Unlocking History

Meet Alfred Taliaferro, first doctor at San Quentin

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.

A Gold Rush-era doctor became the first prison physician at San Quentin back when people were still incarcerated on ships. Recommendations from Dr. Alfred W. Taliaferro led to the prison’s first hospital. 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.

Taliaferro was community leader

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 first San Quentin doctor hailed from Virginia, sailing to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.

“The ship arrived in San Francisco on October 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. Taliaferro (who was 28 at the time) was one of the few who decided to go into farming and came to San Rafael for that purpose,” the article states. “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, Taliaferro became the first prison doctor. He was elected to the California State Assembly, serving 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 (to summon) me when anyone was sick.”

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. “I do not think the prisoners are safe in private hands.”

San Francisco’s wild early days

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, Taliaferro witness the lawlessness plaguing the city.

“(Dr. Randall) went to the St. Nicholas Hotel, where he arrived just previous to 4 o’clock. In the room were Col. Gift, Judge McCorkle and Taliaferro, conversing between the desk and the window. The proprietor of the hotel carriage (was) leaning against the (desk). Mr. Sheppard, the bookkeeper, (was) writing and his desk, and just beyond were Colonel Bell and McKenzie, State Prison Directors, and some other gentlemen, one (at the bar) and one behind the bar,” reported the Weekly Butte Record, August 2, 1856.

“Randall handed (the bookkeeper) two letters. A few seconds (later), Hetherington entered. Approaching the counter, (he) seized Randall by his beard, which is very long, and said: ‘G-d damn you, I’ve got you now.’ (Randall) drew his pistol but Hetherington fired (first, but missed). (Next,) both fired, and Hetherington kept on firing in rapid succession. Smoke covered the parties, and the gentlemen in the room were panic-struck – the balls whistling around them. Randall crouched inside of the counter, Hetherington still firing when he got there. Hetherington bent over the counter, and fired his fifth and last shot at (Randall’s) head, the ball entering the left temple, 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.”

Caught in middle of San Quentin escape attempt

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 officially were the First Brigade, Sixth Division California Militia, under General William Kibbe.

“The Surgeon of my command, 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 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,” Kibbe wrote in his report to the Legislature.

After a decade of working 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 for riding late into the night to take care of sick residents. In 1874, Taliaferro even took a bullet while on a nighttime ride.

“A little past 9 o’clock on Monday evening, Taliaferro (arrived) with a severe pistol wound in his left arm, his steed panting and foaming, and himself faint and feverish from loss of blood. The doctor had been out to Mailliard’s on a friendly errand, and indulged in a game of chess. (While heading home), the doctor (became) aware of a presence on his left, and a pistol was fired, the ball entering his arm. He spurred up his horse for flight, expecting more shots, 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 (elsewhere in his arm, it would have) entered the heart,” reported the Marin Journal, March 26, 1874.

Posse forms to hunt down shooter

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.

“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 follow-up his shot. Several parties have been out in pursuit of the highwaymen. Mr. Walter Brand, the locksmith, has traced the fellows, displaying much detective skill. George Mason and (another man) made a reconnaissance on Monday night.

“McAllister and J. Tunstead came upon traces of vagabonds in an empty shanty on the Lucas place yesterday morning. Taliaferro is rapidly recovering. The danger of fever is past and he expects to be in the saddle again before long.”

First San Quentin 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 December 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 service

“The last sad rites were performed for Taliaferro. When the news that he was dead first went out, people were dazed. He had been for so many years the best known, and it may be said the most widely loved citizen in the county, (and his close friends realized) that thousands would like to look for the last time on his face.

“They placed the body in state at the Opera House, where it remained until the next day. (Then he was) moved to (the) church for the funeral service. There were thousands of sincere mourners,” reported the Marin Journal, December 17, 1885. “Every business, the bank, post office, and all stores and business houses were closed, and the streets were deserted.”

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

“His (always answered the) call of distress. (But), in the matter of charging for his services and making collections, he was remiss. With a practice that would have given any other man a large fortune, he leaves nothing. He was an 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, Reverend Stoy said, “Thirty-six years represents the professional life of Dr. Taliaferro, all in this county. He lived for others and denied himself. Did he amass a fortune? Nay, the very growth of even moderate savings through 30 years would have made him rich. So far as I know, he is little above a poor man. What then did he do? He lived, loyal to his principles (and) his friends. Taliaferro was not a private man, with selfish interests, but a public man — the property of all.”

Doctor left no heirs

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, 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.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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.

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