Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


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You Can’t Win, by Jack Black

I just finished this autobiography, published in 1926, by Jack Black, chronicling his life as a petty thief, burglar, and opium addict. Black’s crime career began at the age of 15 and for the next thirty years, he shuffled in and out of jails and prisons, including Folsom. In fact, Black was in the midst of an eight-year term at Folsom when the infamous break of 1903 occurred. Though he didn’t partake in the escape, he and fellow inmates received the brunt of the guards’ anger over the break—in the form of the straitjacket. Guards P.J. Cochrane and Richard Murphy (called “Dirty Dick” by the prisoners) relished in using the torturous device.

“After the break Folsom was hell. The warden and Captain Murphy began taking revenge on friends of the escapees . . . Warden Wilkinson was removed and Archibald Yell of Sacramento, took his place. He had no experience and was forced to feel his way slowly. He had to depend on Murphy. This put him in virtual control of the convicts and his lust for revenge went unchecked. I was on the list and he soon got me.” 

Cochrane, tightening the jacket, said to Black, “You fellows tried to kill me; now it’s my time.” Black endured the “bag” for over three days, lying on the floor of a dark concrete cell. This punishment caused disfigurement, broken bones, and even death to many California prisoners between the late 1800s and 1912 when Warden James Johnston banished it.

Black, considered an “honorable outlaw,” earning the respect and admiration of not just fellow thieves, but lawmen as well, finally kicked the crime (and drug) habit in the mid 1920s. He published his memoir in hopes of warning young men from becoming criminals and dope fiends. He also hoped to change the ways of prisons—show the institutions that the use of cruel punishments and the death penalty did nothing to deter crime; that it merely made men more vindictive and revengeful. Black became an outspoken advocate for prison reform and opponent of the death penalty.

“What, in a nutshell, is my case against the right people? I contend that more laws and more punishment will mean nothing but more crime and more violence . . . We need more emphasis on prevention than on punishment . . . The secret of the cure of crime—if there is one—is contained in a knowledge of its causes . . . The right people are working on the wrong end of the problem. If they would give more attention to the high chair, they could put cobwebs on the electric chair. They lay too much stress on what the wrong people do, not on why they do it; on what they are instead of how they got that way.”

Black, who took care of his friends and harbored no ill-feelings against his enemies, became the librarian for the San Francisco Call after leaving his life of crime. He wrote several articles for national magazines and penned many prison dramas for MGM. Fame and recognition soon dwindled, as well as his bank account, and it is said that in 1932, Black committed suicide by drowning in New York Harbor, although his body was never found.


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The Peculiar Case of Elijah Cravens

Putman

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


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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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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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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.