Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part IV: Conditions and Treatment

This is the fourth and final post in my series of articles concerning the grave and disturbing issue of overcrowded prisons. As I’ve mentioned before and you’ve likely heard it elsewhere, is that the U.S. Supreme Court deemed that the current California prison population violates the 8th Amendment, falling under “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Operating at a 200% capacity, the California penal system, one of the largest prison systems in country, is struggling to deal with the enormity of their predicament: How will they release 40,000 prisoners in two years? In the meantime, they’re facing a number of problems due to overcrowding with no relief in sight.

According to this article, California inmates are experiencing year-long waits for medical care and a suicide rate that is nearly twice the national average for prisoners. In fact, every 7-8 days, a prisoner commits suicide in California. Also disturbing is that there are fifty sick inmates at a time held in 12 by 20 foot cages for up to five hours as they await medical treatment.

Gymnasiums and other areas designated for exercise and rehabilitation are now used to house 3-tiered bunk beds to accommodate the staggering numbers of inmates. Without the facilities to rehabilitate and educate prisoners, California prisons are creating a revolving door for which prisoners use to constantly reenter. They are not given the skills to become productive citizens once released. In fact, the National Center For Education Statistics, found that 7 out of 10 prisoners were either illiterate or functionally illiterate in 1992.

With the vast number of inmates, the waiting list for prison jobs is a mile long. Many of these jobs are considered “facility support services” that include kitchen duties, maintenance, and laundry jobs. With the recession hitting labor workers the hardest, it’s highly unlikely that these prisoners will find viable work outside of prison. The lack of work, coupled with the frustrations of living like a sardine, there has been a huge rise in prison violence toward one another and prison staff. Fights, riots, and rapes are reported daily.

With the emotional and psychological toll these conditions place on the average inmate, it’s no wonder they exhibit ignorance and apathy toward their situation. They experience violence, sickness (both mental and physical), abuse, and death everyday. And I’m not just talking about hardened criminals—even those serving their first time for relatively small infractions are subjected to these situations as well.

Any increase in funding has not kept up with increase in population. Basic needs are being ignored such as personal hygiene items, medical care, clean sheets and clothing, and bathing facilities. When items such as these become a hot commodity, you can bet there are those who take advantage of that by setting their own “prices” for them, oftentimes, in the form of sex.

While the U.S. “got tough” with crime and waged a war on drugs, little to no thought was designated to the consequences of these so-called good intentions. We wanted drugs and crime off of our streets, but prisons have become these efficient factories of those very things. And the solution is to release 40,000 inmates and hope that they learned enough to not come back to prison? I think what needs to change are what created the problem to begin with: mandatory sentencing, structured sentencing, 3 strikes law, and the war on drugs.

“I was in San Quentin and Soladad prisons. It’s no joke. the world passes you by. guy’s have never seen cell phones. I seen people who where in for violent acts in the 70’s with 5 to life that will never see day light except when they hit the yard because the state of California will not let violent inmates go even after serving 15 to 20 years with good time there’s so many inmates jobs are hard to get so you have to do your full sentence or go to school for your second GED and there’s always the violence just around the corner, the other side of the yard, two tables away in the dining hall. guards fucking with you. Trying to fuck your day up looking for you to make a mistake, even when your trying hard as you can not to do nothing wrong. Drama, Drama, Drama all day all night long day after day same shit different bowl.

–From a prisoner via InsidePrisons.com


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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part III: Minorities

The numbers are truly staggering. As I’ve mentioned in Part I of this series, it is estimated that 1/3 of all black males in the United States will experience a stint in state prison at least once. Also, young black females are the fastest growing population in prison today.

The numbers have been rising for decades and they don’t seem to be slowing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2009, non-Hispanic blacks account for 39.4% and Hispanics made up 20.6% of the jail and prison population.

These disparities between race and ethnicity garner several theories, and researchers who have examined the issue, determined that discrimination certainly plays a role—and not just with the arrest, but also occurring in the pretrial detention, prosecution, sentencing, and release decision-making. In fact, there is very little research available on racial bias in arrests.

In the 1980s and ’90s, minorities experienced the results of the war on drugs more than any other race. In 1999, blacks made up 46% of the sentenced prisoners for drug abuse in both state and federal jurisdiction. Interestingly, the difference in penalties for abusing crack cocaine (mostly used by blacks) and powder cocaine (mostly used by whites) contributed to more arrests and longer sentences for blacks. Federal law states that one gram of crack was equivalent to 100 grams of powder, thus resulting in longer sentences for the crack user.

