Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


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The Human Tiger and his underground telegraph

Jacob Oppenheimer, dubbed The Human Tiger, spent a great deal of time in solitary confinement in both Folsom and San Quentin. In fact, of his 18 years behind bars, roughly 16 of them were in solitary. Only during the last few years before his execution at Folsom in 1913, did guards allow him light, and reading and writing materials. During those years, Oppenheimer penned many essays, letters, and even his autobiography. An extraordinary writer, Oppenheimer possessed a vast vocabulary, intelligence and incredible insight into the outside world and the human psyche.

During his dark and lonely days, Oppenheimer developed and perfected a method of communicating with other inmates in the solitary ward, also called the “incorrigible” cells. The method, similar to Morse Code, began with a simple alphabetical diagram Oppenheimer created:

The only time Oppenheimer would speak to the other solitary inmates would be in the prison yard during their thirty minute-a-week exercise where he’d disclose the diagram. The other prisoners then scratched it into a hidden area on the wall of their cell.

Oppenheimer explained to his fellow cons, that a certain amount of taps on the wall represented a certain letter. For example, since “Y” was five over and five down, the inmate would use five taps—twice. “E” the fifth letter, required one tap, then five. At the end of each word or line, the messenger then tapped twice. Over time, other inmates divulged Oppenheimer’s communication system to the new arrivals in the ward, thus saving Oppenheimer the time and trouble.

Oppenheimer’s inventiveness and intelligence far exceeded that of the average convict at Folsom. Despite his dreary solitude, Oppenheimer’s writings exhibited an optimism not common for a condemned incorrigible.  In his letters to his attorney, this “caged tiger” often expressed gratitude and even joy. I’ll leave you with a sentence he wrote, ending a letter written on Christmas Eve 1907,  that seemed to exemplify his usual contentment.

 “The solitude which surrounds me is delightful to a poet for in soothing meditation I soar to heights among the fleecy clouds and into the blue atmosphere. . .”


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The Effects of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake on Crime

On April 18, 1906, San Francisco shook with the estimated magnitude of 7.9, though some believe it reached 8.25. Subsequent fires from ruptured gas lines then ravaged the city, causing an estimated 90% of the total damage to the city. Just five days earlier, Folsom  executed its 22nd man, William Gray.

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Two hours east of the quake, the gray granite fortress surely felt the early morning rumble, but suffered little to no damage. San Quentin, however, experienced an influx of inmates as prisoners from San Francisco jails were transported to the Marin County penitentiary.

It’s natural to assume crime would run rampant while law enforcement concentrated their efforts on finding survivors and putting their city back together. Surprisingly, crime took a break in the wake of the quake. James Johnston, Folsom’s warden in 1912, called it “a great purifier.”

“It scared the sin out of some people and tore masks off make-believers. Everybody cooked in the street and many slept in the parks, where fresh air and new thoughts could get at them. Button-pushers and bell-ringers took their turn with day laborers cleaning up the debris. There were no saloons to open or close, and nobody seemed to want a drink. The people had before them important business of planning and building a new city while the old still trembled and burned. There was little looting and pillaging.”

Stories are told about my great-great uncle, Tom (who is responsible for me writing Folsom’s 93 in the first place) and his role in the quake. Tom was a teenager in 1906 and his brother (or father—not sure which) was the fire chief of San Francisco—or maybe he was the police chief at the time . . . Anyway, Tom and his friends navigated the city on roller skates, collecting and delivering bodies to the morgue. Between the earthquake and the fire, the death toll reached well over 3,000 and over half of its 410, 000 residents became homeless.

The reprieve from crime didn’t last long. Gas-pipe thugs terrorized the already-stricken residents of San Fran and soon, it was business as usual.


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So you say you’re innocent, huh?

