Unlocking History

California state prisons evolve to handle young offenders, part 1

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Historic photos compiled by DJJ
and Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer

Crimes committed by youth ranged from murder to theft but without alternatives to state prison, most ended up in San Quentin or Folsom. We look at some of those early offenders and the crimes that landed them in the state’s two oldest prisons. Even after the creation of reform schools, it took years for the courts to catch on to the concept. This is the first in a four part series looking at the Division of Juvenile Justice.

Boys’ Department is early attempt at reform

Early on, wardens recognized the need to keep career criminals away from youth offenders in state prisons. The state created a San Francisco-run reform school, but it wasn’t managed by the state. This led prison officials at San Quentin to call for change.

“I strongly advocate the almost complete isolation of the more youthful prisoners from the older ones. But among these younger prisoners, I would allow more freedom … than among the adults. I would separate, as far as practicable, the better class of convicts from those who are more depraved, and upon these latter I would place greater restrictions. To carry out successfully the idea of reform, there should be at this place another yard or enclosure, in which should be erected a reformatory for all the boys and young men, and for that class of prisoners who, by their deportment, show penitence for their crimes, and give encouragement to the hope that they may be reclaimed to society. Viewed from a reformatory standpoint, this separate yard is an absolute necessity. As the prison is now constructed, it is almost impossible to protect the boys from the contaminating influences that … exist in all penitentiaries. I use the term ‘boys’ in this connection, as there are confined here many who, in consequence of their youth, should be under the care of some benevolent institution, instead of the state prison,” wrote San Quentin Warden J.P. Ames in an 1880 report.

The state prison faced heavy public criticism, many calling the institution a training ground for future career criminals. In its defense, in 1881, the state prison board reminded the governor and state legislature of the need for a separate yard for younger inmates.

“In their annual report of 1880, the Board of Directors called the attention of your excellency to this vice in our penal system, and recommended an appropriation for the enlargement of the prison yard and the erection of suitable buildings therein, as an indispensable prerequisite to a proper classification of the convicts,” according to an 1881 prison directors’ report.

For a time, San Quentin created a Boys’ Department, much like the Women’s Department. But after only a few short years, under Warden John McComb, it was closed. The Boys’ Department was overseen by the prison chaplain.

San Quentin Prison Chaplain William H. Hill was passionate about the need for establishing a state-run institution solely devoted to young offenders.

“So far as the prison management is concerned, every precaution possible is taken to keep the adults and boys separate,” he wrote in 1882. “The (boys) are under the charge of a special guard or policeman. They are marched in a body, and separately from the men, from their cells to the library in the morning; from thence to each of their meals, where they do not sit with or speak to the other prisoners; and at night are marched to their cells under the same charge; where each has a separate cell. … The only time then when they do meet or associate with the men, is in the shops or factory, and anyone who visits either, will see in a moment how meager must be the opportunities they can then have for converse.”

“They should be placed somewhere, for the protection of the community, and where some opportunity would be given them to reform, and be fitted to become useful citizens of the state and nation, when again released,” he wrote in his 1884 report.

“I beg leave to renew the recommendation made in former reports of the necessity for the establishment of a state reformatory school, for the confinement, instruction, and, so far as possible, the reformation of these juvenile delinquents. The state prison is no place for them,” he wrote in his report of 1885. “The Industrial School of San Francisco, even if properly conducted, is not a state institution, and so necessarily limited in its accommodations.”

In 1886, the prison chaplain again requested a reform school.

“Though it may be called a ‘twice told tale,’ I trust you will pardon me for again pleading for the establishment, by the state, of a reformatory for these juvenile delinquents. Though, as I have said before, imprisonment here is far preferable … to incarceration in county jails, or either of the two penal institutions in San Francisco, yet it is apparent, on a moment’s consideration, that the state prison is no place for young offenders, if permanent reformation is … desirable,” he wrote. “A new state prison must be built for the accommodation of juvenile criminals alone.”

