Unlocking History

Correctional Officers have long walked state’s toughest beat

Men in hats, jackets and ties sit or stand in front of a prison gate.
Folsom Prison staff, circa 1900.

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

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.

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

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.

“Guard James McDonald Assaulted while on Duty in San Quentin Prison,” reads the headline of the Marin County Tocsin, May 20, 1899. “Early last Tuesday morning, Jacob Oppenheimer, a convict of the most desperate class, assaulted guard McDonald in the San Quentin jute mill and inflicted wounds that in most cases would have proved immediately fatal.”

According to the newspaper, “Oppenheimer systematically disobeyed rules and among other things was in the habit of wandering off to a remote lavatory instead of using the one to which the men in his section were assigned. (McDonald) had reported him for this breach of discipline the day before but the prisoner had satisfied the head officer of the mill that a mistake had been made.

“On the morning in question, McDonald found Oppenheimer away from his station at the machinery and going in search of him, found the man, as expected, in the forbidden territory.

“The convict was ordered by the guard to accompany him to the head officer which he sullenly obeyed and the two walked in the direction of that individual. As they reached a rather unfrequented spot in the mill, the felon drew a knife and sprang upon his intended victim. Before McDonald could make an effort to defend himself, the knife was twice buried in his breast to the hilt.”

The officer fought back, despite his wounds, and the ruckus drew the attention of another inmate who rushed to tell an officer.

“(McDonald) grappled with his assailant and though weakened from his terrible wounds, made a stout enough resistance to give Guard Yoho sufficient time to reach him and fell 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. It was found that he had been stabbed three times in the body and once in the leg.

“His fingers were badly cut also by seizing the bare knife blade while it was still in the hands of his murderous assailant. Both lungs were punctured and the pericardium or exterior membrane of the heart injured. The doctor at once pronounced the wounds necessarily fatal, and District Attorney Molsaac was hurriedly sent for to take the dying declaration. The wounded man told his story of the assault substantially as above,” the newspaper reported. Other news reports indicate he suffered seven stab wounds.

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

“McDonald saw his grief-stricken family, presumably for the last time, received the last rites of the church, and was made as comfortable as possible, everyone supposing that his profound weakness would shortly deepen into death. But as the afternoon passed on, his vigorous constitution and splendid courage began to assert themselves in a fight for life. He gained strength appreciably and with it renewed confidence. A trained nurse was procured from the Waldeck Hospital and nothing that the State could do to save the sufferer’s life has been left undone. The chances of a favorable outcome are now very bright,” according to the newspaper.

“McDonald has lived in Marin county for many years. At one time, he was foreman of the basalt quarries at Novato. Whatever his occupation, he has always earned the reputation of absolute trustworthiness and fidelity. As a guard at San Quentin prison, he was a loyal and efficient servant of the State, one in whom the authorities could repose implicit confidence.”

Sketch of man in hat and high collar.
Guard Samuel Yoho stopped the attack.

According to reports, Oppenheimer was serving a sentence of 50 years at Folsom prison and in 1898 had “murdered a fellow convict in cold blood. A strong effort was made to secure a capital conviction, but one juryman held out for life imprisonment and finally swung around the other eleven. In order that he might not pose at Folsom as an example of a prisoner who had practically escaped punishment, he was ordered transferred to San Quentin.”

Yoho described the attack, how other inmates reacted and his own difficulties at restraining himself in the heat of the moment.

“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. “The fiendish grin on Oppenheimer’s face as he drew the knife through that defenseless man’s fingers and saw his hand drop to his side with the blood spurting three feet simply maddened me. … The other convicts were greatly excited, but kept good order and we had no trouble with them whatever.”

McDonald’s condition worsened then began to improve.

Jacob Oppenheimer, circa 1899.

“The news comes from San Quentin that Guard McDonald, who was stabbed by convict Oppenheimer in San Quentin penitentiary, will certainly recover. His condition took a turn for the better on Wednesday, and Dr. Lawlor is of the opinion that he will soon be able to be up,” reported the Press Democrat, May 27, 1899.

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

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

On May 9, 1901, Donati C. 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, and when he left he took with him 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 in 1900

While attempting to break up a scuffle between two inmates, Correctional Officer Ed Haggerty found himself ambushed, facing the sharp end of a knife. The scuffle was a ruse by one of the convicts, armed with an inmate-manufactured knife, who sought to emulate Oppenheimer.

“Quick as a flash, (inmate Frank) Mitchell whipped out a knife and made a vicious lunge at Haggerty’s heart. Haggerty stepped to one side and received the full force of the thrust in his neck, the knife sinking to the hilt. Haggerty sank to the ground, and Mitchell, casting aside the dagger, slunk through the crowd of excited convicts, hoping to conceal his identity amidst the throng. Had he been dressed as they were, Haggerty’s assassin would never have been discovered, but a trustee who had seen the whole affair noticed that Mitchell wore a red shirt – the badge of a desperate criminal. Haggerty’s assailant alone of the crowed in the yard at the time wore a garment of that color and with this clue Mitchell was easily singled out and 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 was made from a file and is nearly 12 inches in length. It missed by a fraction of an inch severing the jugular vein, and to this fact Haggerty owes what hope of life remains. Frank Mitchell, would-be assassin, has the reputation of being one of the most desperate convicts in Folsom. He 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, and the stabbing of Haggerty was the fulfillment of a number of threats made by him. (Officials believe) the attempt on Haggerty’s life was directly influenced by a desire on Mitchell’s part to rival the record made by convict Oppenheimer,” the paper reported.

