Unlocking History

Meet Alfred Taliaferro, San Quentin’s first doctor

black and white photos of man in tie and an old hospital room.
San Quentin’s early hospital, circa 1870s. UC Berkeley Lone Mountain College collection. Inset image of Dr. Taliaferro, circa 1850s.

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

A Gold Rush-era doctor became the first prison physician at San Quentin when offenders were still kept on ships. It was because of Dr. Alfred W. Taliaferro’s recommendations that the first prison hospital was built. He served at a critical juncture in the formation of what would become the modern correctional system in California. Along with a few other prison staff members, he also rode with Kibbe’s Rangers. Inside CDCR takes a closer look at the career of this pioneering prison physician.

Dr. Taliaferro was community leader

Dr. Taliaferro was not only the first physician at San Quentin State Prison, but also Marin County’s first doctor, according to a 2016 article published by the Marin County Public Library. The doctor served as a state Assembly member and a state senator. As one of the founding members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, his name is memorialized inside the building.

“Dr. Alfred Walker Taliaferro (pronounced Toliver) is memorialized in a stained glass window over the organ. The window depicts the scene of ‘The Good Samaritan.’ This is very appropriate for Dr. Taliaferro who was known in his practice of medicine to treat all regardless of their ability to pay,” according to the story published by the library.

The doctor hailed from Virginia and sailed to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.

“The ship arrived in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 1849. The company was so eager to take off for the mines that they sold their cargo at a loss and hurried off to become rich. Dr. Taliaferro (who was 28 at the time) was one of the few who decided to go into farming and came to San Rafael with some other(s) for that purpose,” the article states. “Dr. Taliaferro was not much of a farmer but he opened the first drug store in San Rafael on Fourth Street. When San Quentin Prison opened in 1852, Dr. Taliaferro became the first prison doctor. He was elected to the California State Assembly and served in 1853 and 1854. Later he served in the State Senate until 1858.”

Prior to the permanent prison’s construction, Taliaferro visited inmates aboard the prison ship, Waban.

Prison doctor dishes dirt on early days

During an 1855 investigation into prison matters, the doctor gave sworn testimony regarding his duties and the conditions at the prison.

“I reside within five miles of the State Prison (and) have been employed by General Estell as visiting physician at the prison for the last 18 months. I am there often. When it is necessary I am there every day. The management of the prison has been rather loose,” Taliaferro told the State Prison Committee on March 10, 1855. “The liberties given to convicts have generally been to those that had but a short time to serve. They usually had a great number of trustees; some 10 or 15 trustees. (In fact,) trustees were sent after me when anyone was sick.”

He said some illnesses were caused by the conditions at the prison. “I have known diseases among convicts from the use of bad flour … such as colic, cramps and spasms, and in such cases I have given immediate notice of the fact to the superintendent to have it corrected,” he said.

While he was often on call, that’s not how his pay was based. He also blasted the use of private contractors to run prisons. “I am employed by the month and not by the visit,” he said. “I do not think the prisoners are safe in private hands.”

According to Kenneth Lamott’s 1961 book, “The Chronicles of San Quentin,” Taliaferro was “an amiable and gregarious man.” While visiting a hotel in San Francisco, Dr. Taliaferro was witness to the lawlessness that plagued the city.

“(Dr. Randall) went thence to the St. Nicholas Hotel, where he arrived just previous to 4 o’clock. In the room were Col. Gift, Judge McCorkle and (Dr.) Taliaferro, conversing between the desk and the window; Mr. Casey, the proprietor of the hotel carriage, leaning against the same; Mr. Sheppard, the bookkeeper, writing and his desk, and just beyond Col. Bell and Mr. McKenzie, State Prison Directors, and some other gentlemen, one in conversation with the barkeeper and one behind the bar,” reported the Weekly Butte Record, Aug. 2, 1856. “Dr. Randall came up to the bookkeeper who handed him two letters. … A few seconds thereafter, Hetherington entered and approaching the counter, seized Dr. Randall by his beard, which is very long, and said: ‘G-d damn you, I’ve got you now,’ at the same time twisting the Doctor round, facing the northern wall. The Doctor immediately drew his pistol but before he could use it, Hetherington fired, the ball passing close by Mr. Sheppard, and entered the wall adjoining the safe. The residue of the affray occurred instantaneously; both fired, and Hetherington kept on firing in rapid succession. The smoke covered the parties, and the gentlemen in the room were panic-struck – the balls whistling around them so quickly that fears were entertained that each would be shot. Dr. Randall crouched round inside of the counter, Hetherington still firing when he got there. Hetherington bent over the counter, and fired his fifth and last shot at the Doctor’s head, the ball entering the left temple, and lodged as is presumed, at the base of the brain, inflicting a mortal wound. Doctors (were) in immediate attendance, but, from the character of the wound, recovery is impossible. … Hetherington was immediately secured and conveyed to the Vigilance Committee Rooms.”

