Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


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.


Would You Like a Hanging with Your Last Meal?

Hanging or lethal injection?

I’m sure you’re rarely asked that, but if you’re a condemned prisoner in New Hampshire or Washington State, you might be given that choice. (In Utah, an inmate can opt to go before a firing squad if lethal injection cannot be done).

Countries around the world still consider hanging their primary method of execution, but in the United States, lethal injection rules the prison roost. California outlawed hanging in 1937, replacing it with the gas chamber at San Quentin. Other states abandoned this method due to botched hangings, such as when Eva Dugan ended up decapitated in 1930 in Arizona. The idea of choosing how to die may seem like an absurd notion, but for New Hampshire’s and Washington State’s death row inmates, it’s a decision they face.



Length matters. In order to facilitate a “perfect” execution on the gallows,  the weight of the prisoner is taken to determine the proper length of the “drop” through the trap door. Decapitation can result from a rope that it too long. If it’s too short, death (by strangulation) can take up to 45 minutes to occur. Today, sandbags are used for a test run the day before the execution. Much importance is place upon the rope, which should be 3/4-inch to 1 1/4-inch in diameter, boiled, and stretched to eliminate recoiling. At Folsom, executioners soaked the Italian hemp for 24 hours, then stretched it for a number of months before the hanging. Records at Folsom indicate that all 93 men died from “instant broken necks.” Upon arriving at the gallows, the prisoner’s hands and legs are bound and a black cap is placed over their head. The executioner secures the noose around the inmate’s neck and at the warden’s signal, the trap is dropped. Folsom’s noose featured a “submental knot,”  which when placed against the back of the neck, ensured the mostdamage to the vertebrae. Ideally, it brought immediate unconsciousness and death within roughly 9-15 minutes.


Lethal Injection

The United States saw it’s first lethal injection in Texas in 1982. Since then, there have been nearly 1100 executions in the U.S. In fact, tomorrow (April 5th), two lethal injections are scheduled to take place; one in Texas and one in Arizona. So what could go wrong? Plenty. Botched executions happen more often that you might think. The Death Penalty Information Center lists only 31 most seriously botched cases of lethal injection since 1982.

Strapped to a gurney, the condemned prisoner is injected with a harmless saline solution, then as witnesses watch, he or she is given an anesthetic to put them to sleep. Pavulon or pancuronium bromide, is then administered to paralyze the entire muscle system and stop the inmate’s breathing. The piece de resistance is potassium chloride to stop the heart. Botched executions can result from a number of reasons. Oftentimes, they occur due to technician error. Because of medical ethics, doctors are not allowed to administer the lethal drugs. Inexperienced technicians sometimes inject the poison into the muscle, missing the vein. In 1990, an inmate suffered excruciating pain when the inserted needle pointed at his hand, and not his heart. Another culprit of a botched job is a history of intravenous drug use by the inmate. Damaged veins can be uncooperative, causing long delays in the execution.  Some of these condemned men actually helped their executioner find a usable vein. Another reason, are prisoners having unforeseen reactions to the drugs causing painful spasms.  For some, death took up to an hour and thirty minutes to occur.

Every form of legal execution in the U.S. (gas chamber, electrocution, lethal injection, hanging, and firing squad) sports a history of mistakes. I imagine however, the condemned prisoner isn’t necessarily thinking about the potential mistakes in his execution, but the mistake that ultimately led him to this decision: Hanging or lethal injection?

The Modesto Evening News said of Folsom’s 45th execution:

“Kels did not die hard, the guards said who had seen men die thus. To the novices in the death chamber, it seemed that he did die hard—terribly hard. The slightly twitching shoulders, the swaying legs that writhes at first—it must be some such horrible picture that Alex Kels carried in his mind of the death of Ed Meservey, his victim.”

Source for some of the information contained in this post: Folsom Prison Museum and Death Penalty Information Center