Inmate chokes officer in 1904

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

“Convict Jacob Oppenheimer, the terror of the California State Prison, made another assault upon a guard at San Quentin prison late Thursday night, and as a result he is still in a dazed condition from a wound on his head which resulted in 15 stitches to close,” 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 (Officer) Ben Merritt … unlocked the cell of Oppenheimer. The convict was standing in the rear of his narrow cell and with a wild rush, pounced upon Merritt. He caught the guard with hands about the throat and choked him. Merritt’s superior strength was quickly brought to bear and he threw the desperate 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 in an unconscious condition and was hurriedly put back into his cell for fear he might be shamming. The prison physician was then summoned, and upon examination found a wound (on his head) and was stitched up. … Several times he has assaulted guards. A few days ago he secured a piece of paper and made a fire in his cell.”

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

Oppenheimer’s attacks come to an end

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 at 10:30 o’clock,” reported the Morning Union.

Jacob Oppenheimer, circa 1910.

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

Born in San Francisco, Sept. 19, 1872, he got his first job as a messenger but was fired in 1892 “when he tried to cut (the) throat of Manager Wehe of the Western Union.” On May 1 of that same year, he “held up (a) telegraph office on Sutter Street, San Francisco, and escaped with cash.”

In 1895, along with the Ross brothers, he robbed saloon keeper John McIntosh. That same month, along with accomplice Berry Harland, he robbed a man in Oakland. He was sent to Folsom Prison to serve a 50-year sentence in August 1895. One of the Ross brothers testified against Oppenheimer during his trial.

In 1898, he attacked and killed new inmate Walter Ross, believed to be the same man who testified against him a few years earlier. Oppenheimer’s sentence was changed from 50-to-life and he was shipped off to San Quentin.

Less than a year after arrival, he stabbed Officer James McDonald. In 1904, he attacked another officer in his incorrigible cell.

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, he 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 on Sept. 19, 1911.

“Assistant Turnkey Frank P. Estudillo, accompanied by a trustee, … opened the cell doors of the four men in the condemned corridor for purposes of ventilation. Immediately upon his door being opened, Quijada sprang to the center of the corridor and shouted a challenge to Oppenheimer: ‘Come out and fight, Jake,'” reported the San Francisco Call, Sept. 20, 1911.

“Oppenheimer replied (with) a sudden rush from his cell. Before Quijada could raise a hand in defense, 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. Turning to Oppenheimer, the turnkey said, ‘Give me that, Jake.’ (Oppenheimer) calmly surrendered the deadly weapon, which in some unknown manner he had managed to fashion from a short iron bar, with a wrapping of pickings for a handle. When Oppenheimer had been locked up, Estudillo turned to Quijada. ‘Are you hurt?’ asked the turnkey. ‘A little bit,” was Quijada’s reply,” the paper reported.

The turnkey sent for the doctor but Quijada died before he arrived.

The pair had been living for several years in the shadow of the gallows while the constitutionality of a California statute under which they were sentenced has been pending in the United States Supreme Court.

“It has been the open boast of Oppenheimer that he would ‘get one or more men before (stepping) on the gallows.’ This has sent fear into guards and other convicts at Folsom because the ‘Tiger’ had always been known to make good his word. On account of this threat, the officials of the prison have kept a double watch upon him of two guards. … According to the prison officials, the ‘Tiger’ has been defiant in the face of all punishment,” the paper reported.

Oppenheimer was executed in 1913.

Inmate kills officer at Folsom prison quarry in 1938

Robert Sterling, a 31-year-old inmate out of Sacramento County, was working in the quarry at Folsom State Prison when he used the pickax to kill a correctional officer and seriously injure another inmate.

Already serving a life sentence for murder, Sterling “ran amuck with a pickax,” according to the Madera Tribune, Feb. 24, 1938. “He attacked Charles H. McKnight, serving a robbery term from San Mateo county, felled him with a blow to the head.”

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

Correctional Officer Willard Johnston rushed to McKnight’s aid, trying to disarm Sterling. They struggled but Sterling swung the pickax, striking the officer in the head.

“(He) fractured (Officer) Willard Johnston’s skull as the officer sought to subdue him. Johnston died in the prison hospital two hours later. Sterling’s rampage was halted by a rifle bullet fired from a gun by (Officer) A.C. Darrington. The slug struck (the inmate) 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.

Tuberculosis claimed Sterling’s life. He died in 1939 in the prison hospital.

The incident 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.

This wasn’t the first time Officer Darrington took action from the tower.

Officer C.C. Chappel saw an inmate who was supposed to be on work duty at the quarry instead relaxing near the prison powerhouse. When asked why he wasn’t at the quarry, the inmate responded with fists.

“Nicolo Palmeri, 40, serving a life sentence from Amador County for murder, was shot in the left shoulder shortly after noon today by (Officer) A.C. Darrington when the convict struck … Chappel with his fist,” reported the United Press, Sept. 20, 1932. “At the prison hospital it was said that Palmeri’s wound was not considered serious. … Darrington saw the attack from his tower and opened fire.”