Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery – Huntsville, Texas - Atlas Obscura

Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery

Inmates dig the graves at the largest prison cemetery in the U.S., the final resting place of both cowboys and Indians. 


Since 1853, the 22 acres of land just south of Huntsville, Texas have been used as a burial ground for prisoners. When family members fail to come forward to claim the deceased (either because there are none, or because they cannot afford the cost of burial themselves), the bodies are interred at Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery. 

The cemetery was badly maintained and had no written records until the 1970s. In 1962, the assistant warden for the Walls Unit, Captain Joe Byrd, undertook a recording and maintenance project in the cemetery, cataloging and providing simple headstones for the graves he could identify. As of 2012 the Texas Department of Criminal Justice estimated the cemetery contained 2,100 graves, but research from Indiana State University suggested there were as many as 3,000.

Most of the graves are anonymous, wood or concrete crosses or slabs labeled with an inmate number, if anything. But a handful are well known, including the grave of Kiowa Indian chief Satanta, who committed suicide while imprisoned in 1878. Cowboy Lee Smith has the largest headstone in the cemetery, donated by fellow cowboys. Serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, thought to have killed 157 people including his mother, is also buried here.

The graves of death row inmates, which make up about 2 percent of the cemetery, are indicated by a “99” number, or an “X” or “EX.”

All of the upkeep and burial work for the cemetery is performed by prisoners. They dig the graves, chisel the head stones, and attend the funerals, which are led by the prison chaplain in the early morning. Scarcely a day goes by when there is no one to bury.

Know Before You Go

Burials occur Monday thru Thursday at 8:30 am. The cemetery is open to the public. If traveling to see Henry Lee Lucas headstone, many websites will say it remains unmarked. As of December 2018, the headstone is back and marked.

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