The Oregon boot was invented in 1866 by Oregon State Penitentiary Warden J.C. Gardner. He called it the “Gardner Shackle” but that name never stuck. The devices didn’t come in pairs. Made to control prisoners, yet let them be somewhat mobile, Oregon boots were a heavy iron or lead weight—20-28 pounds—welded or bolted to metal braces that attached to a heavy shoe on one foot. It was like a ball and chain with no ball and no chain. Some had combination locks and some came apart with a key.
They worked very well from the point of view of law enforcement officials. From a prisoner’s point of view they were instruments of slow torture, causing leg, knee and hip problems that didn’t always go away once the boot was removed.
In 1911 “Reese the handcuff king” visited Boise as a special added attraction at the Orpheum theatre where, according to the Idaho Statesman, he removed an Oregon boot and handcuffs “in shorter order than it took to place them upon him, and without the aid of key.”
But it wasn’t so easy for the incarcerated. Many prisoners who wore them managed to escape. Sort of. They might get out of their cell, but making a speedy getaway was usually not in the cards. One prisoner pounded one against railroad tracks for hours, finally breaking the pin out of his boot. The rails were scarred by his efforts, which ultimately ended with his capture. One escapee dragged one 20 miles before being caught.
Diamond Field Jack Davis wore an Oregon boot while being transported from Albion to the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise to await trial.
By the 1950s they were being used less and less. For a short time they became a metaphor. A March 19, 1950 story in the Idaho Statesman included this quote, “his leftist viewpoint proved to be an Oregon boot on the Democratic party.”
You can see an Oregon boot on display at the Old Idaho Penitentiary if you’d like to imagine what wearing one would have been like.