By 1888, the Boys’ Department was no more.

“The report here covers only nine months of the year. At the end of that time, as a separate affair, the (boys’) department was discontinued, and the boys, i.e., those under 21 years of age, have since then been reckoned and ranked as men, most, if not all, being engaged in the jute mill. Up to the end of March, the statistics were: Boys in the prison July 1, 1887, 81; added in nine months, 27; discharged, 16; leaving 92 as the number on the 31st of March, 1888,” reported Chaplain Wm. H. Hill.

The youngest inmate was 12, according to the report. Those listed 21 or younger numbered 207 out of 1,377 total inmates. Of all the inmates, 1,096 were serving their first prison term.

The board called for the creation of a reform school near the state’s newest prison at Folsom but it was never built.

Early years saw teens committed to state prison

Two teenage boys were sentenced to four years each at San Quentin State Prison in the 1870s. Pleas for leniency were made on behalf of the offenders, William McGettigan and Cornelius McCarthy, but the judge was having none of it.

Judge Blake said he was sending “no more boy robbers to the Industrial School.”

“Most of the robberies were committed by young men from 16 to 21 years of age and the offense was too grave to warrant any relaxation of judgment in their favor,” reported the Daily Alta California, April 2, 1876. “If they will embark on a felon’s career, they must expect a felon’s fate – the State Prison.”

Young man in hat with San Quentin inmate numbers 14568.
James Ledger was sentenced to San Quentin in 1891 for burglary. After his release, he returned in 1894 on similar charges.

James Ledger, 19, was convicted in 1891 of burglary and sentenced to three years in San Quentin, along with two accomplices. He served his sentence and was out by early 1894.

A few months after his release, San Jose suffered a string of burglaries. It was the same town Ledger hit before. The young burglar hadn’t changed his method of entry so the original San Francisco detectives were alerted. They assumed he would attempt to return to San Francisco to offload his pilfered plunder. Their hunch paid off.

“In each (burglary), entrance had been effected by the same means. The bay window looking into the porch had been forced open by bursting the inside catch,” reported the San Francisco Call, Oct. 5, 1894. “Chief of Police Kidward of San Jose sent particulars of the burglary to San Francisco Chief Crowley. Detectives Bee and Gus Harper concluded from the method of working adopted by the burglar that he was Ledger, who was released from San Quentin a few months ago after serving a three-year sentence for burglary.”

Keeping a sharp eye out for Ledger, Detective Harper spotted him on Fourth Street. But after serving three years with hardened criminals, the now 22-year-old man was not the same run-of-the-mill burglar. This time he was armed and dangerous.

“Harper grabbed him and hustled him into the stationer’s store … to handcuff him. Ledger showed fight and reached for his revolver,” reported the newspaper. “Before (Ledger) could pull it out of his hip pocket, Harper had his out. Ledger grasped Harper’s revolver by the handle and endeavored to wrench it out of his hand. Harper pulled the trigger and the bullet went through the fleshy part of Ledger’s right hand. This made Ledger release his hold of Harper’s gun and he broke from him and drew his own gun.”

Harper tackled the suspect and the two struggled. Ledger tossed a package behind the counter at the store. Detective Bee, who was a block away but noticed a crowd gathering outside the storefront, ran inside and helped subdue Ledger. Inside the package, they found “pieces of broken gold, part of the plunder.” After questioning at the police station, more items were discovered tucked away in Ledger’s pockets. “Loose diamonds, which he had torn out of their settings so as to prevent identification, and a quantity of old gold wrapped in a handkerchief were found in his pockets besides $60 in greenbacks belonging to (one of the victims).”

His arrest and trial made headlines.

“The trial of James Ledger, the youthful burglar who did his best to kill Detective Harper … last month, was commenced yesterday before Judge Belcher and a jury,” reported the San Francisco Call, Oct. 31, 1894. “Detectives Bee and Harper were put on his track … after some $1,500 worth of jewelry was stolen. They met him on Fourth Street one morning and succeeded in arresting him after a desperate struggle, during which Harper was compelled to shoot Ledger in the hand in order to save his own life.”

