Unlocking History

Explore stories of state’s first prison inmates

Men with shovels and dirty clothing pose for a photo.
A group of California miners, or "laborers," in the 1850s. As people flooded the gold fields of California, crime followed, landing some of them in state prison. Courtesy California Historical Society.


By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Glimpses into everyday settler life can be gleaned from many sources, including a dusty 1855 report on the state prison. The document contains a section titled “Register and Descriptive List of Convicts Under Sentence” at the state prison from 1851-54. Their crimes range from grand larceny and robbery to forgery and attempted murder. The majority of those convicted describe their occupation as “laborer.” This week, Inside CDCR looks at some of those first inmates.

First inmate served sentence in Sacramento

A ship with a prison on top.
The La Grange served as the Sacramento jail from 1850-61. California State Library.

The first name appearing on the list is that of Charles Currier, a 22-year-old cabinet maker, received Jan. 25, 1851, for grand larceny out of Sacramento County.

According to news reports at the time, he was convicted of “horse stealing” and sentenced to two years. He served part of his sentence aboard the La Grange, an old bark used as the Sacramento jail from 1850 until 1861.

“The prison brig is a decidedly pleasant place, and the prisoners have full view of the business on the levee, the steamers as they ply up and down the river, and are no way restrained of liberty, except that they wear heavy chains, which is doubtless against their will, and in addition, have not the liberty to go on shore when they fancy,” reported the Sacramento Transcript, April 5, 1851.

Later the state housed inmates on the Waban off shore of what would become San Quentin State Prison, but back then, state inmates were housed in county jails. The Waban wasn’t used until it was towed to Angel Island in late 1851, with roughly 40 inmates on board, under the supervision of Sheriff Hays. San Francisco’s floating jail was the Euphemia.

When the Waban was activated, Currier was among the first batch of inmates on the register, received Dec. 8, 1851.

Jewelry thief won’t stay put

The second name in the register is Blucher Haskell, received Feb. 3, 1851. The New York native was sentenced to three years, also for grand larceny. According to news accounts, he was a jewelry thief.

Haskell had fallen under suspicion the previous year and went so far as the publish a notice in the Sacramento Transcript to declare his innocence.

“Three persons accused me yesterday evening, in the Orleans House, of being a fellow whom they call ‘Bill Burke, a thief.’ This is to inform them as well as the public that my name is Blucher Haskell, a sportsman, of San Antonio, Texas. I was a member of Capt. Reed’s company, Texas Rangers, and anyone who desires further information can get it by calling on Mr. Burgoyne, banker, San Francisco, or at the Southern House in this city, by calling on Dr. Cady,” according to the Oct. 30, 1850 edition of the newspaper.

Incarceration on the La Grange didn’t fit with Haskell’s plans and after two weeks, he abandoned ship.

“On Sunday, two men who had been sentenced to years of confinement, the notorious Blucher Haskell and Joseph Baldwin, the former for stealing jewelry, etc., and the latter for mule-stealing, were on the deck of the vessel about noon, at which time it is presumed they gave a sign to a friend above, who quietly brought a boat down the stream. The two prisoners then escaped over the side of the vessel and cleared out,” reported the Transcript, Feb. 18, 1851. “Nobody seems to have been cognizant of the affair, although a watch we believe is stationed on board. Mr. Benton, the (guard), it appears, had left the brig (to get) additional iron made for the gentry who escaped, but on his return, the pair had flown, and nobody knew where, or how.”

He was back in custody later and was among the first batch of inmates received at the Waban on Dec. 8, 1851.

Burglary ring busted

Francis Brier and William Watkins are the seventh and eighth names in the register. The 25-year-olds were part of a burglary ring operating in San Francisco.

According to news reports at the time, their testimony shielded any accomplices. Watkins claimed he was a “mule and watch speculator” who gave Brier a $300 watch as was his custom when giving gifts to friends. The police didn’t buy it, especially since he was arrested in the act of burglarizing a business.

“A quantity of copper coin, proved to have been stolen, were found in Brier’s bed, and these Watkins said he deposited there himself,” reported the Daily Alta California, March 21, 1851.

