Unlocking History

Incarcerated San Quentin woman reforms, runs orphanages, oversees jail after release

Mugshots of woman in large hat and with chalk board.
Aimee Meloling and her husband A.W. were convicted in 1905 of burglarizing the rooms of wealthy hotel and resort guests. After her release, she worked various jobs, secured a divorce and ended up as the Alameda County Jail Matron in the 1930s.

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

A 1905 San Quentin inmate managed to turn her life around, later finding herself in a position to help others do the same. Newlyweds Aimee Meloling, a nurse by trade, and her husband Albert were convicted of burglary and sentenced to separate prisons. Aimee was shipped to San Quentin’s Women’s Ward while Albert was sent to Folsom State Prison.

After their release, Aimee continued working on improving herself. She got a divorce, worked for numerous charities serving children and eventually landed a job with the Alameda County Jail overseeing the female inmates.

Aimee Wilkes Henderson was 22 years old when she said “I do” to 33-year-old Albert Webb Meloling in early 1904, according to their marriage license. A year later, the pair were cooling their heels behind bars.

Sticky fingers lead to arrest

The couple had a peculiar habit of picking up more than souvenirs on their vacations.

On March 19, 1905, the pair was arrested after their Los Angeles apartment was searched by police. It appears the husband, who worked at a race track, may have had a gambling addiction.

“In their room the officers found booty valued at $1,500 which has been identified, and other articles evidently stolen, the owners of which have not been found. Meloling and his wife occupied apartments at the Ormonde, on South Hill Street near Seventh.

“He holds a position at the Ascot Park race track and has been plunging heavily there the last two weeks. Within that period, six rooms at the Ormonde have been robbed and by accident the thefts were traced to Meloling and his wife. A search of their rooms disclosed that they had committed a number of burglaries in other parts of the city,” reported the San Francisco Call, March 20, 1905.

Photo of man and woman from newspaper.
Aimee Meloling, right, and husband Alfred. Published June 2, 1905, in the LA Herald.

At the time, plunging meant, “heavy and reckless betting in horse racing; hazardous speculation.”

Police also recovered “three diamond rings, a watch and a large assortment of fine clothing (as well as a) drawer full of silver knives, forks, spoons, etc., much of it bearing the marks of San Francisco hotels and hotels in other cities.”

The first victim was a notable artist who claims various pieces of her custom-painted plates and vases were missing from her apartment in July 1904.

“A large crowd of curious people … thronged the courtroom to listen to the evidence in the case which has proved of particular prominence because of the position of the defendants,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, March 25, 1905. “Mrs. Aimee Meloling was the first to enter the courtroom. She was attended by Police Matron Gilbert, and was followed closely by her husband. The two sat side by side, with the wife clasping her husband’s hand during the entire proceedings. The mother of Mrs. Meloling and the man’s sister appeared later and sat with the defendants.”

The first witness for the prosecution was victim Hallie H. Miller.

“Chinaware, consisting of one hand-painted plate, five decorated plates, two decorated steins and three decorated vases, all of handsome design and magnificent coloring, which were found in the apartments occupied by the Melolings, were produced as an exhibit and identified by Mrs. Miller, who said she painted them,” the newspaper reported. “Mrs. Miller said the bric-a-brac had been taken from her room while she was in Long Beach last July. She said she saw the chinaware in Mrs. Meloling’s apartments recently and that Mrs. Meloling claimed to have received it for a wedding present.”

A few days later, more charges were leveled against the Melolings.

Man with shaved head wears striped shirt. A sign next to his head reads "June-8-05, 6136, A.W. Meloling, Los Ang., Bur'g 2nd deg., Yr. 5, Age 34, Brn. N.Y."
A.W. Meloling was 34 when he was sent to Folsom State Prison in 1905.

“For the second time within less than a week, A.W. Meloling and his wife faced a burglary charge,” reported the Herald, March 30, 1905. “This second charge was referred by Police Officer Ritch, charging Mrs. Aimee Meloling with the theft of a diamond ring from the apartments of Dr. J.G. Robinson at the Ormonde hotel. It was testified by the officers that Mrs. Meloling confessed having stolen the ring and having given it to her husband. (He) then transferred the jewel to Mrs. Ella Thompson, his sister, who had just arrived in Los Angeles on a visit to her brother, whom she had not seen for several years. She knew nothing of the property having been stolen. (The Melolings) were moved from their quarters at the city jail yesterday evening to the county jail, where they will await trial.”