It wasn’t Taliaferro’s only brush with violence.

During an escape attempt, 10 inmates rushed the guard line in 1858. Some managed to mount horses but shots fired from the towers stalled the rush. Two inmates jumped on Dr. Taliaferro’s horse, but they were bucked off. One inmate was shot through gut in the attempted break. Seeing they were unsuccessful, most of the men surrendered and were taken back into custody. One inmate continued to fight and George Lees, a prison overseer, knocked him senseless. Lees then continued to pummel the man until Dr. Taliaferro, armed with a rifle, leveled it at the overseer.

“One of the horses was so badly wounded that it will be necessary to kill him. Seeing no present prospect of getting away, all (escapees) returned but one, and he was soon taken after being shot in the hand and shoulder,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, May 14, 1858.

Riding with the Rangers

Much like his later counterpart, Dr. Leo Stanley, Taliaferro was an equestrian and was known for his thoroughbred horses.

Man in Civil War era military uniform.
Gen. William C. Kibbe, 1860s. California State Library.

When Capt. William “Bill” Byrnes, who also served as a guard at San Quentin, was tapped to lead Gen. Kibbe’s Rangers in 1859, the doctor joined as well. His services proved valuable, according to military leadership. The Rangers were part of the state military, similar to today’s California National Guard. According to military records, they were nicknamed “Kibbe Rangers” but official were the First Brigade, Sixth Division California Militia.

“The Surgeon of my command, Dr. A.W. Taliaferro, deserves to be especially noticed. Under all circumstances, and at all times, requiring the exercise of his skill, he was found to more than equal to the delicate and responsible duties of his profession. His efforts were in every case, attended with eminent success, which is, perhaps, the highest compliment that could be paid to his acknowledged scientific talents and attainments. The expedition was singularly fortunate in its exemption from casualties. Not a single life was lost, and the wounded all recovered,” wrote Gen. Kibbe in his report to the Legislature.

After a decade of working with the inmates at San Quentin, he left the job in 1863 to focus on his private practice but he was still considered a “visiting physician” at the prison as late as 1870.

Shot in the dark

He was known to riding late into the night to take care of sick residents. In 1874, Taliaferro even took a bullet while on a nighttime ride.

“Our citizens were thrown into a state of great excitement and indignation, at a little past 9 o’clock on Monday evening, by the arrival of Dr. A. W. Taliaferro, with a severe pistol wound in his left arm, his steed panting and foaming, and himself faint and feverish from loss of blood and excitement. The doctor had been out to Mr. Mailliard’s on a friendly errand, and, as is his wont, had indulged in a game of chess with the agreeable hostess of the Mailliard manse. … The ride home promised to be a delightful one, and rider and steed were enjoying the descent of the eastern slope of White’s Hill, when suddenly the doctor was aware of a presence on his left, and instantly a pistol was fired at him, the ball entering his arm. Obeying his first impulse, he spurred up his horse for flight, expecting more shots in the rear, but no more were fired. An examination of the wound revealed that the doctor had a very narrow escape with his life. The ball struck his arm on the back or outside, caromed up the bone, and out at the shoulder. Had it struck an inch or so further forward it must have pierced the arm and entered the heart,” reported the Marin Journal, March 26, 1874.

The townsfolk formed a posse and began combing the countryside, looking for the gunman. One of those searching was A.C. McAllister, who joined the guard line at San Quentin a year later.

“As soon as the dastardly outrage had become known, a party of four started to scour the hills in search of the would-be assassin and the indignation of our townspeople rose to a boiling pitch. Dr. Taliaferro is one of our most popular citizens. A man of decided opinions and great firmness of character, yet he is not known to have an enemy. … There are no circumstances to justify the theory that any one wanted to murder the doctor. Was the motive plunder? If so, the desperado lacked practice, and made a sad bungle; probably not having the courage to followup his shot. Several parties have been out in pursuit of the highwaymen. Mr. Walter H. Brand, the locksmith, has traced the fellows, displaying much detective skill. George Mason and Mr. Gilligan made a reconnaissance on Monday night. A.C. McAllister and J. Tunstead came upon traces of vagabonds in an empty shanty on the Lucas place yesterday morning. … Sheriff Olds went out on their path on Tuesday, Officer Green went to Sausalito and the city; and all the people on the rancho adjacent to the scene of the outrage are on the watch. Dr. Taliaferro is rapidly recovering. The danger of fever is past and he expects to be in the saddle again before long.”

