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 Ones Who Got Away

I apologize for not posting more often, but I am engulfed in writing something else, namely, my book. Which is really a very good thing considering I have a deadline looming over me. I’m currently working on Folsom’s 19th and 20th executions; men hanged for their participation in Folsom’s first prison break that left a guard dead.

#19, Joseph Murphy

#20, Harry Eldridge

Thirteen men escaped that day in 1903. Only six were actually recaptured (one in 1910), one died from a self-inflicted bullet, and five never saw the inside of Folsom prison again. What happened to these men? It is rumored that a couple sustained injuries during the battles with sheriff’s men who pursued them, but no one recovered their bodies in the hills where they fought.

As a lover of fiction (both reading and writing it), it’s hard not to spin stories in my head about these liberated convicts. For a while, a trend in writing, seemed to be authors picking up the story where history left off—or where literary geniuses closed the chapter. Consider Ahab’s Wife, Mr. Timothy, and even Girl with the Pearl Earring. What’s the story behind the story, or in the last example, the painting?

Have you ever wanted to rewrite history? Other writers have proven it can be done. If you’re seeking an idea, sometimes looking back in history will spark something. Find a story that needs an ending and write it. For these six men who secured their freedom in 1903, their stories ended in some way or another, but they’re not told in newspapers or books. I’m thinking perhaps when I’m finally done sharing their tales according to the history books, I’ll work on writing the rest of their stories.


Prison Guards and Self Defense by Jason Brick

Correctional Officers at Folsom prison do not carry guns while on duty. They abandoned this practice around 1915, after #30, Frank Creeks killed a guard and made off with two gatling guns the guard had been bringing inside the prison. 
#30, Frank Creeks
When I met with Folsom correctional officers earlier this year, I learned that guards do carry pepper spray and a whistle. Other than that, they have only their wits and quick thinking to rely on. Today, I wanted to bring you another guest post from Jason Brick regarding prison guard self-defense. Take it away, Jason . . .

Self-defense for prison guards centers around setting things up so the guards rarely need to use self-defense.

In the beginning of modern law enforcement, this meant finding large, intimidating, violent guards and making sure they were the only people carrying weapons. That deterrence — combined with what amounted to carte blanche in using the weapons — kept guards reasonably safe by making sure people rarely started a physical confrontation.

As our society became more modern and aware of prisoners’ humanity, training changed its focus — but continued to focus on preventing altercations. Corrections officers received training in joint locks, defensive tactics and weapons common on the tiers — such as batons. In addition, they learned team tactics intended to stop a potential problem before it began. This ranged from how to avoid getting in one another’s way, up to spacing and psychological considerations to keep a prisoner off balance and intimidated.

Modern training incorporates concepts from military combatives, boxing, wrestling, judo and jui jitsu. It’s similar to what you might get in an applied self-defense course, with two major differences.

Focus on prevention — the bulk of corrections combatives focuses on setting up a scenario so you never have to become violent. This can include your positioning, the positioning of other officers, verbal redirection and the construction of a facility to give all advantages to the officers. Every once in a while a prisoner will decide to fight anyway, but this keeps most people in line.

Submission over destruction — aiming to get prisoners to settle down, rather than cause injury. The best example of this is the baton training. If you took a stick or baton class for self-defense, you’d learn to target the elbows, wrist, knees and head — areas that are easy to destroy that can take somebody out. In corrections training, officers learn to hit the upper arms, thighs and the broad planes of the back. These areas hurt, but don’t injure. Submission holds and joint locks take the same focus.

One final note is that the techniques officers learned are for the day-to-day control of prisoners. If a prisoner actively attacks a corrections officer, all bets are off. That officer is — generally — allowed to use whatever techniques he needs to get to safety. Retaliation is never tolerated, but if a prisoner gets injured while trying to injure a guard, that’s not considered the guard’s fault.


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 Ink is (nearly) Dry

It looks like my book may finally have a home. I will be working with Linden Publishing/Craven Street Books to publish Folsom’s 93! Right now, the scheduled release date is spring of 2013, which gives me until next spring to have a finished manuscript. Plenty of time, right? Geez, I hope so. Wish me luck—I have a book to finish!


Why Back Matter Matters

First of all, you may be wondering what in the world is back matter. Well, it’s all the stuff following the main text of a book that usually consists of the index, epilogue, afterword, etc. I recently attended a workshop at the Northern Colorado Writers Association about back matter, taught by Natasha Wing, a children’s book author. Natasha routinely includes back matter in her books; anywhere from an activity or lesson, to maps or a glossary.

As I learned in the class, back matter is ideal for nonfiction, particularly, historical nonfiction like Folsom’s 93. In the course of researching for the book, I have accumulated nearly 900,000 words of notes. Obviously, it will need to be molded into a readable, coherent form of nonfiction, but what happens to the fascinating stuff that doesn’t make it into the book? If you’ve been a regular visitor to my site, you already know that I’ve shared many of these things on my blog. But there’s so much more.

I plan to have sidebars throughout the book, but that still is a fraction of what I have. I’d like to talk about Folsom’s cemetery, Folsom prison today, the Folsom Prison Museum, and the current status of the death penalty . . . to name a few.

Back matter consists of, but is not limited to: maps, bibliography, photographs, afterword, appendix/addendum, author notes, epilogue, acknowledgments, index, timeline, and glossary. These give the reader an opportunity to learn more about the subject matter and all in one place. It authenticates you as a researcher and as a professional; that you are an expert in your field. According to Wing, it also increases the value of the book, which is always a good thing.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to include everything that I’d like to in Folsom’s 93. So any leftover Folsom tales and tidbits will be found on my blog. No matter what you’re writing, keep everything! You never know when it can become back matter that matters.


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.