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I’m often asked if I believe any of Folsom’s 93 were innocent. “Absolutely,” I usually reply, but can I prove it? Possibly, but when we’re talking about crimes from well over a hundred years ago, original evidence is long gone. Early investigation methods didn’t include the use of crime scene tape, latex gloves, or handy Ziploc bags to preserve and protect evidence. And DNA? Forgetaboutit! That technology came in the mid-1970s. Universal fingerprinting didn’t come along until the 1940s and before that, correctly identifying suspects by their prints oftentimes proved to be unreliable and inaccurate. At the turn of the 20th century, “beyond a reasonable doubt” didn’t exist and a few of the 93 hung by the threads of circumstantial evidence.

Little could separate the guilty from the innocent: a strand of hair resembling the victim found on or near the suspect, association with known criminals, or the color of your skin . . .

Not surprising, many of Folsom’s condemned minorities were doomed the moment of arrest; referred to in the newspapers as the N-word, half-breeds, or ignorant. Even their court-appointed attorney didn’t always have their client’s best interests at hand, or they themselves experienced backlash over representing a minority. The language barrier provided another opportunity for the law to take advantage of a foreign-born suspect, especially since interpreters were few and far between. Investigators easily manipulated an interrogation or testimony by using words the accused couldn’t comprehend.

Judges also didn’t sequester juries to the extent they do today, nor were the juries protected from “tampering.” After the selection of the 12 peers, newspapermen often printed the full names of the jurors in the next day’s issue. Jurors were even often caught dozing off, or snoring away during the trial. Did the judge reprimand the sleepy juror? No.

For some, the appeals process didn’t offer much hope either. Defense attorneys often bowed out after a jury found their court-appointed client guilty. The condemned man had only the hope that the governor would heed his plea for clemency or pardon.

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Throughout the course of my research, I struggled to see how some of these men could be found guilty. I think it’s ignorant to assume they each received a fair trial and due process of the law. Today, technology has aided investigators when solving crimes and in many cases, free the wrongfully convicted.

 The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to proving the innocence of those convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Since its start in 1992, the organization has exonerated 268 people, including 17 who sat on death row. Despite the advances in crime investigation, it’s apparent these methods can’t always stop innocent people from going to prison and for some of Folsom’s 93, this potentially life-saving technology came too late.


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I have the “Folsom Prison Blues” blues . . .

I have a confession to make. No, it’s not the murdering kind that many of my once 93 guys made. Mine may be more shocking, actually. Ok, here goes.

I have never listened to “Folsom Prison Blues.”

There, I’ve said it. And I’m not ashamed—I even feel better.

Let me begin with some background: Johnny Cash performed at Folsom prison on November 8, 1966 and later recorded his album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968. Many people think the musician served time at Folsom, possibly because of this mug shot:

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(He did in fact spend time in a Texas pen for drug possession charges). In his book, Folsom Prison, Jim Brown explains that Cash had this mock mug shot taken as a joke.  Brown notes that the bandage is presumably designed to make people think guards roughed the singer up a bit. Saul Holiff, son of Cash’s one-time manager, Jonathan Holiff, donated this “mug shot” to the Folsom Prison Museum in 2007.

So what’s my angst with the song? It developed over time. My book covers the years of 1895-1937 and when I began my online research, “Johnny Cash” and his 1960s hit, “Folsom Prison Blues” dominated the results. I promised myself (and everyone else) that I’d give it a listen one of these days. I meant it, too.

As time went on and more Johnny/Folsom stuff kept infiltrating my research, I grew bitter, determined to show that Folsom prison is more than just a song. People assume I’ve heard this popular prison tune and are usually flabbergasted when I tell them the truth. I’ve evolved into one of those curmudgeons, stuck in their ways; holding onto an irrational gripe about something silly, for no apparent reason. When I toured the prison this last January, we strolled past the spot where the concert took place. When the guard pointed it out, you can bet I rolled my eyes. I know, it’s terrible. I developed this absurd hated for a song I’ve never heard.

For those of you who don’t have this illogical aversion to “Folsom Prison Blues,” I’ve included a link to several renditions of this song. Knock yourself out.

TELL ME: HAVE YOU HEARD THE SONG? DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE VERSION?


