Simmons, Marshall Lee (1873–1957)

By: Brian Hart

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: June 1, 1995

Marshall Lee Simmons, sheriff, general manager of the prison system of Texas, and clerk of the United States Court for the Eastern District of Texas, was born to D. A. and Kate B. (Swilling) Simmons, at Linden, Texas, on September 9, 1873. His parents, upon their arrival in Texas from South Carolina by way of Iowa, had originally settled on a farm near White Mound in Grayson County. In 1885 the family returned to Grayson County and settled in Sherman, where Simmons attended public school. He later completed two years at Austin College and three years at the University of Texas in preparation for entering the law firm of his brother, D. E. Simmons, then a member of the state legislature. Simmons never received a degree from UT, however, because during the summer of 1894 he was arrested and charged with murder after a shootout with a former West Texas county official who supposedly had spoken derogatorily of a member of the Simmons family. Simmons was found not guilty of the charge, apparently by reason of self-defense, by a Denton County jury on September 12, 1897. After his marriage to Nola Stark on September 12, 1895, and the trial, he settled into the routine of a farmer, stock raiser, and mule trader in Grayson County. In 1912, however, due to widespread lawlessness in the county, centered in particular in the rail town of Denison, Simmons acceded to the requests of county friends and neighbors that he seek the office of sheriff. He was elected in November 1912. Three days before taking office in December, he was seriously wounded by an outraged supporter of the outgoing sheriff, and his recovery postponed his assumption of the post for a month. Simmons served two terms as county sheriff and stepped down in 1916, after having "done much to tame Denison" and reduce bootlegging and general lawlessness in the county.

After returning to private life Simmons accepted a position as the vice president of the American Bank and Trust Company in Sherman, which he held until about 1920, when he returned to farming and stock raising. In 1923 he became manager of the Sherman Chamber of Commerce. His reputation as a lawman recommended him in 1923 to Governor Pat M. Neff, who appointed him to a three-member commission established to inspect and recommend changes in the state's prison system. The commission's report to the state legislature was highly critical of the system for providing unsanitary living conditions, inadequate food, and few programs for the reform of inmates. The report was equally critical of the people and the government of the state for their toleration of such a system. Simmons, in presenting this report, suggested that the prison system, using its 73,000 acres of land, could fulfill many of the physical needs not only of its inmates but of the persons housed in all state institutions. On the strength of this report and Simmons's ideas, Governor Daniel J. Moody appointed him to the state prison board in 1927. About three years later Simmons accepted the position of general manager of the state prison system. This last appointment, which he held until November 1935, necessitated his residence in Huntsville. Simmons later played a major role in assembling the group of lawmen and informants who ambushed the gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker near Gibsland, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934. He is credited with general reform and improvement of conditions in Texas prisons. Critics, however, most notably Marcellus E. Foster, editor of the Houston Press, charged that Simmons tolerated brutality on the part of his employees and worked to conceal administrative problems in the prison system. Simmons instituted the Texas Prison Rodeo, the state's "fastest and wildest rodeo," at Huntsville in October 1931. In 1936, a year after his resignation as general manager of the prison system, Simmons was hired as clerk of the United States Court, Eastern District of Texas, a position that he held until 1941. Between 1943 and 1953 he served as manager of the Denison office of the Southwest Power Administration. After retiring he chronicled his life in an autobiography, Assignment Huntsville: Memoirs of a Texas Prison Official (1959). Simmons died in Austin during a trip to check on the publication of the manuscript of this book on October 12, 1957.

Herman L. Crow, Political History of the Texas Penal System, 1829–1951 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1964). Dallas Morning News, October 13, 1957, February 11, 1990. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.


  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Prison Administrators and Reformers
  • Sheriffs

Time Periods:

  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Brian Hart, “Simmons, Marshall Lee,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 01, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995