Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth discusses this month's feature "O Sister, Where Art Thou?"
texasmonthly.com: How did you find out about the Goree Girls in the first place?
Skip Hollandsworth: As I explained in the Texas Monthly piece, what first got me started on the story was a photo on the back wall of the Texas Prison Museum, when it was located on the town square of Huntsville. I began reading some articles about the Goree Girls, and I read about Texas prison life in the thirties and forties, which is far different than prison life today. On one hand, it was brutal: Anyone who broke laws would be beaten viciously with a whip. The penitentiaries then were more like farms, in which the convicts were forced laborers who had to work in the fields in searing heat and numbing cold, day after day. If a guard thought an inmate was working too slowly, he could whip that inmate with a lash. Some inmates actually cut their Achilles tendons with knives so that they wouldn’t have to be sent to the fields.
But there was also a kind of folksy quality to the prisons that doesn’t exist at all today. There were prison baseball and football teams that had statewide reputations for their athletic excellence. There was the all-inmate prison rodeo, which in the thirties and forties was the biggest sporting event in the state. There was a huge music program in the male prisons; musical instruments were provided so that each prison would have a group that could play at prison functions like barbecues on the Fourth of July. I loved the fact that prison officials lived in nice homes right next to the prisons and that they often hired inmates who had shown good behavior. Some prison officials had cooks, gardeners, butlers, housekeepers, and chauffeurs—a life fit for a king. It was amazing to talk to the children of the wardens from the thirties. These children are now in their seventies and eighties, and yet they remember details of their childhoods that sound like fiction. The kids would sit in the electric chair, get their hair cut at the prison barbershop, eat lunch at the prison cafeteria, sit on the front row of the prison baseball games as well as at the WBAP radio show Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. Back then, inmates wouldn’t dare harm the kids; they seemed to have a greater respect for the prison officials than do the inmates now. One of the daughters of a prison official clearly remembered that on execution night, when an inmate was sent to the electric chair at midnight, all the lights would dim in the neighborhood at the moment the electric chair was activated.
texasmonthly.com: Did you think about writing just about Texas prison life in the thirties and forties?
SH: Absolutely. This was an era that will never return in any fashion again. Remember, this was the time when members of the Barrow gang were incarcerated (Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow went to the Eastham Prison Farm and staged an infamous jail breakout to get those members out of prison), and this was a time when Charlie Frazier, an inmate known as the Houdini of prison life (he had escaped from numerous prisons), staged a jailbreak among several Death Row inmates in Huntsville. The prison population was still small enough that the warden at the Walls Unit had meetings with each inmate of his prison, to try to encourage him to live a straight life.
But I kept returning to that photo of those women. At that time, the idea of a woman committing a felony was still exotic, perplexing, fascinating. You couldn’t help but be intrigued by these women because they had defied the law. I wondered what would have happened in their life to get them there.
In truth, I really did become obsessed with the story of the Goree Girls. At one level, the appeal was obvious: a group of female inmates forming a country and western band and becoming a national sensation. But I was also obsessed with the story because I knew it was a tale that had not been told. There are seemingly countless historians who love Texas’ past, but this is one story that simply got missed. I also knew it was a story that would never be told if one of the last living members of the original group was not found in a hurry. And I knew I would not really understand what these women went through unless I could talk to one of them in person. So the hunt was on.
texasmonthly.com: How did you discover the women’s individual stories?
SH: Well, to discover those stories, I had to find the women or their descendants, which was not easy to do. I eventually hired Allan McCormack, a brilliant researcher who I often use to help me on projects. He traveled throughout Texas, hunting up old obituaries. He did Internet research. He studied Social Security records from sixty years ago. And within months, amazingly, he was able to come across the daughter of Reable Childs, as well as Mozelle McDaniel, who I used to lead off the story. Without McCormack, I would not have gotten the kind of story I got for the magazine.
texasmonthly.com: Where did the photographs come from?
SH: I traveled the country to find them. Reable Childs’ daughter in Virginia had several photographs, including the haunting, beautiful one of Mozelle McDaniel singing at the rodeo. In California, the son of the warden of a male prison had several other photographs. I have gotten so caught up in these images that I have begun to collect photos taken of the prison rodeos in the thirties and forties, which is a story in itself. The photographers at these rodeos obviously seated themselves in the middle of the arena, or right in front of the chutes—no photographer would dare do that now—and waited for the doors to open. You never see the up-close images today that these unknown photographers got back then. Someday I hope to persuade a museum to show them all. Or maybe, in some future issue, we’ll show them in Texas Monthly.
texasmonthly.com: Were there parts of the Goree Girls’ story that didn’t make it in the magazine piece?
SH: Evan Smith, the editor of the magazine, was very generous in giving me nearly 8,000 words to tell the story of the Goree Girls. He realized this was the kind of piece that just wasn’t going to come around very often. And yet even then, there were numerous smaller stories that I simply didn’t have the space to tell. I had probably 20,000 words that I could have written simply on the life and culture inside a woman’s prison in the thirties and forties. I also could have written entire articles on the lives of each female inmate who turned out to be in the Goree Girls. If you read the article, for example, I reduced Reable Childs’ murder conviction to about two paragraphs. It’s too bad. Her case captivated the state. I’ve covered lots of trials, but while reading the old newspaper clips about Childs, I felt a sort of sorrow that I wasn’t there to watch it. At one point, the fierce Texas Ranger who had tried unsuccessfully to get a confession out of Childs was asked if he had bet the district attorney a Stetson hat that he would get her to admit she had conspired with her new boyfriend to murder her husband. He said he did no such thing. The outcome of that 1936 trial is still being debated today among the last living people of East Texas who remember it. One of the people I unfortunately could not get into the article was the sister of Childs’ husband who was murdered. She is still devastated by what happened. She resented the fact that Childs gained such a large degree of fame during her stint in prison for helping form the Goree Girls band. She will, no doubt, be upset that I portrayed Childs as a more sympathetic character. But there are other people in East Texas—among them Childs’ relatives—who still insist that Childs was completely innocent of anything but adultery and that her boyfriend did the murder on his own and later tried to pin it on Childs in order, perhaps, to stay out of the electric chair.
texasmonthly.com: Was there anything else about the Goree Girls or prison life that intrigued you?
SH: There was one other story I did want to tell. It was the story of Hattie Ellis, the black singer from the Goree prison unit who was probably more accomplished as a musician than any of the singers who appeared on the show. But because of the prison rules that enforced segregation, she couldn’t appear as a Goree Girl. She appeared alone, or with the accompaniment of an all-black prison band.