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A Creative Escape Attempt

Many considered Folsom prison to be the “end of the line.” For some, that weighed heavily on their minds.

The formidable, gray granite walls and dark cramped cells did nothing for a prisoner’s morale. The prison was far from inviting, but would gladly swallow inmates up. Convicts spent much of their idle time formulating plots to escape: hiding in dark corners or under floorboards, taking prison officials hostage, or simply sneaking away from the yard. Folsom’s history is littered with tales of escapes, some successful, others not.

Prison authorities were well-aware of this and considered it when selecting a locale for the penitentiary. They chose the area based on several components: the rich granite deposits, the  proximity of the American River, and the harsh surrounding terrain. Inmates saw these as inconveniences. On top of that, sentinel guards stood watch in towers holding gatling guns, trained to spot (and shoot) a fleeing inmate.

Folsom inmates were surrounded by reasons to not escape, yet it didn’t stop men from trying.

Carl F. Reese and a companion robbed a California theater in 1930, making off with nearly $4000. Captured in Waco, Texas, Reese returned to California to face trial. He failed to break from the county jail after cutting a hole through the brick of his cell using a sharpened file. Perhaps he knew escaping from Folsom prison wouldn’t be an easy task.

Nevertheless, he gave it the old college try.

In September of 1932, guards reported Reese missing after he didn’t return from his work in the quarry. Searchers found a hole cut in the wire fence near the powerhouse, by the canal. Guards discovered Reese’s body on the bottom of the canal, his shoes weighed down with iron bars.

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Using a rubber football bladder, Reese contrived a sort of diving helmet, complete with a glass eye piece. A rubber tube inserted into the helmet acted as a valve to provide air which was then attached to a tin can so it could float above water. Reese also fashioned an air pump out of a bicycle pump. He then used iron bars to weigh himself down, with the intention of walking along the bottom of the canal to freedom. Warden Court Smith surmised that the valve failed to work, therefore, allowing water to pour into the convict’s helmet. Unable to swim to the top due to the heavy weights in his shoes, Reese drowned.

Considering the amount of items used, it could be assumed that Reese’s escape plot began to take shape the moment he stepped into the prison, collecting the parts and tools to construct his makeshift scuba suit. Officials found a second helmet on the edge of the canal, apparently abandoned by a companion who witnessed the suit’s inventor drown. Probably a wise decision.


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Any Last Requests?

Image—Folsom Death House, circa 1933

“Any final requests?” Some of these men never thought about this until asked the question. Warden James Johnston in 1912 granted most requests (within reason) while refusing those that involved drugs or alcohol, sometimes even tobacco. The condemned inmate also received two final meals: dinner and breakfast. Typically, the dinner came with music from a phonograph that the warden brought in. For many, the night carried on with music, singing, and noshing on a lavish dinner.

27—Edward Delehanty

Number 27, Edward Delehanty asked for pies, cakes, chickens, candies and other delicacies. “Fetch on yo chicken and chocolate cake and bring me a watermelon so big I can hide mah head in it.” Fellow inmates played guitars and banjos while Delehanty danced. That night in 1912, the usually dark and cold Condemned Row brightened with laughter and singing. Delehanty then fell morose and without touching the food, insisted Warden Johnston give it all to the musicians.  As a final contribution Delehanty asked officials to put a record containing William J. Bryan’s speech, “Immortality.”

54—Charles Peevia, alias Charles Gafford

Charles Peevia, Folsom’s 54th execution, dined on pork chops and watermelon.

37—Kosta Kromphold

Kosta Kromhold, Folsom’s 37th execution, hanged for killing a police officer.  He requested to hear the tune, “If I only had a thousand Lives to Live.”

28—Jacob Oppenheimer

Jake Oppenehimer, number 28, spent his last night smoking cigars and listening to his favorite music. “Play lively tunes,” he ordered, particularly favoring John Philip Souse’s band selections. “Taps” ended the concert at nine o’clock and the doomed man fell asleep with a handkerchief over his face. He decided to forgo his last breakfast, as his stomach ached from the rich foods and candies outside supporters sent to his cell the day before. The usual breakfast consisted of pancakes, ham, eggs, and coffee. Although bacon, omelets, and toast were often served in addition to the usual fare.


