unit, eagerly agreed to come over to Goree to help the women learn to play their instruments. It wasn’t an easy task. Reable would later joke about Lillie Mae Dudley in her Across the Back Fence column: “It looks as though she is trying to climb upon the ol’ ‘Bull Fiddle’ and ride away.” But they worked relentlessly. Burma Harris could be heard at nights in the prison chapel, scratching away at her violin. And during the days at the prison garment factory, they found time to sew their own cowgirl costumes so that they wouldn’t have to wear their standard white dresses for their performances.

On July 10, 1940, the Goree All Girl String Band was taken to the Walls Unit to make its first appearance on Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. Ruby Dell Guyton, the former cattle rustler, was so nervous that she did some sewing before the show to calm herself. Finally, they came out onstage, stared at the nearly eight hundred members of the audience, and in quavering voices performed “Isle of Capri,” a simple song about a couple falling in love on a Mediterranean island. Then, with Ruby Mae Morace singing lead, they performed a tune popularized by Kate Smith, “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” about a woman alone, thinking of the man who is no longer in her life. When they were finished with their two songs, they stood there, their smiles shaky—and the applause began to wash over them.

WBAP executives did not have to be told that they had just struck gold. Even if the Goree Girls missed a few notes on their guitars or their harmonies went a little sour, audiences were captivated by their sweet, tremulous, untrained voices, and the fact that these women had also once violently defied the law gave them an irresistible appeal. They were quickly made regulars on the show. They played old-fashioned cowboy songs and light, popular tunes like “My Rubber Dolly.” Reable and Ruby Mae sang a duet titled “Sleepy Rio Grande.” Using her yodeling skills, Mozelle, nicknamed the Western Songbird by the radio show’s announcer, performed “Way Out West in Texas,” “Riding Down the Trail to Arizona,” and “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” When sung by Patsy Montana, the most famous Western singer of that era, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” was a carefree number about a woman dreaming of living in the West and feeling the wind on her face. But when sung by Mozelle, who was confined to a prison, the song took on a wistful, painfully autobiographical quality.

Just three months after their debut, the Goree Girls were asked to be the featured act during intermission at the Texas Prison Rodeo. The rodeo, featuring inmate “cowboys,” was then the largest sporting event in Texas, drawing more than 100,000 visitors over four October Sundays to the rodeo arena just next to the Walls Unit. The highlight of the show usually came when several of the inmates, mounted on wild bulls and steers, were sent simultaneously out of the chutes. The crazed animals would race at each other, colliding head-on and sending their passengers flying. The last inmate riding was declared the winner. But in 1940, according to one writer covering the event, it was the Goree Girls who “stopped the show” with their cowboy music. The biggest cheers came from the fenced-in part of the arena where the male convicts were seated. At that rodeo, Sybil Heath noticed a handsome, wavy-haired young convict sitting by himself on a fence, staring forlornly at the Goree Girls. She learned that his name was Terrance Bramlett, Reable’s former boyfriend, who had received a fifty-year sentence for shooting her husband. “It was like something out of a dime novel,” she told me.

Proud cigar-chewing prison officials, sensing a public-relations bonanza, were soon showcasing the Goree Girls around Texas. The women performed at the Old Fiddler’s Contest in Crockett and the Black-eyed Pea Festival in Centerville, where they rode the Ferris wheel. The Goree Girls played at several small-town rodeos as well as the nationally renowned rodeo in Fort Worth, where Amon Carter, the business titan who owned WBAP, had them over to his home for a visit. Judge James Elkins, the powerful Houston lawyer and banker, had the Goree Girls visit his lake house, where he let them ride in his motorboat and go swimming off the dock. Men were almost hilariously consumed with the band. Truck drivers who listened to the show would drive down Highway 75 just to park by the Goree State Farm and ask the guards at the front gates if they could be allowed to go inside to meet the famous Reable Childs. An Egyptian who was able to pick up the show on shortwave radio sent Reable a bracelet. A bachelor in Wyoming sent Ruby Mae a recipe for chocolate cake, and a man in Waco wired her $50 after she sang “Where the Hilltops Kiss the Sky.”