His trial was swift and he received a lengthy sentence.

“Judge Belcher read the prisoner a severe lecture. He said that Ledger was evidently a born criminal, and his opinion of his character was no lessened by a rumor which reached his ears the other day. His honor said that he had heard that Ledger and two of his pals had registered a nine-pointed oath that if ever they were captured they would kill the arresting officer as soon as they got out of San Quentin,” reported the Call, Nov. 4, 1894. The judge said he wouldn’t take the rumor into account when considering the sentence. “At the same time, he felt that such a desperate young criminal as Ledger ought to be put out of harm’s way. He would be imprisoned in San Quentin for a term of 30 years.”

Ledger remained calm throughout his trial and sentencing, “but when he heard the dread sentence, his fortitude gave way and he fell back in his chair, half fainting.”

Charles Leschi was sentenced to four years at Folsom State Prison for “stealing a horse and buggy from a citizen in Florin,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, June 20, 1899. Leschi is described as a youth. He was taken to the prison by Deputy Sheriff Schwilk.

Pardon comes too late

Cornelius J. Crowley, 17, left his home in Oakland in January 1903 and ended up fighting with two other young men. One of them was killed in the altercation. In 1904, he was sentenced to life in prison for murder. He sought a pardon, claiming he was too young to know his rights in court. Years later, his pardon was granted, but came too late.

“Crowley died in San Quentin last Thursday of consumption (tuberculosis), just two hours after he had received a pardon from acting Governor Porter,” reported the Mill Valley Record, June 3, 1910. “It was the wish of the young man, who was but 25 years of age, and who realized that he had but a short time to live, to die outside the prison walls. His aged father did all in his power to get a pardon and at last his hopes were realized. He came from his home in Oakland to take his son away, but the boy died just prior to his arrival. The old man was heartbroken and hardly able to leave the prison grounds. The remains were shipped to Oakland.”

Young teen boy mugshot with numbers 20863.
Claude Hankins, 14, was admitted to San Quentin in 1904 after he was convicted of murder.

Young murderer claims abuse

Claude Hankins was 14 when he was sentenced to 16 years at San Quentin for murdering George Morse, son of famous Detective Harry Morse of San Francisco.

The young boy had been living with his older sister after the death of their mother. The sister, Mrs. A.C. Webb, said she sent him to the ranch in hopes of reforming him. She was concerned because he had started hanging around with a bad crowd.

“Claude has always been shiftless and was fond of knocking about idle with other boys,” she told the San Francisco Call, July 21, 1904. “He liked cigarettes,  but I do not know that he was given to drinking intoxicating liquors. It was only yesterday that I received a letter (from the ranch), in which (they) wrote that Claude would do nothing and that his employer could do nothing with him.”

Hankins originally claimed unknown men attacked Morse at the ranch. The boy said he grabbed the pistol to scare away the attackers. After they fled, he said he took the money so they wouldn’t return and get it. He claims he left the ranch because he was scared.

Eventually, he confessed to the crime, claiming he was abused by George Morse, his coworker. On the day of the murder, the suspect said Morse attacked him. Hankins grabbed a gun and killed him. The court didn’t buy the story since numerous witnesses said the boy was treated well at the ranch.

According to investigators, Hankins and the victim drove to Marysville on July 19, 1904. Morse withdrew money from his bank and hid it away in his clothing. “Hankins watched the proceedings and when the two go home, the boy stole Morse’s pistol, ambushed him and shot him from behind, after which he took the money, hired a neighbor to drive him to town, registered under a fictitious name at a hotel and prepared to leave for San Francisco on an early train the next day,” according to the Sacramento Union when they recounted the tale a few years later on July 21, 1906.

Lawyers requested the boy be sent to a reform school, but their request fell on deaf ears.