61—Anthony Brown, 63—Walter Burke, 65—James Gleason, 64—James Gregg, 62—Roy Stokes

In 1930, when Walter Burke and James Gregg, two of the five men executed for their role in the Thanksgiving Day Riot of 1927, learned they could request anything for their final dinner, they ordered an elaborate feast. Burke called for chicken croquettes and Gregg for bacon and eggs. In addition, their riot cohorts, Anthony Brown, James Gleason, and Roy Stokes savored sweet potatoes, baked squash, bread and butter, peach pie and homemade donuts and coffee. In the morning, they enjoyed a hearty breakfast of cereal, fried eggs, fried potatoes, corn griddle cakes and maple syrup, peaches, hot muffins, buttered toast and, coffee.

57—Willard Shannon

Number 57, Willard Shannon had toast, strawberries and chocolate. A borrowed phonograph played “The Sidewalks of New York,” over and over again in Shannon’s cell while he sat smoking nervously and listening, waiting for the death hour.

2—Ivan Kovalev

There were some who couldn’t stomach the idea of eating just before dying, many refusing to partake in the privilege. Ivan Kovalev, executed in 1896, declined his last meal. The warden then offered him whiskey. He opted for a glass of milk.

69—Wilbur McCabe

Quite possibly, one of the strangest requests came from Wilbur McCabe, number 69 in 1931, who asked for a head of lettuce. He of course, received it.

55—Ray Arnold

Although not all requests involved food and entertainment. In 1927, Ray Arnold became the 55th execution after a jury found him guilty of complicity. Stoutly declaring his innocence, he stood on the scaffold, legs and arms bound, and made his final request:

“I am innocent. Please cut this noose into 13 pieces and give one to each juror and the judge who convicted me.”

The State Board of Prison Directors refused to honor his request.

WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST REQUESTS BE?


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Do You Know Your Prison Lingo?

I hope not. However, should you find yourself in the hoosegow, refer to this list of early prison lingo. I imagine the list has grown and changed since the 1920s, but at least you won’t look appear too much like a fish . . .


Fish: newcomer at the prison

Shive: knife, dirk

Coppers: credits for good behavior. Full credits shortened a 50 year term to 29 and 10 months.

Harness Bull: uniformed policemen

A Snitch: Person who tell tales to guards

Stool pigeon: a convict spy

Butcher: surgeon

Hole/Down Below: Dungeon

Croak: to kill

Stiff: corpse, a fellow convict

Pill: shot of dope

Bug house: insane asylum/hospital

Screw: insane inmate

Snowbird: Morphine user. Morphine was called “snow”

Gun: hypodermic needle

Jacket: strait jacket

Hooks: handcuffing a man by the wrists and hoisting him up so only his toes only touch the floor.

Jolt: a term in jail

Sleep: a one year term

Prowler: burglar

Sneaks: rubber soled shoes

Lump: lunch

Blowin’ a Pete: blowing a safe

A grand: $1000 (this may seem obvious now, but it originated in the slammer)

At the Springs: in the strait jacket

Straighten the screws: treat the mentally ill


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Toys Made by Prisoners: Would You Buy?

“Oh, look, Susie! Your dolly even comes with her own mug shot and fingerprinting kit!”

Perhaps like the American Girl dolls, prison-made ones would come with names like “Back Alley” Sally, Machine Gun Mary or Rachel the Rat. (Folsom’s Condemned Row came to be known as the “back alley”).

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Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but in 1921, Folsom prison warden Court Smith, proposed opening a toyshop at the prison. Smith and San Quentin’s warden, James Johnston, both recommended the men would receive compensation for their work and hopefully learn skills to find legitimate jobs once released from the clink.

