Unlocking History

Early staff remembered through obituaries

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

Often the only way research early prison staff is through their published obituaries.

Digging into the history of state’s prison system isn’t an easy task. Books, newspapers, regional libraries and documents from State Archives are the usual sources for Inside CDCR’s Unlocking History and Time Capsule stories.

There is often scant information on early CDCR staff. Sometimes the only information available on those pioneering penologists come from obituary notices. Republishing some of those notices is part of our ongoing effort to recognize and remember those who helped shape today’s CDCR.

Pioneering CDCR staff remembered

Those who walked the halls of the early prisons had tough jobs. They may not have made headlines, but their actions touched many through the course of their duties.

Their causes of death include stroke, heart attack, car accidents, illness and tuberculosis, known back then as consumption.”Some were killed while on duty but many are simply those who suited up and showed up to carry out their assigned tasks. Their obituaries paint faint pictures of their lives, but early CDCR staff can be remembered thanks to these brief stories.

On-duty deaths

An officer died while driving a horse-drawn wagon, with the warden and his wife as passengers.

George Leary, an officer at San Quentin prison, passed away suddenly and in a rather peculiar manner while driving on the county road near Kentfield late Saturday evening. He had driven from the prison to meet Warden Hoyle (and his wife), who were returning on a late train from the city.

“He met them at Kentfield station and had just started the return drive, apparently in the best of health and spirits, when he suddenly sagged down in his seat and dropped the reins. The Warden sprang forward, stopped the horses, and found Leary dead. A coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of death from heart failure. The deceased was a native of California,” reported the Mill Valley Record, Sept. 16, 1910.

While transporting inmates from Folsom State Prison to the Sacramento jail, a correctional officer was killed. Instead of fleeing, the inmates remained at the crash scene.

John F. Klunder, 65, guard at the Folsom state prison was instantly killed in an automobile accident today (while on duty) near Perkins, and Dr. Manuel Azevedo, driver and two prisoners were slightly injured. The automobile skidded on the wet road, Azevedo said. The prisoners, handcuffed, were being brought to the Sacramento County jail for examination into their sanity. They made no attempt to escape after the accident,” reported the Press Democrat, Oct. 15, 1921.

Excursion proves fatal

A hike with co-workers proved fatal for one correctional officer.

Alfred Gilkerson, a guard at San Quentin prison, while walking up Mount Tamalpais to-day, was overcome by the heat and died soon afterward. Gilkerson and two companions, J. Canape and H. Stoke, also attaches at the prison, started out early this morning to ascend the mountain. They took the shortest but steepest trail.

“The day was intensely warm and Gilkerson found it difficult to proceed. Finally after reaching the half-way station he collapsed and never regained consciousness. The Coroner was notified and the body was brought to (San Francisco), where an inquest will be held. Gilkerson has been a guard In one of the watch towers at San Quentin for nine years and got very little exercise.

“To this fact and the violent exercise to-day is attributed his collapse from the heat. The deceased was 42 years of age, unmarried and was a resident of San Jose,” according to the San Francisco Call, April 9, 1903.

Some early CDCR staff suffered health problems

Tuberculosis ended the life of a correctional officer in 1889.

H. J. Bundle, a guard, died of quick consumption at (San Quentin) Prison last Friday. His body was buried at San Rafael last Tuesday,” reported the Sausalito News, Nov. 15, 1889.

Liver problems led to the death of a 67-year-old officer in 1898. According to the Mayo Clinic, an enlarged liver can be the result of disease, cancer, gall bladder obstruction or alcohol abuse.

“Sergeant of the Guard Benjamin White died (at San Quentin) to-night at 8:30 of enlargement of the liver. He had been sick for about three weeks and up to to-day it was thought he might recover. This afternoon he had a relapse and became unconscious, remaining so up to the time of his death. Sergeant White was one of the most respected men in the service.

“At one time he was vice president of the Excelsior Powder Works at Port Costa and for the last six years he had been sergeant of the guard under Warden Hale. He was an old resident of Soquel, near Santa Cruz. He was 67 years old. Peter Herringer, who has had charge of the laundry here, will succeed him,” reported the San Francisco Call, March 13, 1898.

Longtime employees who passed away

Grave stone for early CDCR staff with the words Alb't Kelley Kans. are on the marker at the San Francisco National Cemetery.
Albert Kelley was an officer at San Quentin for nearly 30 years. The Civil War veteran died in 1916.

A Civil War veteran who worked almost three decades at San Quentin died in 1916.

Albert Kelley, a guard at San Quentin for 27 years, died at the West End Sanitarium (Jan. 11) after an attack of heart trouble. For several days, he had been suffering from this ailment from which he could get no relief. He was taken to the hospital three days ago but continued to suffer until the end came. He leaves a brother in Oklahoma.

“The deceased fought in the civil war as a private in the 17th Infantry of Kansas. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge,” reported the Marin Journal, Jan. 13, 1916. Kelley was buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery.

A 35-year-old correctional officer passed away after battling a long illness. He left behind a wife and children.

Russell S. Scott, for many years a guard at San Quentin, passed away at the hospital there last Sunday from an illness of long standing. The trouble became acute about four months ago and he was taken to the hospital for treatment.

“Scott is survived by a widow, Elizabeth, and four children, Kenneth, Marion, Edith and Alma. He was a native of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and was but 35 years of age. The funeral was held yesterday at Sawyer’s parlors and interment was made in Mt. Tamalpais cemetery,” reported the Marin Journal, Feb. 8, 1917.

Arthur J. Wade, 69, one time guard at Folsom prison, who died here yesterday, will be buried tomorrow. He had resided here for 50 years,” according to the Colusa Herald, Dec. 2, 1929.

A massive stroke claimed the life of a 66-year-old sergeant who worked at the prison for nearly two decades.

Grant Giles, 66, sergeant of the night watch at the state penitentiary (at San Quentin), and for 16 years a prison guard, died suddenly Tuesday night after having suffered a stroke while working in the garden of his home. A native of Healdsburg, he is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter,” reported the Healdsburg Tribune, April 25, 1934.

Blacksmith made San Quentin gates

Some of the first gates at San Quentin State Prison were made by blacksmith John Luth of San Francisco. Born and raised in Germany, Luth traveled to the US, spent some time in the east, then headed to California in 1852.

“He worked at his trade for the making of prison gates for the California State Prison,” according to the History of the State of California, published in 1907.

Luth ran a blacksmith business in the city before opening a new shop in Oakland.

Luth was a member of Brooklyn Engine Company No. 1, the German Lutheran Church and was always at the ready to better the city, according to the book. He passed away in 1877. His son Frederick became a conductor on the Oakland street car line.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Read current CDCR obituaries or more Unlocking History.