“Counsel for the defense made a strong effort to have the boy sent to a reform school, but the judge considered the offense too grave and opportunity to escape too frequent,” reported the San Francisco Call, Oct. 26, 1904. “Hankins is only 14 years old, but took his sentence like a man. He said he expected to fare worse. … He said he preferred to go to San Quentin because it was nearer to his relatives in Alameda.”

Teens face long sentences at SQ

Richard Colvert, an 18-year-old convict at San Quentin, succeeded in eluding the vigilance of his guards early Tuesday afternoon and for a few short hours enjoyed his liberty in the hills surrounding San Rafael,” reported the Mill Valley Record, Sept. 16, 1910. “His capture was effected on Wolf’s Hill about 8 o’clock of the same evening by a posse of prison guards. … He was missed at the 4 o’clock roll call and several (guards) were immediately sent out in pursuit. When located in the brush near San Rafael he made no resistance and went quietly back to prison. Under the state law he can be sentenced to a seven-year term for attempting to escape.”

A 19-year-old man was sentenced to 10 years in Folsom State Prison in 1909.

Harry Elgin was released on probation several months ago after being found guilty of burglary. He violated his parole by committing a similar crime,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, April 10, 1909.

Sentencing young boys to San Quentin is questioned

William Clancy, a 16-year-old waif from Chicago, whose appearance is that of a 12-year-old lad, will enter San Quentin tomorrow to begin a term for second degree burglary committed at Red Bluff,” reported the San Francisco Call, Oct. 18, 1909. “(The District Attorney of Tehama County) made an affidavit that the boy was 19 years old, which Superior Judge Ellison required before he administered the sentence. Clancy seems to be a runaway from Chicago.”

Tehama County Deputy Sheriff E.B. Mormouth was assigned to take the boy to the state prison but he was vocal in his opposition to the sentence.

“He should have probation,” Mormouth told the newspaper.

Eventually, Governor Gillett stepped in and ordered the boy be sent to Preston.

“William Clancy … will serve out the remainder of his sentence in the Preston School of Industry at Ione,” reported the Union, Dec. 18, 1909. “The order transferring the boy from San Quentin to the Preston school was signed by Governor Gillett yesterday.”

Despite the order, Clancy was still sent to San Quentin.

The probation officer investigated the matter and issued a statement after public outcry.

“Warden Hoyle has written to me that the young prisoner has been given employment in the prison road gang, where he will not be required to work beyond his strength and years, and will have plenty of sunshine and fresh air. He is also permitted to attend school half a day each day,” Probation Officer Christopher Ruess told the San Francisco Call, Jan. 5, 1910.

Newpaper photo of a young man in 1915.
Louis Bundy, 21, was executed in 1915.

Two ‘boy murderers’ hanged same day

Louis Bundy, 21, was executed by hanging Nov. 5, 1915, at San Quentin. He admitted killing 16-year-old Harold Ziesche in Los Angeles two years earlier.

At the time of the murder, the 19-year-old man said he wanted money to buy a Christmas present for a girl. After dinner, he had an idea and quickly came up with a plan. He sawed the handle off a pickax, tucked it under his coat, and set a trap.

“I telephoned to the drug store (from a nearby vacant house) and told them to send a boy up there with a bottle of magnesia and have him bring change for $20,” he told the district attorney in his confession.

The delivery boy ended up being someone he knew. “I have known him … for quite a while I used to go in there and buy newspapers and the night paper and he used to wait on me.”

Ziesche rode his bicycle to make the delivery. “I met him about 100 feet off Pasadena Avenue and he … recognized me and we walked up together and he had a flashlight. He let me take it and I was flashing it around, and we walked up a ways and he said it was dark,” Bundy said.

When they reached what Ziesche thought was the delivery address, Bundy hit him twice on the head with the ax handle. He then dragged the victim to a ravine and bludgeoned him to death with a rock.

Earl Martin Loomis, 20, was hanged at Folsom State Prison on Nov. 5, 1915. He was convicted of killing Mrs. Marie Hollcroft in her Sacramento candy store on Aug. 17, 1914.

