Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men

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Folsom Inmates Making Good

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relocated thirty-six Gold Rush-era graves in 1954 to make way for the Folsom Dam, they added a racial slur to the headstones. Because the graves originally resided at an area a few miles from the Dam known as Negro Hill, the N-word was chiseled on the headstones.


At the cost of $18,000, the new grave markers will read: “Unknown. Moved from Negro Hill Cemetery by U.S. Government, 1954.” California prison inmates, participating in a work program, are helping to make right the wrong. California Prison Industry Authority spokesman, Eric Reslock said, “We are providing inmate labor and construction materials to rectify these historically inaccurate and offensive headstones.”


Two of the headstones were sent to the California State Archives in Sacramento, and the other 34 are being held by officials of El Dorado County.

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Scandal in Prison Baseball

Image: CA State Library 1913

Folsom State Prison started hosting amateur baseball games around 1913, although prior to this, the inmates participated in ball games during the annual July 4th Folsom Field Day that began in 1904. Amateur teams around California even came by for a game. Every weekend and every holiday the teams played; something the convicts—both players and spectators—looked forward to. Prison staff were also enthusiastic about this entertaining break in monotony. Captain of the Guard, P.J. Cochrane said of Folsom’s team in 1921: “I’d like to put this bunch of rock breakers up against that San Quentin nine. And I don’t think any of them would try to ‘break’ going over and back to do it, either,” he added proudly.

America’s favorite pastime, however, could not go without some underground dealings, especially in prison. Outside the prison walls, the “Black Sox” debacle rocked the baseball world in 1919 and in 1928, Folsom experienced their own scandal. Folsom boasted a four-team league, comprised of the Bon Tons, representing the white collar inmates, The Machine Shop, made up of the athletic roughnecks, The Bakers, and the Chapel, whose players were said to have a “religious bent.”

Despite the prison’s explicit rules against betting, players and spectators wasted no opportunity to wager on their favorite players. Currency came in the form of tobacco which in those days, was rationed out twice a month. It was a hot commodity. A clique of gambling inmates soon became the kingpins by not only fixing certain players, but then selling the winnings to the losing bettors at an exorbitant price.  When prison officials caught on, they discovered crooked players on all four teams, “including the supposedly up-righteously Chapel nine,” one newspaper said. The Warden disbanded the teams and officials at San Quentin joked that Folsom’s new teams would be based on its different classes of criminals:

“. . . the forgers will be Short Story Writers teams. The gas pipe thug element will be represented by the Plumbers. Safe crackers, of which there are a large number within Folsom’s confines, have dubbed their team the Bombers. Second story workers, who are to have a representative team, are undecided as yet upon a name. It is said there is divided opinion whether they shall call themselves the Human Flies or the Social Climbers.”


The Silent Man of Folsom

I’ve come across bizarre stories over the course of my research and for those tales that won’t be in the book, I like to share them on this blog. This is one of those fascinating stories that I felt compelled to spend some extra time looking into so I could bring it to you.

Charles Carson nearly became one of Folsom’s 93 and perhaps the title of the book would have been Folsom’s 94. Carson sat in Folsom’s back alley, or condemned row, for seven years; seven years of solitary confinement. He escaped the noose by never uttering a word.

I should start at the beginning of his story though. From the age of nine, Carson was in and out of juvenile halls and eventually prisons. In the early 1900s, while sitting in a cell at San Quentin, he and a buddy formulated their next crime for after their release. Staying true to his word, Carson followed through with the planned, but unsuccessful, robbery. He earned himself a life sentence at Folsom prison.

Not one to be idle, Carson and six others attempted to make a break for it from the quarry in 1904. Two guards and several of the conspiring escapees were wounded by gunfire. Carson and two others, J. Finley and F. Quijada, were all considered the ringleaders, and each received the death penalty in 1906. A bummer, thanks to Jacob Oppenheimer, Folsom’s 28th execution (but not until 1913). You see, Jake kept attacking and/or killing fellow inmates and guards, but since he was serving a life sentence, he merely ended up being transferred back and forth between Folsom and San Quentin. Prison authorities and law makers grew tired of Oppenheimer’s murderous ways, so they devised a plan. They passed a law in 1905, declaring that any inmate serving a life sentence who is found guilty of assaulting or murdering a fellow inmate or prison official, will automatically be given the death sentence. They figured it was only a matter of time before Jake attacked or killed again.

