14 – A Prisoner’s Nightmare

By Museum of Northwest Colorado

This artifact represents so many exciting things: The Old West; outlaws; lawmen; prisons etc. It’s called an Oregon Boot and you certainly never wanted to be on the receiving end of it. Invented in 1866 by Oregon State Penitentiary Warden, J.C. Gardner, the Oregon Boot (officially named the Gardner Shackle) was an effective solution to eliminating flight without totally eliminating the mobility of prisoners working outside prison walls. It worked by placing a 16 pound shackle on one of the prisoner’s ankles – the weight of a full-strength bowling ball. This had the effect of keeping a prisoner very weighed down and very off balance – thus, very close. Unlike a ball and chain, the Oregon Boot allowed a prisoner to remain mobile over a large area – albeit slowly. Also unlike a ball and chain, the prisoner was never able to escape the weight of the device. And therein lay the rub (pun intended). The Oregon Boot was responsible for scarring, maiming and crippling countless prisoners. But this didn’t hinder its use; it simply expanded its usefulness. It essentially became a form of punishment rather than just a restraint. But even with its cruel administration and brutal reputation, the Oregon Boot managed to see use all the way into the late 1930s. While all Oregon Boots today, in any condition, are considerably rare, this one is particularly special. It is fully complete, functioning and in beautiful condition. But even better, its leather case is etched “Property of Carbon County, Rawlins Wyo” – placing it right in the heart of Old West outlaw country! This Oregon Boot was owned by Bill H. Terrill, Moffat County Sheriff from 1954-1961 and appointed US Marshall for the State of Colorado by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961-1969. It was donated to the museum by his son, Bill. L. Terrill.