Clyde Crosley (1915–1988)

Clyde Crosley was an author and historian of the Arkansas prison system. An inmate himself from 1934 to 1940, he published two books on his experiences in the penitentiary, Men or Mules and Unfolding Misconceptions. While Crosley was not a trained scholar, he is one of only a few people from Arkansas to write extensively on the history of the state’s prisons.

Clyde Franklin Crosley was born on August 9, 1915, in St. Francis (Clay County) to Henry Franklin Crosley and Mary Myrtle Markum Crosley. His father was from Indiana and his mother from Illinois. Clyde was from a large farming family of seven children. In the period from 1918 to 1920, Crosley lost his brother, his sister, and his mother. Around the time Crosley went to prison, his father moved back to Indiana. His father eventually resettled in Clay County, though he died in St. Louis, Missouri; he never remarried following Mary’s death.

At the age of eighteen, Crosley was sent to prison. Crosley apparently was convicted of murder (details of his crime are unclear), but he only served a sentence from 1934 to 1940. An advertisement notes that Crosley was a trusty (inmate guard) during his incarceration.

After his release, Crosley stayed in Arkansas. In May 1949, he married Byrdia “Bertie” Woodruff Gates, a native of Arkansas. Bertie was a widow whose husband, Elvis, had died in Italy in 1944 during World War II in a plane crash while serving in the military; she had two children from her first marriage. She and Crosley had a daughter in 1953 and remained married until Crosley’s death in 1988. In the 1950 census, Crosley was listed as being a trucker, living in Clay County. In the 1970s, the Crosleys’ daughter attended Arkansas State University in Jonesboro (Craighead County).

In 1978, Crosley self-published his first book, Men or Mules, about Tucker prison farm, where young white offenders were sent in the 1930s. Crosley wrote that since his incarceration, he had lived an “exemplary life” and that his dedication to “honesty, goodness and justice had earned him the respect of those who know him.” In the wake of the prison scandals of the Winthrop Rockefeller period and the Holt v. Sarver decision, Crosley thought it time to tell his story. The book drew heavily on his own experiences in the penitentiary, which he compared to the concentration camps of World War II.

Men or Mules is regarded as a rather flawed work. The book is an odd mixture of fact and fiction. The main character, “Ray Cross,” is based on Crosley, and the book contains many rare and historic photographs of the prisons. While it is useful for those studying Arkansas’s prison farms, Men or Mules is less successful in terms of readability. “The language is frank, the scenes appalling, and the characters loathsome,” complained a reviewer in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, adding that “continuity, consistency, and comprehension are notably absent.” The critic, nevertheless, thought the book provided “chilling insight” into prison conditions.

Crosley’s second self-published book, Unfolding Misconceptions, was more focused and based in archival research. It suffers from repetition and grammatical/typographical errors, but it is a useful and well-intentioned effort to document the history of Arkansas’s prison system. Despite the book’s faults, Unfolding Misconceptions is the only book that has attempted to cover the entire history of Arkansas’s prisons. It continues to be cited by scholars and is useful to those looking into the history of the prison farms, especially escape attempts. Notably, in Arkansas, it seems that inmates are far more likely to write about the prisons than trained scholars or journalists.

Later in life, Crosley settled in the Jonesboro area. At the time of his death on August 21, 1988, his stepson, Elvis Robert Gates of Memphis, Tennessee, and daughter, Donna Dickens of Jonesboro, were still living. In his obituary in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Crosley was listed as an insurance executive. His brief memorial made no mention of his books or the fact that he had spent years at Tucker. He is buried in Pirtle Cemetery in Peach Orchard (Clay County). His wife died in 1996.

For additional information:
“Back Matter.” Reviews in American History 14 (December 1986).

“Clyde Crosley, 73.” Memphis Commercial Appeal, August 23, 1988, p. A4.

Crosley, Clyde. Men or Mules. Jonesboro: Self-published, 1978.

———. Unfolding Misconceptions: The Arkansas Penitentiary, 1836–1986. Arlington, TX: Liberal Arts Press, 1986.

Prassel, Frank R. “Book Review: Men or Mules.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 38 (Winter 1979): 373–374.

Colin Edward Woodward
Richmond, Virginia


No comments on this entry yet.