So Carson’s pals kept him company—for a while. Finley was granted commutation to a life sentence and Quijada? Well . . . he happened to be rooming next to Oppenheimer and as presumed, Oppenheimer himself took care Quijada, a one-armed Indian in 1911.

Back to Carson . . . By 1909, after pending appeals, he still sat in the shadows of the gallows. Then, in September, Carson suddenly and without apparent cause, lost his ability to speak. The warden and prison physician were rendered speechless themselves; Carson’s ailment baffled them. They requested state asylum doctors examine Carson. Amazingly, three years go by without determining a cause of Carson’s continued “mutism.” In 1912, The Oakland Tribune said Carson was, “Broken in mind and body as the result of six years constant brooding in solitary confinement in the death  chamber at Folsom prison.” It earned Carson another reprieve.

Physicians put Carson through many tests, one of which was the “ether test.” Doctors exposed the silent convict to the gas with the hope that while under “the intoxicating influence of the anesthetic he would lose voluntary control of his vocal organs and reply to questions put to him by the doctors.” Carson never made a sound. Despite this test, doctors declared at an insanity hearing, that Carson was sane, due mostly because the only signs of insanity were silence and blank staring. Back to his lonely cell he went.

Warden James Johnston and prison doc, A. E. Ingersoll weren’t convinced Carson wasn’t nuts. So more tests were ordered. Doctors tried “loosening Carson’s tongue” with the help of hypnotist, Dr. G.R. Hubbell, who did his damnedest to put Carson into a hypnotic state. It didn’t work. Hubbell opined that Carson was a malinger since Hubbell’s other mentally ill patients always respond to hypnotism.

“Electricity applied in a mild form” only produced a throat noise from Carson, but it still was the first sound from Carson in three years. Docs then tried the old water trick: tossing the patient from a hot water bath to a ice cold one. Again, no response.

Apparently, doctors grew desperate and threw a bowl of scalding soup at Carson’s face. It didn’t elicit the desired effect. In fact, it didn’t elicit much of an effect at all from Carson.

While riding the waves of yet another reprieve, Carson went up again in front of an insanity jury. Witnesses who testified against Carson at the original hearing, now changed their tune. They told the jury they felt Carson was certifiably insane. The panel decided that Carson finally earned himself a bed at the state asylum in Stockton. While there, Carson was caught smiling—the first observed display of emotion since 1909. Even though this remarkable gesture made the newspapers, it appeared to have little, to no effect on his mental patient status.

Stockton State Hospital/Asylum, 1910

Still under the sentence of death, Carson was given the ether test again—which he passed with flying colors. Carson spent the next couple of years being tested, and in 1915, Dr. F.W. Hatch, who earlier stated Carson feigned insanity, now declared the convict to be insane.

Finally, in 1917, Governor Hiram Johnson commuted Charles “Silent” Carson’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Carson would spend the rest of his life in the Stockton asylum. Johnson told the press, “I am convinced that at least substantial doubt exists as to the man’s mental condition and that after these many years humane consideration dictates a removal of the death penalty.” Much to the doctors’  surprise, even this news failed to induce a sound from Carson. The guy never uttered a “woo-hoo.” In fact, he maintained his silence for the rest of his life.

In 1924, after 15 years of silence and 11 years in the asylum, 42-year-old Carson died from heart disease. Dr. Fred Clark, superintendent of the asylum told the press that Carson, a model patient, spent his time playing cards and reading the newspaper.

Carson went 15 years without speaking. Whether it was self-induced or not, is impossible to determine, but he gained 15 more years of life. Perhaps in the end, Silent Carson had the last laugh.


Let the (Prison) Show Begin

James A. Johnson became warden of Folsom in 1912. During his short stint at the prison, he made monumental changes to the penal system, including abolishing corporal punishment and bringing quality medical care to both mentally and physically sick inmates. Johnston chronicles his life as warden of San Quentin and Folsom in his book, Prison Life is Different, published in 1937. This book is a rare gem, giving the reader personal and insightful glimpses into California’s penal system in the early 1900s.