Although there is no way to gauge how many letters the Goree Girls received, it is known that the number of letters sent to Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls rose from 32,000 in 1939, the year before the Goree Girls were introduced, to 100,000 in 1941, the year after they began to perform. What’s more, the number of listeners to the show, according to WBAP’s estimates, escalated from three million before the Goree Girls to seven million a year and a half later. Many of their fans traveled to Huntsville from around the country just to see them perform live. (Because of the size of the crowds, which numbered up to nine hundred people, and perhaps to avoid any literal interference with the broadcast, prison officials began rescheduling the usual Wednesday night electric-chair executions on death row.) There were rumors that talent scouts, interested in signing some of the Goree Girls to national radio shows after they left prison, were also scattered among the audience members.

The Goree Girls were on the verge of becoming genuine celebrities—as long as they stayed in prison. But conceivably, the reason that they had started the band was to receive early parole and leave. They may have been the only band in musical history that set out to gain attention in order to disappear.

To get out of Goree, the women might have had to do nothing more than charm the very charmable Governor O’Daniel or his successor, Coke Stevenson, who was recently widowed and no doubt a little lonely. It is also possible that they might have used the money they received from their admirers to pay for attorneys who were close to the state’s parole board and regularly got favorable clemency recommendations for their clients. Whatever the reason, the early paroles began coming. Mozelle left first, a mere two years into her seven-year sentence. In the spring of 1942 Ruby Mae was released. Just as she was leaving, a letter arrived at the prison from a group of soldiers from Company C, stationed in Honolulu for World War II, requesting a song from her. “If we could get her to sing ‘When Johnnie Comes Marching Home,’ we would be ready for action,” the soldiers wrote. But it was too late. Once the Clemency Bus pulled up to the main building at Goree, the inmate was quickly out the door, wearing crisp new clothes that Mrs. Heath had found for her at one of the Huntsville stores so that she would look presentable when she returned to her family.

As each woman left, the show’s producers had other Goree inmates ready to replace her. They didn’t want to lose their franchise. And they still had the ever-popular Reable, who no one thought was going anywhere because of the notoriety of her case. One inmate from a male prison sent her a magazine rack he had made in the prison shop with her name carved in the wood. In what was probably an attempt to regain Reable’s affection, the lovelorn Terrance Bramlett persuaded the producers of Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls to allow him to appear on the show on a week that Reable was performing so he could talk about his desire to lead an exemplary life, as evidenced by his regular attendance at a prison Sunday school. The strapping Paul Mitchell, one of the more-famous male inmates in Huntsville—he’d been on death row for the murder of a store clerk and had had his sentence commuted just minutes before he was to be strapped into the electric chair—would later say that he came on the show twice to tell his story just so he could look at Reable. After his death row days, Mitchell worked himself into such favor with prison officials that he was given the plum job of chauffeur for the warden of the Walls Unit. Whenever Mitchell drove the warden down to the Goree State Farm for a meeting, he would accompany him into the main office, where Reable was working, just so he could get the chance to talk to her. Eventually, he persuaded the warden to allow him to drive Reable and the other Goree Girls to the Wednesday night show.

Then, in October 1943, Reable was suddenly paroled. Her departure was an emotional event at the prison—she was beloved by the other inmates—and it meant that only one member of the original Goree Girls band was left, the false-toothed Georgia Fay, who took over as the band’s leader. It is not known how good the band was or how often it performed (the transcripts of the last two years of the show are missing), but WBAP clearly grew less enthusiastic about the show, especially with its most glamorous star gone. In those war years, radio listeners were also becoming more interested in patriotic shows about the boys overseas. At some point in 1944, Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls came to a quiet end. A band from the Goree unit did continue to perform for several years on Sunday afternoons at the annual Texas Prison Rodeo, but except for a few instances—as in 1960, when the former Dallas stripper Candy Barr, then imprisoned on a marijuana-possession charge, sashayed across the stage while performing the Peggy Lee song “Fever”—the women received only scant attention.

I ALWAYS ASSUMED THAT IN the course of my research I would find some information about one of the original Goree Girls continuing her musical career. Most of them certainly could have found work. And considering the adulation poured upon them during their performances on Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls—the kind of attention they had never before received in their lives—it would have been natural for them to try to recapture that feeling, the same way that one-hit music stars plug away for years and years on the nightclub circuit, hoping for one more hit.