Doctor falls ill, dies in 1885

The well-known doctor lived another decade, continuing to serve the people of Marin County. He never married and had no family in the area. His death at age 64 shook the community.

“Dr. Taliaferro died of pneumonia (Dec. 9,) 1885 after a wet night medical visit. After his death he lay in state at the San Rafael Opera House. His funeral was held at St. Paul’s Church. The flag at the Marin County Courthouse hung at half-mast and the businesses in San Rafael closed for the funeral. The church was packed with all the good doctor’s friends and patients,” according to the Marin Public Library article.

Thousands turned out for his service.

“The last sad rites were performed for Dr. A.W. Taliaferro last Friday. When the news that he was dead first went out the people were dazed; very few could realize the troth that they would see ‘the little man’ no more. He had been for so many years the best known, and it may be said the most widely loved citizen in the county, that Messrs. Gordon and Mailliard, who by ties of business and friendship stood in the place of first of kin, realized that thousands would like to look for the last time on his face. Accordingly, on Thursday they placed the body in state at the Opera House, where it remained until the next day at noon, when it was removed to St. Paul’s church for the funeral service. That was an anomalous procession which passed in and out for the last look. Not a relative, near or remote, had the deceased here, yet there were thousands of sincere mourners,” reported the Marin Journal, Dec. 17, 1885. “Both his professional and private life seemed a part … of the life of the community, and of every family composing the community, and this was the reason he was so keenly and so universally mourned. Such a scene as San Rafael presented during the funeral services of Dr. Taliaferro was never seen here before and probably no person who participated in it will ever look upon its like again. Every place of business, the bank, post office, and all stores and business houses were closed, and the streets, except at the church, or where the funeral cortege moved, were absolutely deserted.”

According to the newspaper, Taliaferro was notorious for charging only those who could afford his services.

“His ear was never heavy to the call of distress, but when he should have looked to his own—in the matter of charging for his services and making collections, he was entirely remiss. This may be illustrated by an incident. A patient was importuning him for a bill, which he had before asked him to render. Finally, the debtor said, ‘Doctor, suppose you should die; this bill might make me trouble.’ ‘No,’ said he, ‘my books are kept in Latin, and no one but myself can read them. Nobody could ever find out that you owed me a cent.’ With a practice that would have given any other man a large fortune, he leaves comparatively nothing. He was a most astonishing example of unselfishness. … The (funeral’s) attendance was the largest ever seen in the county, the procession consisting of over 100 carriages,” the newspaper reported.

In his eulogy, Rev. Stoy said, “Thirty-six years represents the whole of the professional life of Dr. Taliaferro. He has spent it all in this county. A Virginian by birth, (he was) brought up under the old regime of high courtesy and lofty principle in religion and morals. … And what has Dr. Taliaferro accomplished in his thirty-six years of professional life? Has he founded a family? No ; he leaves none of his own blood to mourn his loss nor to inherit his virtues. In this respect he lived for others and denied himself. Did he amass a fortune? There was surely every opportunity for him to do so; nay, the very growth of even moderate savings through 30 years would have made him rich. No; he did not amass a fortune. He is not rich; so far as I know he is little above a poor man. What then did he do? I answer, he lived himself, loyal to his principles (and) his friends. …Dr. Taliaferro was not a private man, with private, selfish interests, but a public man — the property of all.”

Without heirs, his belongings were sold.

“The personal effects of the lamented Dr. Taliaferro were sold at auction by Easton & Eldridge last Saturday. Good average prices were realized. The event recalled the sorrow of the people at the loss of so good and valuable a citizen and friend, and many of the buyers were only there to secure mementos. So genuine a testimony of lasting affection is rarely witnessed in this selfish world,” reported the Marin Journal, Feb. 4, 1886.

Many years after his death, a relative made the journey to visit his grave.

“Meriwether Jones, a prominent resident of Richmond, Va., president of a coal mining company in Virginia and one of the passengers on the steamer Cleveland around the world, paid a visit to San Rafael on Tuesday to visit the grave of his uncle, Dr. A. W. Taliaferro who was the leading physician in the county a quarter of a century ago and who was highly respected and dearly beloved by all. His mother, a sister of the doctor, raised the doctor,” reported the Sausalito News, Feb. 8, 1913.

Learn more

  • Dr. Burke landed in San Quentin after using dynamite to try to kill a woman and her baby.
  • Since the first state prison was founded, correctional officers have walked the toughest beat in the state.