One task that Johnston found particularly engaging was overseeing a show, put on by convicts, to entertain their fellow inmates on the Fourth of July. This event soon became an annual show where boxing and bike races were also added. San Quentin inmates hosted their own annual vaudeville show that occurred every January. In fact, Folsom’s 27th execution, Edward Delehanty, was the director and manager of San Quentin’s show before he killed two fellow inmates, resulting in a transfer to Folsom. Delehanty, called “The Black Demon,” was considered immensely talented and took great pride in the yearly productions.

Well liked by the inmates, Johnston received an invitation to the Fourth of July show. He sat in the front row among the other prisoners. In his book, Johnston described the black face act as one of the big hits, where one performer, using big words, would confuse and bewilder his stage partner. “Finally, the smart one,” Johnston said, “simulating desperate impatience, walked his dumb partner down to the footlights and pulled this”:

‘Listen, you igmoramus, I already esplained the propolition six times and still you don’t comprehend, All my elucidation has failed to penetrate your obscuration. Now I’m gonna tell it to you once more. And boy I’m gonna make it clear. I’m gonna make it plain. I’m gonna make it simple. Now get ready. Pay retention. This am your last chance. If you don’t get it this time ther’s no hope for you. For believe me, boy, I’m gonna make it so plain an’ clear an’ so simple that even the officers and the guards will understand.’

One portion of the entertainment at Folsom included dressing up as women and performing comedic skits—one of the biggest draws of the show. I suppose when women are scarce, dressing up like one would have to do.


The Death Penalty and the Mentally Ill

First of all, “insanity” is a legal term but in the medical profession, the preferred term is “intellectual disability.”

This is not to be confused with diminished capacity which is defined as an impaired mental condition, caused by disease, trauma, or intoxication but short of insanity, that can reduce the criminal responsibility of a defendant. Not all states allow defendants to offer this plea in response to criminal charges.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Today, the American Law Institute Model defines it as: a defendant is not responsible for criminal conduct “if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.” The test thus takes into account both the cognitive and volitional capacity of insanity.

Eighteen of the ninety-three men executed at Folsom prison, had pleaded insanity at least once during their legal process.

#41, James Tyren murdered his 2 children

#81, Mike Lami murdered his wife

In 1924, #45 Alex Kels underwent a procedure to have fluid extracted from his spine in an attempt to determine if a suspected case of syphilis had infected his brain, causing him to murder his victim. This test rocked the state of California and engaged governor Friend Richardson and the state prison board in a nasty debate that waged on for weeks.

Robert Wilbur of Truthout wrote a fascinating article entitled, “Killing the Mentally Ill.” I encourage you to read the article—I found it extremely eye opening. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was “cruel and unusual punishment,” to execute an inmate deemed “mentally retarded,” therefore, a violation of the 8th Amendment. And exactly how easy is it for the defense to prove their client is insane, or was during the commission of the crime? In the article, Wilbur talks with death penalty lawyer, George Kendall who often sees those with mental illness face the death penalty. “The prosecutors have the upper hand,” he said. It comes down to money. The state can shell out thousands of dollars to hire experts, where the defense has little money and is faced with the burden of proof. The paycheck these experts walk away with can be well over $200,000.

Wilbur noted one such expert, Michael Welner, MD who is proposing to create a “depravity scale” seeking to add an element of “evil” into the definition of some crimes. He strives to define the “worst of the worst” and help determine the truly evil crimes that deserve the death penalty. Uh . . . how exactly is evil defined? Can a panel of 12 peers determine that?

James L. Knoll IV, a senior forensic psychiatrist, vehemently rejects such a proposal. “Embracing the term ‘evil’ in the lexicon and practice of psychiatry will contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness, diminish the credibility of forensic psychiatry, and corrupt forensic treatment efforts.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a man with an IQ of 69, confessed to a crime he didn’t commit, and after serving sixteen years behind bars, DNA evidence exonerated him.

It is estimated that of the 3200+ inmates on death row in the U.S., roughly 5-10% are considered to have intellectual disabilities. No surprise, but Texas has executed 24 mentally impaired people since 1977—the most out of any state.

In January of this year, Colorado governor, Bill Ritter issued a posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy. After reviewing evidence, Ritter found that Arridy, who had the mental capacity of a toddler, should not have lost his life for complicity to a 1936 murder.



The Parole Pendulum

In California, the parole system began in 1893. Before that, inmates had only their given credits for good behavior. Inmates used these “coppers” to secure an early release. Despite the draw to stockpile these rewards, prisoners still managed to squander them. The parole system offered relief to overcrowded prisons and the massive amount of pardon applications that piled up on the Governor’s desk. It also gave deserving inmates the chance to make good on their promises to “straighten up and fly right.”