“Entering the store, Loomis drew a revolver,” according to the L.A. Herald, Nov. 5, 1915. “Mrs. Hollcroft reached for a gun. … Both began firing. … After the fourth exchange of shots, Mrs. Hollcroft fell across the counter mortally wounded. Loomis escaped but was captured by the police an hour later and confessed.”

Millionaire heir gets 15 years

Herbert L. Repsold, 19-year-old son of a San Francisco millionaire, pleaded guilty to burglary in 1911, earning him 15 years in San Quentin. The teenager had earned the moniker “perfumed burglar” because he left behind “the delicate odor of ‘Caprice’ perfume,” according to newspapers at the time.

“He stole from the house a number of pieces of jewelry and made the mistake of selling them,” reported the Sacramento Union, Feb. 22, 1911. “He had operated in Oakland before he came to this city and put up at the Hotel Sacramento.”

Repsold was cooperative with authorities after Oakland police officers arrested him in Sacramento on Feb. 10.

After learning of his arrest, the U.S. Navy ship ‘Pensacola’ commander requested he be returned to the ship “whence he deserted two years ago.”

His father essentially disowned the young man, having sent him away prior to his arrest.

“He has always been rather wild and indulged in false pretenses even when a little boy,’’ his father told the Sacramento Union, Jan. 12, 1911. “Finally it got so bad that I could not stand him any longer.”

According to news accounts, he hit 11 homes and gave some of the jewelry as gifts to his love interest in Sacramento.

“After his arrest, Repsold had given the officials all help possible looking to the recovery of the stolen property both in Sacramento and Oakland,” the paper reported on Feb. 22. “Judge Hughes frankly admitted that he could not understand why a boy who had every opportunity to get on in life and become a useful citizen should have chosen to lead a life of crime. He was willing to consider his age, but he had talked with the district attorney and with the chief of police and had learned the facts, and he was unable to understand why the prisoner had gone wrong.”

A few weeks later, Repsold’s mother died.

“Mrs. Bertha Repsold, mother of … the ‘perfumed burglar,’ died Monday at the Adler sanatorium. Mrs. Repsold was 49 years old and a native of Germany. She had been ill for five months. Her husband, Amandus Repsold, is a wealthy wholesale liquor dealer,” reported the San Francisco Call, March 18, 1911.

The following year, he lost his father.

“Amandus Repsold, millionaire wine merchant of (San Francisco), died last evening of heart failure,” reported the San Francisco Call, May 20, 1912. “He died in the ambulance.”

Prison life did not sit well with the young man. On Jan. 11, 1913, he managed to escape sometime during the night. He was later found dead.

“A new motive for the daring escape … from San Quentin penitentiary several weeks ago was brought to light last night after his dead body had been found (by fishermen) in the swamps back of Greenbrae, two miles from the prison,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Feb. 7, 1913. “In prison, Repsold had been given work on the prison books, which he manipulated so as to (embezzle) small amounts. The crookedness was discovered. Repsold learned that his petty plot had been discovered and that he would lose his credits and have to serve his full sentence.”

According to prison officials, Repsold never made it farther than two miles from the prison and most likely slipped and fell on the rocks while attempting to get to a boat.

Joy rides land youth in SQ for 10 years

One young man, after numerous brushes with the law, was arrested for taking cars on joy rides on New Year’s Day in 1919. One day later, he was sentenced to up to 10 years in San Quentin.

“Young Auto Thief Gets Stiff Sentence; Clemency Refused,” declared the headline printed in the Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 3, 1919. “Albert Duran, 21, will be taken to San Quentin prison by deputy sheriffs to serve from one to ten years for automobile thefts. The sentence was imposed late yesterday by Superior Judge Gavin W. Craig after probation had been denied the youthful prisoner. Duran’s heavy sentence came just as the authorities were tabulating the theft of 24 machines New Year’s Day. Many of these machines were taken by ‘joy riders’ who abandoned them later and they were recovered. In refusing probation, Judge Craig declared that the prisoner had been before the courts on many occasions and had obtained probation. These periods of probation had not apparently helped the prisoner toward reformation, the court declared.”