But the Goree Girls truly did disappear. They didn’t reunite to make appearances on other country-music radio shows. They never returned to Huntsville to play at the prison rodeo. None of them got a job in a cheap honky-tonk with a sign out front that read “Come See Former Goree Girl!” In fact, as far as I could tell, few of them ever talked to other people about who they used to be. In the years after Goree, Mozelle worked in various towns as a waitress and went through many men. (One of her husbands was named Lefty because he had lost several fingers on his right hand.) She eventually ended up in Tyler with her fourth and final husband, Roy Cash, where she worked as an inspector for USI Film Products. When her friends at the Church of Christ or at the Rebekah Lodge in Tyler asked her why she didn’t have children, she never told them the story that she had shared only with her closest relatives: that she had been sterilized soon after her arrival at the Goree State Farm. She didn’t mention Goree at all. She simply said that that was just the way life worked out.

When Ruby Mae left Goree, she first went to Arkansas to stay with a woman her relatives knew only as “Lillian from prison”—it was most likely Lillie Mae Dudley, the bass player—and then she returned to Ferriday, where she married a crop duster. After he died in a plane crash, she opened a beauty shop, where she became known for her ability to put permanent waves in her clients’ hair. (She had learned her lessons well from her Goree “beauty culture” classes.) The women whose hair she cut certainly knew about her past: When Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls was on the air, people in that tiny community had gathered around radios to listen to Ruby Mae sing. But when they asked her if she was ever interested in singing again, she would just shake her head no. “She used to tell me she was all done with singing,” said her niece Judith Bergeron. “I really think she just didn’t want to think about that time of her life anymore.”

Reable Childs was equally determined to start a new life for herself, to be known as someone other than Texas’ most infamous female ex-con. After her release, she moved to Houston, and in February 1944 she married Paul Mitchell, the former death row inmate, who had been paroled soon after she was. A year and a half later, they had a child, Gayle. Paul worked at a tool factory and then later as a security guard at Sears; Reable worked as a nurse. The Mitchells lived in a pretty neighborhood near Rice University, where Reable was known as the kind of mother who always baked brownies for the children and took in stray kittens and volunteered at the school library. She joined South Main Baptist Church, but she didn’t join the choir; perhaps she thought someone might recognize her voice. One day she made the Houston Press for saving the life of a drowning boy at the Rice University pool. But of course, she didn’t mention to the writer of the article that she had once been on the front page of that very paper more than a decade earlier.

When Gayle joined the Lamar High School all-girls choir, Reable taught her how to harmonize, but she never explained how she herself had learned to harmonize. Gayle was always curious to know why her mother was so particular about the boys she dated, sometimes chaperoning her dates just to make sure she was with a proper young man. But Reable never told her about her own mistake with Terrance Bramlett. (Bramlett, incidentally, went to Houston after his parole and contacted Reable, who told him he needed to move on. He eventually married a girl from his hometown and settled in East Texas, where he lived out the rest of his life.) It wasn’t until Gayle’s senior year in high school that Reable’s secret was leaked. Reable had escorted Gayle to see a boyfriend who was attending Stephen F. Austin, in Nacogdoches, not far from the town of Center. A few days later, the boyfriend said to Gayle, “My dormitory housemother came up to me and said, ‘Well, I wasn’t aware that your girlfriend’s mother was Reable Childs, who killed her husband.'” Gayle asked her father if the story could possibly be true. “Was Mother in prison?” she asked. Her father hesitated and then said, “Dumpling, there’s something you need to know about me as well.”

Still, even with the news out, Reable rarely talked to her daughter about what had happened with her first husband, and she didn’t talk about what life was like in prison. She said only that she was not guilty of the crime that had sent her to Goree. After Reable and Paul divorced in the mid-sixties—the drama of their early life didn’t carry them into old age—she married a pharmaceutical drug salesman named Wesley Wilson. But it took more than a decade for her to tell him about her imprisonment, and that only happened when she went to Huntsville with him on a business trip. In the middle of the night, Reable woke him up, tears streaming down her face, and told him she needed to talk. After she finished, Wilson shook his head. “You were one of the Goree Girls on Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls? When I was a teenager, I used to listen to you sing.”