The idea creates quite a picture in one’s mind: the calloused, scarred hands of hardened criminals making dolls and stuffed animals for children; bolts of floral-patterned fabric lining the gray granite walls and colorful paper decorations hanging from the ceiling.

Surely, there would be jovial Christmas tunes playing in the background. Instead of letters to the North Pole, children everywhere would address their holiday wish list to Repressa, California.

At Folsom, inmates were used to working. They basically built the prison themselves, as well  as all later additions using the granite quarried from the surrounding area. For a brief time, Folsom housed a furniture shop and at San Quentin, scores of inmates produced jute mill bags. Using all convict labor, the toy factory would have been built using stone from the quarry and employed prison stonemasons, machinists, and eventually, manufacturers.

The proposed factory failed to receive approval from Legislation, who felt there would have been too much competition from Germany and other foreign countries to warrant the idea. So unfortunately, finding a rare Folsom “Sandy The Squealer” doll with a anchor tattoo stitched into her arm, isn’t going to show up at the Folsom Prison Museum.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF PRISONERS MAKING TOYS?


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The “Crime Germs”

In 1921, George C. Henderson, editor of the Oakland Tribune in California wrote an article entitled, Queer Kinks in Convicts’ Brains: Train Robbers Are Prison Heros;[sic] Poisoners, Murderers Spurned; “Blood Hunger” May Be a Disease

“Criminals think their criminality is a talent; psychoanalysts think it is a disease; police officers say it’s just natural meanness; prison authorities say it is a result of economic and social conditions, while the general public—doesn’t think.”

Henderson posed the question that perhaps a “crime germ” infected criminals that “twists man’s brain into queer kinks and causes him to think on the bias . . .” Many of us wonder what these “kinks” are and if they even exist. Henderson asked, “Is this strange quality of beastly perversion inherent in some individuals?” Henderson did have his theories and he also discussed how different criminals ranked on the “respect chart” at Folsom and San Quentin.

Brutal murderers: Henderson proposed there is the possibility of a rogue germ running rampant in the brain of a murderer. His other theories included:

  • Blood Hunger: Like a disease, this is much like a drug habit. The first kill is always the hardest, but it almost always yields a thirst for more. The addiction takes hold and the one-time killer now murders wantonly and even joyfully.
  • All in the Family: The apple may not fall far from the tree. This made itself apparent in the case of Lloyd Majors and his two sons. The elder Majors hanged for a brutal murder in the late 1800s, when his sons were babies. As the boys grew, they too, became murderous bandits.

These types of vicious murderers and rapists were regarded with more contempt among “respectable” highwaymen, swindlers, con men and bad check artists. In Henderson’s eyes, the poisoner was the “most despicable and disgusting of all assassins,” (aside from the degenerate murderer). This type of murderer typically attacks family members for money or revenge. Fellow prisoners hated these men because of their “sneaky” crimes.  “The more courageous “cold steel” killers look upon him with disgust while the highwaymen spit upon him in the yard. Some weird, savage, beastly strain must run in the blood of such a one.”

Lure of the Desperado: Henderson opined that train bandits and stage coach robbers suffered from the “love of adventure” kink. Many of these criminals started out as daring highwaymen for the thrill and excitement; murder, being the last thing on their minds. However, after having to shoot to save themselves from capture they gradually turn into killers. “There have been many instances where the highway robber had displayed chivalry and generosity. The same energy directed into legitimate channels would undoubtedly make the courageous thug a leading citizen,” wrote Henderson.

George Sontag, famous murdering desperado of  the 1880s who participated in Folsom’s first mass escape attempt in 1893, only to be wounded by gun fire from guards.

Gun Toters: These men were considered heroes among the prison crowd. “. . . young, fearless, hardy fellows who went out armed with revolvers and did not hesitate to shoot when the command of “hands up” was not obeyed.”

Embezzlers and Forgers were shunned. “Fine threads of gold and silver bind the “kink” in the embezzler’s brain.” Fellow prisoners shunned this type of criminal for their lack of courage to wield a gun or engage their victim in a battle.

