Unlocking History

California prisons evolved to handle youth

Crimes committed by youth ranged from murder to theft but without alternatives, most ended up in San Quentin or Folsom prisons. 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 (separation) of youthful prisoners from the older ones. But among these younger prisoners, I would allow more freedom than the adults. I would separate the better class of convicts from those who are more depraved (who should have) greater restrictions. To carry out successfully the idea of reform, there should be another yard or enclosure (where) should be erected a reformatory for all the boys and young men. (It could also serve those) prisoners who show penitence for their crimes, (offering) hope that they may (reenter) society,” wrote San Quentin Warden J.P. Ames in 1880.

His report goes on to promote the benefits of a classification system for different levels of offenders.

“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 (youth). There are confined here many (youth) who should be under the care of some benevolent institution, instead of the state prison,” he wrote.

Others call for separate yards

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.

“(Last year) the Board recommended an appropriation for (enlarging) the prison yard and (erecting) suitable buildings (for) 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.

Chaplain champions separate institutions for youth

San Quentin Prison Chaplain William H. Hill was passionate about the need for establishing a state-run institution solely devoted to young offenders. He oversaw the Boys’ Department but believed it wasn’t adequate.

“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. They are marched in a body, separately from the men, from their cells to the library in the morning; (then) to each of their meals, where they do not sit with or speak to the other prisoners. At night (they) are marched to their cells; where each has a separate cell.”

In 1884, Chaplain Hill continued to push for a separate institution.

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

Again, in 1885, he pushed the idea of a reformatory model for youth.

“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 reformation of (youth). The state prison is no place for them,” he wrote.

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

“Though it may be called a ‘twice told tale,’ I (am) again pleading for the establishment, by the state, of a reformatory for these juveniles. It is apparent state prison is no place for young offenders if permanent reformation is (the goal),” he wrote.

The end of the first separate yard

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 those under 21 years of age have since been ranked as men (now working) in the jute mill,” Hill wrote.

There were over 200 men aged 21 or younger at San Quentin with the youngest being 12. There were 1,377 people incarcerated in the prison at the time. Of those, 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

In 1891, James Ledger, 19, was convicted of burglary and sentenced to three years in San Quentin. 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. Assuming he would return to San Francisco to offload his pilfered plunder, they waited.

“In each (burglary), entrance (was) by the same means,” reported the San Francisco Call, Oct. 5, 1894. “Chief of Police Kidward of San Jose sent (details) of the burglary to San Francisco Chief Crowley. Detectives Bee and Gus Harper (immediately identified the) burglar (as) Ledger.”

On the lookout, Detective Harper spotted Ledger 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. He now had a gun.

“Harper grabbed him and (pushed him inside a store) to handcuff him (but) Ledger showed fight,” reported the newspaper. “Before (Ledger) could pull (a gun) out of his hip pocket, Harper had his out. Ledger grasped Harper’s revolver by the handle (trying) to wrench it out of his hand.”

The detective shot Ledger in the hand during the struggle. Subdued and handcuffed, they found stolen loot in a box Ledger attempted to discard. He had more shoved in his pockets, including diamonds he’d pried loose from their settings.

His trial was swift with Ledger receiving a lengthy 30-year sentence.

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.”

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, 25, died in San Quentin of consumption (tuberculosis), just two hours after (receiving) a pardon from acting Governor Porter,” reported the Mill Valley Record, June 3, 1910. “Realizing he had a short time to live, (Crowley wished) 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 remains were shipped to Oakland.”

Young murderer claims abuse

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

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 said she sent him to the ranch in hopes of reforming him since he’d started hanging around with a bad crowd.

Hankins spun a tale about the crime, claiming unknown men attacked Morse and he only grabbed the pistol to scare away the intruders. After they fled, he said he took the money so they wouldn’t return and get it. None of his story matched the evidence.

Eventually, Hankins confessed, but claimed he was abused by Morse. On the day of the murder, the suspect said Morse attacked him and Hankins shot him in self-defense.

The court didn’t buy the story. After all, numerous witnesses said Hankins 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, tucked away his money, but it was all under the watchful eye of Hankins.

“When the two got home, Hankins stole Morse’s pistol and shot him from behind. (Hankins) 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 the next day,” according to newspaper accounts.

Lawyers requested the boy be sent to a reform school, but their request was denied.

“The judge considered the offense too grave and opportunity to escape too frequent,” reported the San Francisco Call, Oct. 26, 1904. “Hankins said he expected to fare worse.”

Short escape

Richard Colvert, an 18-year-old convict at San Quentin, succeeded in eluding 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 (officers) were immediately sent in pursuit. When located in the brush near San Rafael, he made no resistance and went quietly back to prison.”

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.

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 said in his confession.

The delivery boy ended up being someone he knew, but it didn’t make a difference to Bundy.

“I met him about 100 feet off Pasadena Avenue and he recognized me. We walked up together and he had a flashlight. He let me take it and I was flashing it around,” Bundy said.

When they reached the delivery address, Bundy hit him twice on the head with the ax handle. He then dragged the victim to a ravine where he 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 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. “Hollcroft reached for a gun. Both began firing. After the fourth exchange of shots, Hollcroft fell across the counter mortally wounded. Loomis escaped but was captured by the police an hour later and confessed.”

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. Two years earlier, he served a sentence in Whittier.

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,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, Jan. 3, 1919.

Duran, 32335, was received at San Quentin on Feb. 7, 1919, on two convictions of violating Section 28 of the Motor Vehicle Act. He paroled in 1921 and was discharged from parole in 1922.

Read part 2.

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

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