To achieve parole, the prisoner needed to secure a job before he could take one step off the prison grounds. This often proved extremely daunting for some prisoners who had little to no friends or family on the outside. Unless someone could vouch for the inmate, landing an outside job from the confines of prison, was nearly impossible. He was also required to leave a $25 deposit with the warden. The prospective employer usually coughed up this money, as it would pay for the parolee’s return to prison, should he violate the terms of his parole. The employer also had to carry out his promise to employ the prisoner by attesting to it to the county clerk. After the warden, captain of the guard, prison physician, district attorney, and a judge all submitted recommendation letters to the parole board, it was the inmate’s turn. He’d write his own plea to the board and present it to them. If approved, the board gave him his “ticket of leave” and turned him over to a parole officer ( a new addition to the system in 1908).

So finally, wearing a clean shirt and having $5 dollars in his pocket, the inmate is released into a world that is neither sympathetic nor tolerant of him. Griffith J. Griffith, a successful businessman who served time in San Quentin from 1904-06, became a prominent and vocal supporter of prison reform. “If there be a time in a man’s life when he needs encouragement it is after a long confinement, when he leaves San Quentin prison. He is refused work, and if successful in getting a job, men refuse to work with him. If a crime is committed he is arrested on suspicion and frequently locked up for days or weeks without evidence. He is indeed a pariah,” he said.

By 1909, prison officials considered the parole system a success. Of the 609 men released since 1893, 57 violated the terms of their parole, 40 of which were sent back to prison, and 17 had died or slipped the system.

For some men, this freedom wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. In 1911, William Melton, a Folsom parolee, voluntarily re-entered prison after failing to maintain employment. He claimed that the “stamp of a convict” placed upon him, made life on the outside more trouble than it was worth. He felt that the parole requirements were too difficult to keep up with.

Today, California prisons face a staggering 70% recidivism rate. When the correctional officer at Folsom told me that while we toured the prison, I let out an indignant gasp. But then he reminded me that it’s important to acknowledge the 30% who are making good on their promises. Parolees are given “gate money” (between $200-300) and are assigned a parole officer to whom they report. Inmates eligible for parole have a counselor  to help prepare them for life after prison and can attend “pre-release” classes and GED education. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offers a Parolee Handbook that illustrates the tools available to the convict before and after his release. It may not seem like much, but it’s a far cry from a clean shirt and five bucks.


What’s in a Name?

Robert Stroud, “Birdman of Alcatraz”

Criminals and their nicknames. We’ve all heard of “Scarface,” “Machine Gun” Kelly, and “Pretty Boy” Nelson. Many convicts earned these kinds of monikers from their notorious and often murderous past. Most fellow cons knew never to ask these thugs their real name; a breach of criminal etiquette that could cost the inquirer his life.

Clarence Morrill, chief of the bureau of criminal identification in 1928, said, “Criminals of every order, low and high, have a moniker by which they are known. One may ask their nicknames with impunity, but never the names their mothers gave them.”

Folsom prison may not have been home to the Birdman, but it has had its share of nicknamed bad boys, too.

Gregg, Gleason, Stokes, Burke, Stewart & Brown

 In 1927, Folsom played host to The Thanksgiving Day Riots that left 10 convicts and 1 guard dead. For those considered to be the ringleaders, the riot earned them certain nicknames.  Forger, Albert Stewart was called “The Penman” but after turning states’ evidence against his fellow rioters, he is forever known as “The Squealer.” #61, Anthony “Tony” Brown, became “Bloody” Brown. His co-conspirators: #63, Walter E. Burke was “Scarface,” #64, James Gregg became “The Weasel,” and #65, James Gleason was “The Rat” as he was expected to “squeal” at trial.

In 1903, 14 Folsom convicts escaped. One of them was “Red Shirt” Gordon, named for the shirt given to “incorrigibles” to wear. Authorities never recaptured him.


#49, John Geregac was called “Smoky,” “Smokey Jack” and “Smokey John Geregac”

McCabe & Harris

Fellow cons called #69, Wilbur McCabe, “One-Eyed Mac,” while #78, Daniel Harris earned the name, “Mexican Dan.”