The Dorothy Ellingson inmate intake form for San Quentin.
San Quentin intake form for 16-year-old Dorothy Ellingson, known as the Jazz Slayer, circa 1925. She was released in 1932, eventually married and had two children. She passed away in 1967, shunning the limelight after her release from prison.

‘Jazz mania’ blamed for murder

Dorothy Diane Ellingson, 16, confessed to murdering her mother, Anna, on Jan. 13, 1925, in San Francisco. Originally, she was to be tried in juvenile court and sentenced to a reform school, but the judge had other ideas.

“The wheels of justice today began grinding against Dorothy Ellingson, red-headed Swedish girl who killer her mother in a fit of jazz-mania. Judge Frank Muraskey of the juvenile court announced he would refuse the case and force Dorothy to face the superior court, which sentences (those) convicted to prison,” according to the United Press Dispatch, Jan. 16, 1925.

The press dubbed her the Jazz Slayer, claiming Dorothy shot and killed her mother because “she sought to curb” the girl’s involvement in America’s early jazz age, forbidding her to attend a party with older men.

“Joseph Ellingson and his son, Earl, hold that the jazz era, and not his daughter, Dorothy, is responsible for her crime,” reported the Madera Tribune, March 25, 1925.

With the headline, “Jazz youths rounded up,” the Jan. 16, 1925, United Press Dispatch article detailed how police apprehended and questioned “17 (jazz musicians), companions of Dorothy Ellingson, … declaring the men as guilty as the girl, whose crime is attributed to her jazz life.” One of those men, jazz musician Keith Loyd, faced charges of contributing to her delinquency.

Her trial began in March 1925, making national headlines. For a brief stint, the trial was halted so Dorothy could undergo psychiatric treatment at the Napa State Hospital. In June, she was returned to San Francisco to continue her trial. In August of that year, she was sentenced to up to 10 years at San Quentin State Prison for manslaughter. She was released nearly seven years later.

“San Quentin prison gates swung open Monday to release Dorothy Ellingson, youthful San Francisco matricide – and at once she fled in a race of taxis, autos and ferries to elude photographers,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, March 1, 1932.

The United Press wrote, “She wore a brown fur-trimmed coat which her father, a tailor, made for her. Her red hair and brightly rouged lips were all that was reminiscent of Dorothy, once the bright flame of San Francisco’s dance hall and after-midnight life – the Dorothy who shot her mother, stepped over her dead body, and went out partying. Her face was the same expressionless mask it was throughout her trial and imprisonment.”

San Quentin Warden James B. Holohan “described her as a model prisoner,” Madera Tribune, Feb. 27, 1932.

A year later, she was again in the papers. “The young woman, now 24, was arrested early Sunday morning on a charge of grand theft, and admitted, according to police, that she had looted the apartment shared by herself and Miss Mary E. Ellis, of jewelry and clothing valued at $560. The girl was not recognized at police headquarters, having given the name of Dorothy Jentoff, until she had been fingerprinted and photographed,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, March 9, 1933.

The charges were eventually dropped.

“Mary Ellis, who caused the arrest of Dorothy Ellingson on a grand theft charge, has stated she will not prosecute the former ‘Jazz Girl,’ and that as far as she is concerned, the case is closed. ‘It would be no satisfaction to me to send the girl back to prison,’ said Miss Ellis. ‘If she had asked me, I would have been glad to have loaned her the things.’”

According to the Napa Valley Register, Ellingson married Robert M. Stafford, Jr., and began calling herself Diane E. Stafford, so she could start life anew.

“She eventually became a mother of two children and lived a quiet life. The final newspaper notation about Ellingson was of her passing on Sept. 16, 1967,” according to the Register, March 21, 2015.

Read part 2.