Unlocking History

Silent screen stars gave voice to inmate rehabilitation

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Pubic and Employee Communications

From Broadway actresses to silent film stars, early performers tried to raise awareness about efforts to turn inmates into productive citizens.

Actress pleads for teenager’s parole

Stage star Olga Nethersole sought clemency for Percy Pembroke in 1910. She was also in a handful of silent films in addition to her Broadway performances.

Woman in beaded gown sits on a chair, staring into the camera.
Olga Nethersole was a famous stage actress in 1910 when she sought clemency for a teenager who was once attached to her acting troupe.

Pembroke found himself in San Quentin after he was convicted of highway robbery. At first, he was tried for murder when he and an accomplice robbed Thomas Cook, who died as a result of his injuries. Pembroke was finally acquitted on murder charges after three trials, but was convicted of holding-up Edward Stanley. The 15-year-old Oakland boy was sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin.

“Olga Nethersole, the actress, before her private car left Sacramento yesterday morning, mailed to Governor Gillett a formal petition for clemency in behalf of … Pembroke, now a convict in San Quentin, but once attached to the same troupe in which she was the star,” reported the Sacramento Union, Jan. 10, 1910. “The letter follows a personal call made upon the Governor by the actress late Saturday and just a few hours before Miss Nethersole appeared at the Clunie theater to an admiring audience.”

Despite her personal plea, the Governor said she needed to follow proper procedures when seeking clemency.

“Miss Nethersole was told by the Governor, after the former had made an eloquent plea for clemency, that the state board of prison directors had jurisdiction in the matter, but he promised to lend his assistance in having the case investigated, if the actress would follow the proper procedure. Hence the formal petition,” the paper reported. “It appears that Pembroke, after leaving Miss Nethersole’s company several years ago in Oakland, fell in with evil companions and was sent to San Quentin on a felony charge. Upon her recent tour to this coast the actress heard of his misfortune and visited him in prison, promising him that she would take up his case with the Governor. ‘I am sure that the man would profit by a parole,’ she told the Governor. ‘He is not bad at heart and he has had a lesson.'”

Nethersole’s efforts revolved around the age of Pembroke, who was 15 when he took part in a hold-up with an accomplice.

“Therefore his trial and punishment should have been a matter for the juvenile court,” she told the prison board of directors over breakfast at the warden’s residence, according to the Sacramento Union, Jan. 17, 1910. “It was a special dispensation for her to be allowed to address the members of the state board at all on behalf of a prisoner. … The members of the board plainly were impressed by her unusual knowledge of criminology and criminal law, and they engaged her in spirited conversation after leaving the warden’s house.”

After she met with the board, she visited Pembroke.

Grainy black and white photo of young man wearing jacket and tie.
Percy Pembroke, 1910.

“Miss Nethersole’s youthful protege was brought out for an interview with her and a heart-to-heart talk at which none was present but Warden Hoyle,” the newspaper reported.

Her efforts paid off months later when he was paroled.

“Percy Pembroke … following the intercession of Olga Nethersole, (was granted) parole,” reported the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Aug. 4, 1910.

Nethersole had a taste of incarceration herself when she was locked up for performing in and producing the Broadway play “Sapho” in 1900.

The play earned critical acclaim but was also controversial. She and the male lead were arrested for “violating public decency.” “Sapho” was turned into a silent film in 1913.

Her experience with law enforcement and the judicial system helped push Nethersole into supporting social reform. When the first world war broke out, she served as a nurse in London. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1920 for her work establishing the People’s League of Health.

She continued in her efforts to promote social causes, earning her the title Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1936. She died in 1951 at age 83.

Three men and a woman all wear hats and stand in front of a prison building.
From left are San Quentin Warden James Johnston, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Pietrzak (only name given). Undated. Courtesy San Quentin Prison Museum.

Pickford, Fairbanks photographed at San Quentin

Mary Pickford was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” often cast in roles far younger than her years. The silent screen star was regularly in the headlines for founding her own film company, later creating United Artists and volunteering to help civilian efforts during the two world wars. Somehow, the highest-paid actress in the country also found time to entertain inmates at San Quentin.

“San Quentin: Inside the Walls,” published in 1991, features a photo of the smiling Pickford alongside San Quentin Warden James Johnston and Fairbanks. No date is provided for the photo but Johnston served as warden from 1913 until 1924.

Why were they at the prison? Pickford and Fairbanks, along with Charlie Chaplin, actively sold liberty bonds in 1918 and 1919 to raise funds to fight the first World War. Warden Johnston was similarly engaged in the war effort so it’s plausible Pickford and Fairbanks visited the prison for one of the warden’s Liberty Bond rallies.

