Unlocking History

Correctional Officers have long walked state’s toughest beat

Historic photo of prison staff holding guns.
Early San Quentin prison staff, undated. (William B. Secrest Collection.)

Correctional officers in California have walked the toughest beat in the state since the prison system was founded with the first prison ship, The Waban. Tough conditions and even tougher clients have kept training in the forefront for correctional careers. The following stories describe some of the dangers faced by early prison staff.

Officer repeatedly stabbed in 1899

An offender in the Jute Mill at San Quentin had a habit of wandering into areas deemed off-limits to inmates. An officer searching for the wayward man soon found himself in a life-threatening situation, most likely the target of retaliation.

Sketch of man with well-groomed mustache. Also a sketch of one man attacking another, while a third man rushes them with a cane.
Guard James McDonald and a depiction of the attack by Oppenheimer, with Guard Yoho breaking it up, 1899.

The details of the May 16, 1899, attack were recounted in vivid detail in regional newspapers.

“Jacob Oppenheimer assaulted guard James McDonald in the San Quentin jute mill and inflicted wounds that in most cases would have proved fatal,” reported the Marin County Tocsin, May 20, 1899.

“Oppenheimer was in the habit of wandering off to a remote lavatory instead of using the one assigned. (McDonald) reported him for this breach of discipline the day before but the prisoner (claimed it was a mistake).

“On the morning in question, McDonald found Oppenheimer away from his station (and) in the forbidden territory.

“The convict was ordered to accompany him to the head officer, which he sullenly obeyed, and the two (began walking). As they reached an unfrequented spot in the mill, the felon drew a knife and sprang upon his intended victim. Before McDonald could defend himself, the knife was twice buried in his (chest).”

Despite his wounds, the officer fought back. The commotion drew the attention of another incarcerated worker, who ran to get help.

“(McDonald) grappled with his assailant. Though weakened from his wounds, he (gave) enough resistance to give Guard Yoho sufficient time to reach him. (Yoho knocked) Oppenheimer to the ground just as he was preparing to drive the knife home once more. Guards assisted the wounded man to the (prison) hospital, where he was examined by Dr. Lawlor,” according to the newspaper.

Fighting for life

“His fingers were badly cut, both lungs were punctured and the exterior membrane of the heart injured. The doctor (said) the wounds (would be) fatal, and District Attorney Molsaac was hurriedly sent for to take the dying declaration,” the newspaper reported.

A minister performed last rites but the officer wasn’t done fighting.

“McDonald saw his grief-stricken family, received the last rites of the church, and was made as comfortable as possible. But as the afternoon passed, (he started to) fight for life. A trained nurse was procured from the Waldeck Hospital and (everything was done to save his life). The chances of a favorable outcome are now very bright,” according to the newspaper.

According to news account, McDonald was a longtime Marin County resident. He had previously served as foreman of the Novato basalt quarries.

Yoho’s quick reaction saved life

Yoho described the attack as well as how other incarcerated workers reacted.

“I had all I could do to control myself sufficiently to keep from hitting Oppenheimer two or three times and settling him,” Yoho told the San Francisco Call, May 17, 1899. “(It) maddened me (to see) Oppenheimer’s fiendish grin as he drew the knife through that defenseless man’s fingers (and) the blood spurting three feet. The other convicts were (agitated), but kept good order and we had no trouble with them.”

McDonald’s condition worsened then began to improve.

“The news comes from San Quentin that Guard McDonald will certainly recover. His condition took a turn for the better (and) he will soon be able to be up,” reported the Press Democrat, May 27, 1899.

The Board of Prison Directors recommended a pardon for Donati Probasco, who ran to get help when he saw the attack. Probasco had served 11 years of a 21-year sentence for murder.

“The recommendation is made because he informed guard Yoho of the attack and thus saved McDonald’s life,” reported the Marin Journal, Dec. 14, 1899.

On May 9, 1901, Probasco was pardoned.

“When Probasco was released today, he was immediately escorted by a group of guards to McDonald’s house, where a glad reception was given him by the guards,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, May 10, 1901. “For three hours he was entertained and banqueted. When he left, he (was given) a substantial purse raised for him among the employees of the prison. He was loaded down with letters of recommendation and a position will be secured for him.”

Folsom officer stabbed in neck

While attempting to break up a scuffle, Correctional Officer Ed Haggerty was ambushed. The scuffle was a ruse by a man armed with an inmate-manufactured knife seeking to emulate Oppenheimer.

“Frank Mitchell whipped out a knife and made a vicious lunge at Haggerty’s heart. Haggerty stepped to one side, receiving the full force in his neck, the knife sinking to the hilt. Haggerty sank to the ground, and Mitchell, casting aside the dagger, slunk through the crowd, hoping to conceal his identity. Had he been dressed as they were, Mitchell would never have been discovered. But, a trustee who had seen the whole affair noticed, Mitchell wore a red shirt – the badge of a desperate criminal. Haggerty’s assailant (was the only one wearing) that color in the crowd. With this clue, Mitchell was easily captured,” reported the San Francisco Call, Jan. 26, 1900.

The officer was lucky.

