11 – Jail-Stamped Leg Irons

By Museum of Northwest Colorado

These leg irons, dating to the 1880s-1890s, are significant for a couple of reasons. For one, their locking mechanism was considered somewhat of an engineering marvel of the day. Second, they are stamped as the property of a major mining-boom county from the late 1800s.
Although wrist and leg restraints had been around for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that a few American companies began creating a more reliable product. John C. Tower made his foray into restraints design in the 1860s. At the time, cuffs and leg irons were still easy enough to “pick” open by a prisoner with MacGyver-like tendencies. However, that all changed in 1879 with Tower’s patented double-lock mechanism. The resulting restraints were undoubtedly the most secure ever invented with the lock nearly impossible to pick.
These particular leg irons were produced by Tower and are an example of his double lock design. What makes these restraints even more interesting, however, is the fact that they are stamped “NYE COUNTY”. Nye County, Nevada, besides being the 3rd largest county in the US today, was the center of a major silver boom in the late 1800s with Belmont as its county seat. With any boom comes an influx of ne’er-do-wells and Belmont was no exception. One can only imagine the stories these leg irons could tell. Even so, they remain an incredible remnant from the Old West.
The mines of Nye County, NV were mostly played out by the turn of the 20th century and the county seat was moved to Tonopah in 1904. Tower’s designs, however, were a mainstay in the restraint industry for many decades to come.