Burglars: This type of criminal earned little respect among his prison peers, “because it requires much less courage to burglarize a place than it does to hold up a man at the point of a gun on the street.” Burglars ranged from the casual tramp to the accomplished crook or drug addict.

Henderson listed what he felt constituted “crime germs”: Laziness, Greed, Ignorance, Uncleanliness, Selfishness, Drunkenness, Depravity, Idleness, False Pride, Lust, Envy, and Drug Addiction.

“These are the “germs” whose virulent poison may send a son or daughter to prison or to the gallows. They begin as harmless little bugs. In many cases they do not produce tragic results. And then again the bite may be deadly.”

His “anti-toxins” consisted of Industry, Generosity, Knowledge, Cleanliness, Unselfishness, Sobriety, Purity, Employment, Humility, Spirituality, Fellowship, and Character.

In 1921, Folsom prison housed each of the above-described criminals. Today, you won’t find the highway men or stage coach robbers at the 130 year old prison. Much different classes make up the prison now, particularly gang factions that include the Mexican Mafia, the Nuestra Familia, and the Black Guerrilla Family. Two white gangs also contribute to the mayhem: the Aryan Brotherhood and Nazi Low Riders. Oh, and did I mention the Chinese gangs?

The criminals of Henderson’s time may have changed, but his crime germs and anti-toxins could arguably still exist.


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An Extraordinary Find

Everyone in Folsom’s 93 is dead. That makes it difficult to score an interview with them, which would be very helpful. I’m forced to rely upon items they’ve left behind. Letters, newspaper articles, transcripts and other legal documents are my means of “getting the story.” I’ve also been lucky enough to find descendants of these men, their victims, or former Folsom employees, who have shared some stories with me. When early Folsom staff retired or resigned, they often took with them items; keepsakes from the prison. At the time, they seemed nothing more than a souvenir, but as years went by and they passed away, the items remained stored away and forgotten. Julie Davis of the Folsom Prison Museum said that Folsom antiquities have turned up at garage sales—sold to someone for just a few dollars. If we’re lucky, the buyer sees the  significance of the item and brings it to the museum.

Imagine my delight when a gentleman named John Ackerman emailed me with his extraordinary find: A small book documenting the first 14 executions at Folsom prison. His Great-Grandfather, John Klenzendorf served as a Folsom prison guard at the turn of the 20th century. In 1903, Klenzendorf found himself thrust into the middle of a prison break where 13 inmates escaped and only 6 were recaptured. Two of the six hanged for their roles in the break that left a prison guard dead. Inmates took Klenzendorf, the warden, and other guards hostage as they fled the prison. The escapees let Klenzendorf go the following day, one of the last hostages to be released.

It appears Klenzendorf kept his own journal of the executions while he served as a guard. This book is actually an address book. If you look closely at the top picture, you’ll see the alphabetical tabs on the right side. From 1895 to 1902, Klenzendorf documented the executions by listing their name, height, length of the rope, and a brief story of the man’s crime. The top picture is of John Craig, Folsom’s 3rd execution, yet this journal lists him as number four. I find it very peculiar that Klenzendorf wrote the wrong date in his book, as I can only guess he witnessed the execution. My theory is that Paulo Kamaunu’s (#4) original execution date got recorded, which did come before Craig’s. Kamaunu’s date changed after he lost his appeal.

I don’t believe it’s unusual guards kept these kinds of personal documents. Executions during this time were still a fairly new practice in 1902 for Folsom prison, even though men had been the guest of honor at these “neck-tie parties” in California since 1851.

I’d love to get my hands on this book, but I’ll have to settle with admiring it from afar since it resides a couple thousand miles from me. I’d like to thank John for contacting me and supplying the wonderful photos of it. John will be meeting with Jim Brown, curator of the Folsom Prison Museum to determine more of the history behind the journal. I think I’m just as anxious as John to hear what he learns. It’s always great to encounter people who appreciate the historical value of these items and want to continue to preserve it. Thanks to John and Jim, this piece of history will be saved.