“A rousing Liberty Bond meeting was held … in San Quentin, which was addressed by Warden James A. Johnston and a speaker supplied by the Speakers’ Bureau in San Francisco. The audience numbered about 400 people and hundreds of dollars were subscribed before the meeting closed. The San Quentin band marched down to the hall and played several selections before the speaking commenced,” reported the Marin Journal, April 18, 1918.

Pickford rallied in San Francisco as well, drawing huge crowds. In one month, she sold two million liberty bonds.

Much like their San Francisco friends on the outside, San Quentin’s inmates were generous in their bond purchases.

“Prisoners at San Quentin have purchased $2,050 worth of Victory Liberty Loan bonds and have assisted in putting the town of San Quentin over the top. ‘These men without freedom are able to place a full valuation upon liberty,’ says Warden J. Johnston. ‘In proportion to their ability, they have, throughout the war, contributed in a more liberal way than most others. They have bought continuously of all war savings stamps and practically all of those with money have purchased Liberty bonds.’ San Quentin has never failed to go over the top and the officers and employees have contributed 100 percent. It already is nearly 300 percent oversubscribed,” reported the Sacramento Union, April 26, 1919.

According to Warden Johnston, in his 1937 book “Prison Life is Different,” the duo were on hand to tour the prison.

“(They) did not see quite as much of the prison as we planned because stormy weather made it hard to get about,” the warden wrote. “It was a gray day of wind and rain and more rain, but ‘America’s Sweetheart’ brought a ray of cheer and brightness. … Mrs. Johnston invited them to our home for luncheon and I remember how our daughters just home from high school were all a-flutter when they met Doug and Mary.”

Actress Mary Pickford and director Frances Marion sit on their personalized canvas chairs on the set of the United Artists war drama “Straight is the Way,” 1920.

Prison visit helps earn Academy Award

Marion Benson Owens, the first woman to win an Academy Award for screenwriting, was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. Born in 1888, the San Francisco native began working in Hollywood under the pen name Frances Marion.

Before talking pictures, she and screen star Mary Pickford formed a close friendship and Marion became her exclusive screen writer.

She received her first Academy Award for Best Writing Achievement in 1930 for “The Big House.” To make her story about prison life realistic, she visited San Quentin. She won her second Academy Award for “The Champ” the following year. In 1937, she penned the book “How to Write and Sell Film Stories.” She died in 1973.

Incarcerated actor brings craft to prison

Robert Griffin, alias Leroy Waltham, was an accomplished stage actor who ended up serving a year in San Quentin for bigamy.

Griffin was a veteran of the 1898 Spanish-American War’s Philippine campaign, in which he was “badly wounded,” landing on the government’s pension rolls, according to the San Francisco Call, Sept. 13, 1908. He was 31 years old at the time of his arrest.

“He has written a clever (short) play, ‘The Sea Breeze,’ that was presented by the inmates of San Quentin (on) New Year’s eve,” the newspaper reported Jan. 2, 1909.

Seeking Griffin’s release was former acting partner Mabel Violet Webber.

“Griffin’s sight is gradually forsaking him and in a short time, oculists declare, he will be totally blind,” the paper reported. “Mrs. Webber played in historical productions with Griffin on southern stages. She considered him a great actor and during his trial in Oakland for bigamy she made a strong effort to prevent his incarceration. Having failed in that she has constantly endeavored to secure his pardon.”

Webber’s efforts were not in vain.

“An officer of the state board of prison directors called upon Mrs. Webber yesterday afternoon and informed her that recommendation for a commutation of Griffin’s sentence would be made by the board to Governor Gillett.”

Max Malini amazes with magic

Illustration of man on stage with words Malini across the top and side. Across the bottom it reads "The Magician."
Max Malini show card.

Four years after magician Harry Houdini wowed inmates with his performance at San Quentin, another magician took to the stage behind the walls of the famous institution.

“Professor Malini gave the inmates of San Quentin an exhibition of magic art (on Sunday, Dec. 14),” reported the Marin Journal, Dec. 18, 1919.

“Grouped in the prison theater as his audience were 1,700 men garbed in convict gray,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 15, 1919. “He fairly startled some of his audience, who had been behind the bars for so many ears that Malini was like a mystic to them.

“He ran the full gamut of tricks and the men in gray laughed and cheered. The show was made possibly by the effort of Chief of Police D.A. White, through the cooperation of Warden James A. Johnston and the prison officials. It was under the immediate direction of Captain Randolph.”

Malini performed for presidents and royal families in multiple countries.