In her later years, Reable continued to try to keep her past hidden. In 1981, when Gayle married Bill Royer, the well-known Houston native who was one of the Americans held hostage by Iranian militants in 1979, the wedding was covered live by all three Houston network television stations. Reable, who was then almost seventy, stayed in the background, away from the cameras, perhaps because she didn’t want any viewer or reporter to recognize her.

But only last summer, two years after Reable’s death, did Gayle realize that her mother hadn’t tried to wipe all of her history away. I had flown to see Gayle at her home in Virginia so that we could talk about Reable. Late in the day, just before I was about to leave, Gayle pulled out a box of her mother’s old papers. I saw what looked like blank stationery of W. Frank Renfrow, the Houston doctor Reable had worked for in the sixties, twenty years after she had left prison. Then I noticed that on the back of each page were the typed lyrics of songs. The first page I studied contained the lyrics to “Blue Moon,” which begins “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, / Without a dream in my heart, / Without a love of my own.”

I told Gayle that Reable used to sing “Blue Moon” on Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. I looked through the dozen or so other songs that had been typed up on the doctor’s stationery. Every one of them had been numbers performed by the Goree Girls. “She must have typed them during her breaks at work,” Gayle said. Her fingers trembled as she held the pages. “Do you realize that all those years later, she was still thinking about that life? She was still thinking about those days when she was able to get on a stage and sing. She always wanted to be a singer, and she finally got her chance. And then she felt she had to keep it a secret.”

When I went to see Mozelle last November, I was not sure she would want to reveal her secret either. In fact, when I called her favorite nephew, Craig McCartney, of Dallas, to ask about her, he said he did know about her murder conviction, but he knew nothing about her singing in a prison band. “You must have the wrong person,” he said. “I don’t even remember my aunt singing around the house.” When I asked if she had ever yodeled for him, he laughed out loud. “My aunt Mozelle—a yodeler?”

It did take a long time for Mozelle to open up. At the Tyler nursing home, she spent several minutes staring at the photo I had brought her of the original Goree Girls. After I wheeled her to her room so we could talk without any of her friends eavesdropping, she spent a couple more minutes staring at another photo I had found, of her singing at the prison rodeo, surrounded by other members of the band. In that photograph, her hat is off and her head is thrown back; she seems lost in the music. “Look at those prison girls singing,” she said. “Pretty singing prison girls.”

I asked her why she had never told anyone that she had once been famous. Another long silence ensued. I wondered if she had heard my question. Then, out of the blue, she started speaking. “Didn’t want to bring it all up,” she said. “What I did. All that back then. What people said about me.” I stared at Mozelle, amazed. Here she was, at the end of her life, her faltering mind still haunted by that one desperate act she committed when she was seventeen years old.

She told me a few things about the other women she had known in prison, mostly about Reable and Mrs. Heath. (“I hugged her good-bye on the day I left, and I said, ‘Good-bye, I’m never coming back.'”) When it was time for me to say good-bye to her, Mozelle closed her eyes, put her hand to her neck, and lifted her face toward mine so I could kiss her on the cheek. I told her that I thought she was the only Goree Girl who was still alive. I said that Reable and Ruby Mae were gone and that I had been unable to find the other women from the band. I assumed they were dead too. “When you die,” I told Mozelle, “a piece of history goes with you.”

There was one of her typical long silences. I almost left. But before I turned for the door, she looked at me and said, “No one thought we could sing, but we did. We sure damn did. At least we did that.”

A few weeks later, Mozelle choked on a piece of food at the cafeteria, which brought on a heart attack that killed her. She was buried in a plot next to a pond at the Cathedral in the Pines cemetery south of Tyler. A few of Mozelle’s church friends came for the graveside service, as did her nephew. It had been a cold week, but on that day the sky turned a warm, soft blue, and the few leaves of the trees glittered with flecks of sunlight. The minister gave a little eulogy about Mozelle’s love of laughter and her desire, in her later years, to help people less fortunate than she. Afterward, the mourners made some respectful small talk around her casket, and then everyone scattered.

I noticed that the obituary in the Tyler newspaper referred to her only as Mozelle Cash. It was the way she wanted it, her nephew told me later. She had asked him years before not to have her listed as Mozelle McDaniel Cash. “She thought it was best that no one remember,” he said.

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