In 2007, Hispanics made up 40% of federal offenders, a 24% increase from 1991. 48% of those were for immigration violations and 37% were drug offenses. Hispanics offenders are increasing rapidly and have violence rates that are higher than whites, but lower than that of blacks.

The Theories

Conflict Theory: Is said that the social economic forces in a society are the cause of crime; that criminal behavior is the consequence of the conflict which arises between competing groups within society; the haves vs. the have-nots.

Strain Theory: Based on the work of Robert Agnew in the 1930s and ’40s, this theory proposes that social structures in a society lead to deprivations and equality among its population, thus encourage those affected, to commit crime.

Social Disorganization Theory: Proponents of this theory accuse urban decay, or the breakdown of healthy urban communities to be the root of criminal behavior.

Macrostructural Opportunity Theory: Believes that the US is still widely residentially segregated. Proponents of this theory opine that if neighborhoods were more interracial, crime would be less prevalent.

Social Control Theory: This theory is considered one of the more popular theories. It proposes that those who commit crime, lack strong bonds with their social environment.

Subculture of Violence Theory: Anthropologist, Walter B. Miller suggested that the high of rate of crime among African Americans stems from a unique racial subculture that views violence in a different manner than the rest of mainstream America.

Because of the lack of studies and research pertaining to the growing numbers of incarcerated minorities, little is likely to be done to examine and remedy the issue. One blogger, who recently wrote about the same topic, made some logical suggestions:

Systemic problems such as lack of education, lack of community autonomy, and lack of resources, are clearly impacting  these statistics, as is the institution of racism. By putting more emphasis on success in school and programs for workforce development, and putting resources in these communities and in general breathing life and making whole these quite stagnant, at-risk living situations, we could give people the opportunity to break the cycle. Allowing returning citizens basic rights also seems democratic and just.


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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part II: Women in Prison

Not too long ago, according to my blog stats, someone had searched “hot women in prison” and surprisingly, came to Folsoms93.com (This was baffling, since I’ve never written anything about that before). Anyway, I’m sure the inquirer was hoping to find some salacious, not to mention unrealistic, portrayal of women having a great time with one another in prison. I’m assuming that this porn-surfer is completely oblivious to the actual conditions of women’s prisons. Now, I’m not speaking from experience, but from the amount of research I’ve done and from the words of actual female prisoners.

Give me a break!

Today, women are the fastest growing prison population, particularly African Americans. In 1999, the number of drug arrests for women were nearly twice as high than for men, yet twice as many men were arrested for violent crimes. Women are even arrested for simply living with a drug dealer, regardless of whether or not she was involved in the drug business. Sociologists have declared that the war on drugs, quickly translated to the war on women.

When lawmakers created structured sentencing, mandatory sentences, truth in sentencing and the three strikes law, their image of a criminal was a violent male predator, not a first time drug offending female. Many women prisoners, most who have no priors, commit non-violent crimes such as writing bad checks, shoplifting, and credit card fraud. These women often lack meaningful employment and are educational and economically deficient.

And we cannot forget that a vast majority of these women are mothers. Before the war on drugs, judges had the discretion to consider the woman’s crime, along with her family responsibilities, when it came to sentencing. That’s not the case now. According to the National Policy Committee’s 2001 report, almost half of incarcerated mothers have never received a visit from their children. This is due to the proximity of the prison to their homes. Many women’s prisons are located in rural areas and the average inmate’s home is a hundred miles from where they are incarcerated. What’s even more disturbing is that these children are five times more likely to commit crimes and become prisoners themselves.

Central California’s Women’s Facility

Earlier this month, Laura Gottesdeiner’s article in the Huffington Post describes the horrible conditions in Central California’s Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. The prison houses nearly 3,700 inmates which is 180% capacity. Eight women are packed into a cell that is meant for only four. These prisons are designed, built and run by men.  Both former and current inmates report squalid conditions, lack of sanitary needs, and medical treatment is often unavailable or inconsistent. Across the country, these women tell their horrifying experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of the male guards. They are often raped by the guards, who also forced the women to have sex with maintenance workers, other prisoners, and even the prison chaplain. If the inmate becomes pregnant, she often forced to have an abortion.

