The Oregon Boot


If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week we head to the Pacific Northwest to Oregon, home of Crater Lake, the birthplace of The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and the final resting place of a mysterious pirate known as One-Eyed Willy.


After too many prisoners escaped from the original Oregon State Penitentiary inside the city of Portland, the decision was made to build a new facility on 26 acres on the outskirts of Salem. With so much cheap labor readily available, it only made sense for the state to use the inmates to build their own prison—but controlling and containing a construction force would be very difficult. So in 1866, the prison warden, J.C. Gardner, developed and patented a new type of restraint that he humbly called the Gardner Shackle. Everyone else called the contraption the Oregon Boot.

The Oregon Boot consisted of a large, solid iron or lead ring that fit just above the ankle of the inmate. Depending upon the level of restraint needed, this ring could weigh anywhere between 5 and 28 pounds. The heavy ring was supported by an iron strap that went down around the arch of the man’s shoe to keep the weight from rubbing against the ankle bones and to limit his mobility further, essentially making him walk flat-footed. Many described the Boot as a ball-and-chain without the chain.

The Boot was only installed on one leg at a time and, as you might guess, it was very effective in keeping prisoners from escaping. Unfortunately, it was also very good at causing permanent damage to those who wore it. Lugging around 28 pounds of solid lead created undue stress on the hips and knees, and, despite the use of the support strap, the iron cuff still rubbed against the leg until it drew blood; the wounds often became infected. It was not unusual for prisoners to be bed-ridden for weeks at a time thanks to injuries caused by the Boot, and most suffered from a permanent limp as a result of the restraint.

Even after the new Oregon State Penitentiary had been built, Gardner was still concerned about escape attempts, so he kept Boots on every inmate for the duration of their stay. Other prisons picked up on the invention, and soon the Gardner Shackle was a common restraint tool across the country. However, in 1878, Gardner was replaced by a new warden, Benjamin Burch, who took the Boots off most prisoners. The Boot was still used as late as 1939 for transporting inmates by train, as a disciplinary measure, or for men seen as a serious flight risk. But when automobiles became the normal mode of travel, it was deemed easier to contain prisoners inside a custom-built truck than to make them wear the debilitating Oregon Boot.

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Peruse the whole Strange States series here.