“Haggerty today was resting easily, though his condition is critical. The knife missed the jugular vein by a fraction of an inch. Mitchell was sent up from Sonoma County three years ago to serve a 12-year sentence for burglary. Ever since his incarceration, he has been distinguished for his violent, implacable temper. (Officials believe) the attempt on Haggerty’s life was influenced by Mitchell (trying) to rival (Oppenheimer’s) record,” the paper reported.

Toughest beat leads to 1904 officer injury

Oppenheimer was still in San Quentin five years after attacking McDonald. This time, he turned his murderous intentions to Guard Ben Merritt.

“Oppenheimer (assaulted another) guard at San Quentin, (causing) a head wound (requiring) 15 stitches,” reported the San Francisco Call, Jan. 16, 1904. “Each day the convicts who occupy cells in the incorrigible row are taken out one at a time and exercised. As usual, this procedure was gone through Thursday night.

“Nothing unusual occurred until Merritt unlocked the cell of Oppenheimer. The convict was standing in the rear of his narrow cell and (rushed) Merritt. He caught the guard with hands about the throat and choked him.

“Merritt’s threw the convict back with such force that Oppenheimer’s head hit the edge of the large iron door of the cell. Oppenheimer fell to the floor, unconscious. He was hurriedly put back into his cell for fear he might be (faking). The prison physician was then summoned, and upon examination found a wound (on his head) and was stitched up.”

Partly due to Oppenheimer’s persistent staff assaults, the legislature passed a law in 1905 making an attack on a correctional officer a capital offense.

Oppenheimer continued his anti-social behavior and was eventually sentenced to death. On July 11, 1913, the 41-year-old Oppenheimer “went to his death on the gallows at Folsom prison,” reported the Morning Union.

Who was Oppenheimer?

Mugshot of Jacob Oppenheimer with 6791 inmate number
Jacob Oppenheimer, circa 1910.

Dubbed the “Human Tiger,” Oppenheimer had a long criminal history.

Born in San Francisco in 1872, he had one honest job. A 20-year-old Oppenheimer worked as a messenger in the city. Unfortunately, he saw opportunities for crime rather than a career. He was quickly fired after assaulting a business man.

1892 Tries cutting throat of manager of Western Union, also robs Telegraph office and escapes with cash

1895 Robs saloon keeper John McIntosh and robs another man in Oakland

He didn’t always work alone. The Ross brothers helped with the saloon job while Berry Harland rob the Oakland man.

In August 1895, he was sent to Folsom State Prison to serve a 50-year sentence. The sentence hinged on the testimony of Walter Ross, one of his accomplices.

Somehow, three years later, Walter Ross was also sent to Folsom Prison. Seeing the man who helped put him behind bars was too much for Oppenheimer. Seizing the first opportunity for revenge, he killed Ross.

Oppenheimer was found guilty and sentenced to 50-years-to-life at San Quentin. That’s where he attacked guards McDonald and Merritt.

Attacks eventually lead to death penalty

Newspaper photo of man framed in a circle with the words Francisco Quijada above it.
Inmate Francisco Quijada was killed by Jacob Oppenheimer in 1911.

On Aug. 14, 1907, Oppenheimer escaped his cell and stabbed inmate George Wilson with a bread knife. For this crime, he was sentenced to hang. His victim survived.

While awaiting execution at Folsom prison, he killed inmate Francisco Quijada in 1911.

“Assistant Turnkey Frank Estudillo, accompanied by a trustee, opened the cell doors of the four men in the condemned corridor for purposes of ventilation. (After his door opened), Quijada sprang to the center of the corridor, shouting a challenge to Oppenheimer,” reported the San Francisco Call, Sept. 20, 1911.

“Oppenheimer replied (with) a sudden rush from his cell. Before Quijada could (defend himself), the point of a sharpened bit of iron, six inches in length, had pierced his breast below the heart. Estudillo separated the men and placed Quijada in his cell,” according to the newspaper.

“Turning to Oppenheimer, the turnkey said, ‘Give me that, Jake.’ (Oppenheimer) calmly surrendered the weapon, which he managed to fashion from a short iron bar”

After securing Oppenheimer, Estudillo checked Quijada, who said he was “a little” hurt, but died before the doctor arrived.

Oppenheimer was executed in 1913.

Officer killed at Folsom prison quarry in 1938

Robert Sterling, serving a life sentence for murder, was working in the Folsom prison quarry when he killed two people.

Using a pickax, he attacked Charles McKnight, felling him with a blow to the head, according to the Madera Tribune, Feb. 24, 1938.

Grainy photo of man with words Robert Sterling under his picture.
Robert Sterling from The Times, San Mateo, Feb. 25, 1938.

Guard Willard Johnston rushed to McKnight’s aid. Trying to disarm Sterling, they struggled but the officer was hit in the head.

“Johnston died in the prison hospital two hours later. Sterling’s rampage was halted by a rifle bullet fired from a gun by Guard A.C. Darrington. The slug struck Sterling in the left shoulder and he was taken to the hospital.”

Johnston was 49 and had worked at the prison for five years.

Warden Clyde Plummer said Johnston was “one of the finest men on the grounds,” according to the Folsom Telegraph, Feb. 25, 1938.

Sterling wasn’t executed, instead dying from tuberculosis the following year in the prison hospital.

The Sterling attack was the first serious trouble since the deaths of Warden Clarence Larken, Officer Harry Martin and two inmates during an attempted prison break Sept. 13, 1937.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor


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