A May 23 edition of the newspaper referred to the Melolings as being “educated and of refined families … backed by money.”

“Mrs. and Mrs. Meloling are charged with having entered rooms in several fashionable boarding houses and with taking valuable chinaware, fine toilet articles and jewelry,” the paper reported.

According to the jail matron, Aimee Meloling was well behaved while going through her trial.

“(She has) been (a model) of good behavior,” said Matron Gilbert in a March 27 interview. “When Mrs. Meloling is not sewing she is generally amusing someone with a story. … She seems devoted to her husband.”

Guilty verdict for Melolings

During her husband’s trial, Aimee Meloling took to the witness stand and confessed to the crimes, claiming her husband played no part. She claimed she wanted “pretty things” for her room so entered other rooms and stole the items. He testified that he was unaware of her crimes but once he realized what was happening, he chose to look the other way. He said rather than suffer the embarrassment of his neighbors discovering his wife was a thief, he allowed the items to stay in their room. The jury didn’t by it and he was found guilty.

“It is understood that the brave effort of the young wife in pleading guilty to save the man she loved from punishment will not reflect materially against her and either a light sentence or probation is expected in her case,” reported the Herald, May 25, 1905.

That wasn’t the case and her temper flared when she was found guilty and sentenced to San Quentin.

“May your honor’s heart soon be as soft as your head,” she told Judge Smith.

“When the sentences were pronounced, the small audience murmured in surprise, as it was generally believed that Mrs. Meloling would be released on probation,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, June 2, 1905.

She was sentenced to three years in San Quentin while her husband received five in Folsom Prison.

The first biennial message of Gov. James Gillette, issued in 1909, included a commutation for Mr. Meloling’s sentence.

“Sept. 30, 1907 – Albert Webb Meloling, convicted in the month of June 1905, in the county of Los Angeles of the crime of burglary in the second degree, and sentenced to undergo an imprisonment for five years in the State Prison at Folsom. At the same time and place his wife was sentenced to undergo an imprisonment of three years. It appears that his wife was solely dependent upon Meloling for a livelihood and that it was necessary for her welfare and protection that her husband be at liberty to assume the responsibility of protecting and providing for her. Recommendations for clemency were presented by the Hon. B.N. Smith, before whom Meloling was tried, and the Hon. J.D. Frederichs, the District Attorney who secured his conviction. It was represented by the Hon. J.D. Frederichs that the sentence of Meloling was too severe under the circumstances, and this sentence was accordingly cut short so that he might be released from prison at the same time his wife regained her liberty,” the message states.

His sentence was restored before his release, which didn’t come until 1909.  After their release from prison, the Melolings sought a fresh start.

Working with children

Two women walk down a flight of stairs.
Alameda County Jail Matron Aimee Meloling, left, escorts inmate Bess Nelson to San Quentin in January 1933. Nelson was convicted of conspiring to murder her husband.

She began working with children and orphanages. In 1916, she was one of a handful of nurses who examined nearly 200 babies at an event for new parents held at Recreation Center in Santa Barbara. She was also divorced by this time.

“Ninety-nine babies was the record at the conference with doctors and nurses yesterday, making a total of 191 to date. The smoothness with which every detail of the examination is managed makes it possible to manage so many in so short a time.

“The nurses serving yesterday were the Misses Royer, Hardy, Richter, Davens, Pinkerton, Walker, Humphreys, Whitman, Meloling, McKenna, Mooney, Mushet, Cavalliei and Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Graham.

“The nursery on the roof garden took care of children under five, whose parents wished to hear the talks in the afternoon,” reported the Morning Press, March 9, 1916.

In 1919, she’s listed as working with St. Vincent’s Day nursery in Santa Barbara. She often spoke at conferences regarding nursing and social work.

“The historic pageant, ‘California,’ arranged by Mrs. A.W. Meloling, matron of the day nursery, held a prominent place in the evening’s program (for the St. Vincent’s fundraiser),” reported the Morning Press, July 20, 1919. The charitable event raised $2,000.

By the 1930s, Aimee Meloling was again dealing with inmates, but this time as the matron at the Alameda County Jail, escorting female inmates to state prison and court appointments.

In 1935, she married Scott E. Cowles and the couple resided in Oakland.