Thomas Griffin, simply known as The Owl and his crime partner, #53, Felix “The Lone Wolf” Sloper, robbed banks together.

Shannon & Connelly

#51, John Connelly’s hair sported a white streak, hence the nickname “Silver,” or “Silver Joe Kelly.” #57, Willard Shannon’s hair color prompted people to call him “Red.” One newspaper wrote, ” . . . he presents a grotesque appearance with his auburn hair.”

Mathews & Farrington

Those in criminal circles called #47 Robert Mathews “Sugar Baby,” while # 74, Peter Farrington was called “Little Spud.”


Apparently, people couldn’t decide on #92, Lloyd Dale’s nickname. He was known as “West Coast,” “West Coast Smith,” “Whiskers,” “Coast to Coast,” and “Coast kid.”

The media oftentimes awarded convicts certain names of their own—names the prisoners usually didn’t care for: #28, Jacob Oppenheimer:  The Human Tiger (also called The Human Hyena), #45, Alex Kels: the Haystack Murderer, #88, Earl Budd Kimball: Werewolf of Fulda Flat, #1, Chin Hane: King of the Highbinders, and #27, Edward Delehanty: Black Demon.

Sometimes, the victims themselves had monikers such as, “Queen of the Sacramento Tenderloin,” “St, Louis Fat,” Elgar “Moose” Morse, and Frank C. “Spike” Angermier.

It’s highly unlikely, but should I find myself behind bars, I would need a damn scary nickname to hide behind. I’d have to make it up, of course, but I figure “The Mutilator” would keep me relatively safe.


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Preserving Folsom’s History

Guided by retired middle school teacher and historian, Ed Hodges, students from Hoover Middle School in San Jose, California are restoring tables manufactured at Folsom prison in the 1920s and ’30s.

The 7’x3′ tables are being sanded, cleaned of graffiti, painted with Varathane, and topped with a sheet of glass. This labor of love costs $250 and the school is seeking those willing to sponsor a table. Read about this great project in the Mercury News and how you can be a sponsor!

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The Peculiar Case of Elijah Cravens


In 1900, George Putman, Folsom’s 13th execution, attempted to set up a plea that when he killed a fellow inmate, he was already serving a 10-year sentence. As the ward of the state, he considered himself legally dead. How could a dead man commit a crime, right?

Perhaps he took a cue from Elijah Cravens, discharged of a murder thanks to a county record showing him to be legally dead. Craven’s story began in 1880 in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado. At the time, the promise of abundant silver brought fortune-seekers from all over, many unaccustomed to the severe climate. It also invited an influx of crime and vice and the death toll rose to staggering numbers. The Leadville Undertaking Company found themselves overwhelmed and understaffed.

Leadville, circa 1880

Early one morning, the death wagon arrived at the morgue with what appeared to be a dead guy. In his haste, the coroner certified the deceased as Elijah Cravens who came to his demise by consumption. The coroner transcribed the death into county records and placed the body in a coffin. An old deaf man drove the wagon to the cemetery, but while en route, Cravens emerged from his drunken stupor and kicked himself from the flimsy casket. Without asking questions, Cravens escaped. When the old superstitious driver discovered the empty coffin, he proceeded to bury it and placed a inscribed board at the head of the grave that read: “Elijah Cravens. Aged forty.”

Craven’s near-death experience prompted a change in him. He gave up alcohol, stayed away from his usual haunts, and avoided people when possible. Then he met “Diamond Dick” Reynolds, a wealthy Leadville prospector who offered him a job. He asked Cravens to locate a ranch near Grand River. Cravens agreed and ended up staking valuable land near what is now Glenwood Springs. It proved to be a very lucrative endeavor, earning Cravens thousands of dollars for his role in  establishing the ranch.

After a few years, however, Craven’s mind allegedly began to deteriorate, and he exhibited bouts of uncontrollable anger and hostility. He started drinking again and in September of 1885, he shot and killed a man during a saloon brawl. With the help of an accomplished attorney, Cravens produced the Lake County records indicating he had died five years earlier. According to the law, Cravens was dead, therefore, incapable of committing a crime. The judge didn’t plan on letting Cravens off that easy and sentenced him to one year in jail.

On August 22, 1900, seventy-year old, Elijah Cravens died of pneumonia at the Lake County Hospital in Leadville . . . his last death on record.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, 1900