Watkins and Frederick Seymore were arrested in “Col. Stevenson’s store (and) appear to have a great desire to screen their accomplices who were not caught in the act. The police deserve great praise for the energy they have exerted in breaking up and bringing to justice this gang of burglars,” the paper reported.

The pair had enlisted the help of someone familiar with Col. Stevenson. The shopkeeper had been tipped off to a possible attempt, and also noticed someone tried opening the shop’s door a day earlier with an ill-fitted key. He allowed the person to take a key with him so a copy could be made for the burglars. The young plant testified he gave the key to Watkins, who pressed it into a bar of soap so a copy could be made. Watkins asked the man to stand watch in the store that night when they broke in. Stevenson had taken extra precautions and posted two employees to the rear of the shop to help make an arrest.

As Watkins and Seymore were in the office, trying to get into the safe, the young man stepped outside and flagged down a police officer. The pair were busted in the act.

William Gamble and George Adams were also implicated. Adams, a 40-year-old engineer considered the mastermind of the operation, broke out of jail but was arrested later on another watch-swiping charge.

Watkins and Brier both pleaded not guilty.

Brier was convicted of receiving stolen goods and landed a five-year sentence. Watkins earned 10 years for grand larceny. Both men were received June 25. The name Seymore does not appear on the register.

George Adams comes in as the 27th name on the list, sentenced to 20 years for grand larceny.

According to the register, “Francis Brier escaped from Col. Hays Jan. 14, 1852; retaken June 1853; pardoned Sept. 16, 1853.”

Gambler loses freedom

Sketch of men in old fashioned gambling hall.
Faro was popular in gambling halls in the mid-1800s. Illustration circa 1882.

The 12th name on the list is one Robert Percy, hailing from England. The 22-year-old laborer was given a year for forgery and was received July 17, 1851.

Percy’s victim was a friend who appears to have over-celebrated the country’s Independence Day. Seeing his helplessly inebriated friend unable to walk, Percy pilfered his pockets of cash and a check.

“Robert Percy was arrested yesterday afternoon by Capt. S.C. Harding, of the third district police, on a charge of larceny. It seems that Percy and one Peter Caserty had encountered each other on the Fourth of July, and Peter, becoming a little too patriotic, had suffered Percy to extract from his pocket $40 … and a check on Burgoyne & Co. for about two hundred more. The money Percy took to the El Dorado, where he duly bucked it off against a faro bank. It seems he had also forged Mr. Caserty’s name to the check, and (lost it gambling),” reported the Daily Alta California, July 8, 1851.

He was indicted on forgery charges, according to the newspaper’s July 15 edition, and a jury found him guilty.

Early inmate escapes lead to changes

Joseph Wilson was given a 15-year-sentence out of Colusa County. His name appears much farther down the list, being received Dec. 15, 1851. He wasn’t there long, escaping June 15, 1852. As of the 1854 printing of the list of convicts under sentence, Wilson was still at large. He was one of many to escape the state prison, such as it was, in the early 1850s.

When C.W. Valentine repeatedly escaped from San Quentin between 1854 and 1857, the warden wanted to extend his stay to make up for the time he missed. The warden’s decision was challenged. Today, escape charges could be filed against the inmate, adding time to their sentences. At the time, no such laws existed in California.

“Valentine was sentenced in Marin County to imprisonment in the State Prison, for the term of four years, where he arrived Aug. 3, 1853,” reported the Daily Alta California, July 23, 1859. “He escaped July 24, 1854, but was brought back June 17, 1855. He re-escaped Aug. 2, 1857, the night before the expiration of four years, and was brought back again Dec. 20, 1858. The late Warden ordered that he be kept for the time he was absent, namely 10 months and 24 days. The legality of this order is questioned by some.”

Before his 1857 escape, he’s listed as serving his sentence at the quarry at Marin Island. Inmates at the island were kept aboard one of the prison’s three main ships.

The newspaper listed numerous inmates who had escaped the prison, were convicted of another crime while outside, and sent back. The writers pondered, “after serving out his last sentence, (can he) be legally held in the State Prison for the time he was absent during his first term? … Can the service due on the first sentence be merged in the service of the second term? There are a number of similar cases.”

Guards stand outside cells below deck.
This 1861 sketch of the Hussar depicts a typical prison ship during that era.