According to Gottesdeiner’s article, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began rationing supplies for basic needs such as toilet paper, soaps, and toothbrushes in an effort to relieve the painful swelling of the state budget. It has prompted some women inmates to resort to prostitution with guards in order to obtain these items.The Civil Rights Act of 1964, bars an employer from denying someone a job based on their sex, so male guards grossly outnumber their female counterparts.

Women and Prison is a site dedicated to the lives of women incarcerated in the U.S. It is a venue developed in order for the public to hear the voices of both current and former women prisoners, who write about their experiences behind bars, many of which are emotionally difficult to read. Sara Olson, one such inmate wrote an article entitled, The Conditions in Women’s Prisons where she describes the mistreatment that runs rampant in California’s women’s prisons.

I want to make clear that I do believe criminals need to be dealt with, but accordingly. I think it’s ignorant to assume that all women (and male) prisoners have received sentences that fit their crimes. And even if they have, should they be denied their basic needs? Is it acceptable to cram them into cells that can barely accommodate them? Do they deserve to be sexually abused? The U.S. was highly criticized by it’s own citizens for the ill-treatment of foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay, yet fellow Americans are being brutalized daily in both male and female prisons.

As lawmakers and voters, we need to alleviate this epidemic of abuse. Efforts need to be focused on addressing the problems that low-risk women offenders are faced with when it comes to sentencing. Until there are programs to educate and rehabilitate  prisoners, as well as programs to alleviate the economic strain on them, our prisons are going to continue to become broken down institutions of abuse and corruption.


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The Overpopulation of Prisons, Part I

Over the course of my research, I have stumbled upon a topic that we hear about all the time: Prison overpopulation. There are a number of contributing factors to this growing problem and so I thought I’d address them in a four-part series. In today’s post, I’d like to share some staggering facts about current prison population and how the “war on drugs” campaign has packed our prisons with inmates.


The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Russia holds the number two spot. In 1980, there were less than 500,000 Americans in prison. Today, there are 1,404,503 people in state prisons, 208,118 in federal prison, and nearly 6 million on probation or parole. Today’s parole rate is a 59% increase since 1990.

Even with these numbers, crime is down 0.3%—the first drop since 1972. California has reported a 2.5% drop with 169,413 inmates. What’s behind the decrease? The state of California decided to cut the number of low-risk parolees who would return to prison because of technical parole violations. This move can be attributed to the state being ordered in 2009 to reduce its prison population by 30%. That’s 40,000 inmates. The state is struggling to meet such a demand.

Some facts:

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that approximately 1/3 of all black males will experience state prison in their lifetime.

Young black women is the fastest growing prison population.

National spending on corrections in 1980: $9 billion. Today: $60 billion

Much of the increase of prison population can be blamed the on good intentions of the “War on Drugs.”  Forty years ago on June 17th, Nixon was the first to use that term. In 1980, 6% of the prison population consisted of drug offenders—about 19,000. In 1998, there were 237,000—21%. In 2008, there were over half a million people incarcerated for drug offenses, the result of 1.5 million drug-related arrests.

When  a politician decides to get “tough on crime,” it too, contributes to the overcrowding of prisons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about punishing those who commit crime, but those with no prior records are given mandatory sentences, or others who made a small infraction became victims of the “three strikes, you’re out,” law, thus, causing a swell in the already crowded prisons. This tough on crime has quickly become tough on prisons, as well as state and federal budgets. 

Other factors in the overcrowding of prisons consists of, “truth in sentencing” (abolishing parole—inmates serve their entire given sentence) and longer sentences for sex offenders.

In May 2011, The U.S. Supreme Court declared that the overcrowding in California state prisons is cruel and unusual punishment. As mentioned earlier, the state is struggling to figure out how to release 30,000 prisoners in the next 2 years. How will this happen? Governor Jerry Brown is suggesting moving non-violent and low-risk inmates to county jails, or even possibly out-of-state. Prison officials are practically on their hand and knees, asking for more funding to not only build more prisons, but to create educational programs that will reduce recidivism.

There are more factors involved in this ever-growing problem and in the coming days, I will talk about:

Women in prison—the fastest growing prison population

Conditions of prisons and its prisoners

Minorities in prison

Sources: National Policy Committee The Pew Center on the States The U.S. Dept of Justice


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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.


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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.

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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.

Geregac

#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.”

Sloper

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.”

Dale

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.

WHAT WOULD YOUR CRIME NICKNAME BE?


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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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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.

Gray

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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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?