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LOCKED UP IN HISTORY: A look inside the original Old Hidalgo County Jail

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EDINBURG, Texas (KVEO) — The Old Hidalgo County Jail in Edinburg was built in 1910. It is a historical landmark with Rio Grande Valley history locked in its cells.  

Designed in a Spanish Mission Revival Style, it was one of the first buildings in town after the county seat moved to Edinburg in 1908. 

The 1910 jail was also used as a community center and in the 1930s it was turned into the Edinburg Fire Station and City Hall. 

The secrets it holds remain unknown, as several volunteer firemen bunking on the second-floor claim hearing things throughout the night. 

“There’s a number of stories here,” said Francisco Guajardo, Chief Executive Officer of The Museum of South Texas History. “There’s no question the Rio Grande Valley is rich in history.” 

Shackled beneath the original walls, still standing, is the story of prisoners, jailers, and everything in between. 

More than 110 years later, the original Hidalgo County Jail has been restored and has reopened its doors, but this time to the public.  

“In many ways, South Texas is shaped by the stories here at the museum,” said Guajardo who started a campaign to restore the historic jail to its original roots. 

To fully renovate and restore, the museum raised $3 million in private funding to bring these walls and their stories back to life.  

In January, they completed the restoration and have officially re-opened the exhibit to anyone looking to catch a glimpse of the past. 

Detailed exhibits, featuring real life items from the jail and its inmates are on display.  

Everything from shackles of the era, to guns and even the original jail logs are inside the jail.  

“You can see how in 1911, according to the jail docket, it would show the offenses, this is the actual record sheet, murder, robbery, this one says theft of sheep and goats, so that’s why someone was brought in,” said Guajardo.  

It is not just records still in the jail, but the tales of people that lived and worked there. Some may have never left.

“This is a cool story here, this was the jailer and his wife,” explained Guajardo with photos of the couple. “The jailer was Nemesio Cortina and his wife, Marcela, he was working for John Closner at his plantation, John Closner was the Hidalgo County Sheriff at the time, so he brought him to work here at the jail and so he brought this wife and they worked here.”

“He died in the jail and when he died, she assumed the responsibilities of jailer.”  

The same steps the jailer fell to death are still there.  

Nemesio’s death was far from the only one at the old county jail.  

“There was also a Lopez Brother who committed suicide in this jail and one day after he killed himself, he was actually ruled not guilty,” said Guajardo.

The story of the Lopez Brothers goes, that on July 9, 1910, near Mercedes, two brothers, Jose and Bartolo, were arrested for the murder of farmer Fred Luschen. 

Police officers arrived in time before Luschen’s workers were set to hang the two brothers themselves for the murder. 

Police took the two brothers to the Old Hidalgo County Jail, where one pled guilty and the other, not guilty. 

After being found guilty of first-degree murder, the court set their date for execution by hanging on December 28, 1910, but before that, one of the Lopez brothers took his own life inside the holding cell.

Then, there is the story of Abram Ortiz.  

“Abram Ortiz was hanged. It was done officially, right here in this room,” said Guajardo as he stands inside the Hanging Room.  

But in 1913 a murderer lurked in the shadows. 

“At a ranch, there was a couple coming back from Reynosa. They came across the river and Abram Ortiz and this other man lurked in the brush and waited for this couple to come and they killed the man and took the woman,” said Guajardo. “They raped the woman and eventually she escaped.  She went to the authorities. The authorities apprehended Abram Ortiz and the other man ran back to Mexico and they never found him.”

The Abram Ortiz story was far from over.  

Abram Ortiz was found guilty of murder, but it was not clear if he was the killer. 

On May 1, 1913, Abram Ortiz was brought into the Death Watch Cell at the Old Hidalgo County Jail. 

The next day he was hanged on the gallows, and spectators throughout the region went to see. 

“The day he was hanged became a public spectacle because it was in all the newspapers and people from all over South Texas to witness the hanging of Abram Ortiz,” said Guajardo.  

The court transcript and police records from Abram’s arrest are on display throughout the cell he was originally held in.  

However, murder and hangings are not the only things hidden between the cells.

It is also the founding leaders of the Rio Grande Valley.

“We have Faces De La Frontera so we feature four people, Silvestra Peña Perez of Starr County, Juan Alamia of Edinburg, Nathaniel Jackson of Pharr, and Emilia Schunior-Ramirez of Edinburg.”

Emilia Schunior-Ramirez is one of the very first graduates of Edinburg High School.

She would go on to earn her Master’s degree at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. 

Schunior-Ramirez would go on to teach at multiple school districts in the RGV.  

Ramirez now has several schools and even university dormitories named after her.  

Emilia’s son, Alfonso Ramirez, ended up becoming the first Hispanic mayor of Edinburg in the 1950s.

“We also feature Nathaniel Jackson who was from the Jackson Family Ranch in Pharr and that was historical because it was part of the underground railroad, where he and his family helped runaway slaves cross the river and into freedom,” said Guajardo.  

Whether it is the roots of historical pioneers of the Rio Grande Valley or the hanging of an Edinburg man, one thing is certain, the Museum of South Texas History holds secrets and mysteries of Hidalgo County. 

“My favorite thing is what we don’t know about it. If you walk through the jail, you’ll see there’s a lot of questions that leave to the imagination and curiosity, the next step is to go find out what happened to that trial of Abram Ortiz, what happened to the Lopez brothers as well, or Chapin? The city was named about him, then he killed someone, and it had to be renamed Edinburg, there’s just so much mystery… there are so many things we don’t know,” said Guajardo.

The Old Hidalgo County Jail is now open for visitors from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

For the month of April, the museum will have free admission.

Visitors must reserve a timed ticket by visiting their website or calling at (956) 383-6911. All museum visitors are required to wear a mask and social distance.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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