Unlocking History

Take a closer look at 3 SQ inmates and their stories

Old postcard that says Birds Eye View San Quentin Prison.
San Quentin, circa 1913, from a postcard. (California State Library.)

In 1911, arts as a rehabilitative tool was introduced for the first time at San Quentin State Prison (SQ), with many inmates attending. One widely published news story mentioned three by name but gave no details. You can also read our earlier story on the play.

Performance focused on rehabilitation for SQ inmates

“In the literal shadow of the death cell, a regularly organized theatrical company presented its standard play today to 1,855 prisoners of San Quentin penitentiary. This is the first instance of the sort in history,” reported the Sacramento Union, October 9, 1911. The play was “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” brought into the institution by Warden John Hoyle. The Governor’s wife also attended the performance.

“The play, which dealt with a convict’s struggle for reformation, was presented on a convict-built stage, with scenery painted by convicts, and draperies of prison-made jute. A convict orchestra furnished the music. The stage was in a corner of the prison yard, and the players’ voices echoed back from the windows of the death cell in a gaunt five-story building.”

As the play was ready to begin, and the general population inmates had been seated, “nine cell doors clanked open and as many men, condemned to death, clattered down the iron stairs and lined up at the foot with George Figueroa, a youth who is to die for the murder of his wife in Los Angeles, at the head. At a wave of the guard stick, Figueroa tossed the butt of his cigarette into a flower bed, blew the smoke through his nose and led the line across the yard to a row of seats just behind those of the women prisoners, close to the stage.”

Some of the SQ inmates openly cried during the performance.

“A juvenile scene made the biggest hit. Charley Dorsey, a lifer, now serving his 29th year for stage robbery, wept unaffectedly and unashamed under the furtive glances of his fellow. At the end of this act, William Clark, a convicted forger, mounted the stage in his prison stripes and offered a resolution of thanks for ‘putting us in touch, if only for an hour, with the throbbing heart and life of the world outside.'”

When the play ended, the SQ inmates “sat quietly while they filed out, before surging slowly up the driveway to their assigned posts. As Figueroa trotted out, Warden Hoyle picked him from the crowd. ‘You have four weeks,’ he said. The boy smiled at the good tiding of brief postponement of death and went to his cell,” the paper reported.

George Figueroa

One of the SQ inmates who seemed to get the most attention in the newspaper article was condemned wife-slayer George Figueroa.

Figueroa, 25, eloped to Santa Ana with Sarah Pugsley, 19. Figueroa’s aunt, Eloisa Sammann, lived at Ocean Park, where she had a little cottage behind her home. The newlyweds moved in, thanks to the aunt’s generosity.

On the evening of May 22, 1910, Figueroa returned home with his wife and John R. Surber.

“The young wife at first went into the house to pass the night with Sammann, so the latter testified, while Figueroa and Surber went to the summer house. Preparations for bed hardly were begun before Figueroa went to the house and demanded the company of his bride at the summer house,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, July 21, 1910.

Soon, Sammann heard arguing coming from the cottage. On crutches, without shoes and only wearing a nightgown, Sammann made her way to see what was happening.

Old grainy newspaper photo shows man in handcuffs being escorted out of a jail by a man in light clothing.
George Figueroa, 25, left, is seen being taken to San Quentin by Sheriff Hammell in 1910 in this Los Angeles Herald news photo.

“I gained entrance to the place without great trouble and found Surber in bed in his underclothes. My nephew was arguing with his wife. He was trying to force her to go to bed and she (refused). Finally, he struck her in the eye and called her unspeakable names. Then he knocked her over against the bedstead,” she told the court. “I knew I could not do anything for the girl with two men opposed to my will and I went for help.”

The newspaper reported “this action (by) Mrs. Sammann (was) of a heroic nature as her life is passed largely on crutches. Her infirmity is so great that she was unable to take the witness stand without assistance.”

She sent her daughter to get help from the neighbors, then turned around to hobble back to the cottage.

“I tried to get into the house again but there was someone on the other side of the door who prevented me,” she testified. “All I could do was place my foot inside and prevent the door from being closed entirely. Through the half-opened door, I could see Mrs. Figueroa lying upon her back upon the floor. Her head was so near me that I felt her hair upon my bare feet.

“I could see (both hands) plainly and there was no weapon in either. Her head was turned to the left and I could look into her eyes as she pleaded with her husband. Still I could not see my nephew and I cannot swear who it was who was (blocking) the door. I felt the effect of the explosion of a cartridge in a weapon and saw the blood begin to flow from a wound in (her) head.”

Grainy photo of woman in an illustrated frame.
Murder victim Sarah Pugsley Figueroa was 19 when she was shot in the head in 1910.

Dr. Frank Taylor, a neighbor, was awoken by calls for help. He rushed to the scene where he saw the injured woman but not her husband. A while later, the husband returned.

“Figueroa came up to me and said, ‘Well, I guess you’re looking for me. Here I am,'” Taylor testified.

Another neighbor heard the victim calling for help and yelling, “Stop, George. Don’t hurt me.”

Investigators found a revolver behind a basket about 10 feet from the mortally wounded wife.

Dr. William Parker treated the wife but she passed away the following morning at 10 a.m.

Investigators retraced Figueroa’s steps about the time he fled the scene. He apparently went to a nearby house, knocked on the door and 14-year-old Paul Taylor answered. Paul worked at a dance hall and had only just returned home.

“George Figueroa was outside and when he saw me, he said, ‘Come here,’ and I said, ‘No.’ Again and again he asked me to go outside and I continued to refuse. He looked strange and wild, with a flushed face and excited eyes. When he found I would not go outside, he came inside. He asked, ‘Is Sarah dead?’ and I assured him she was not.

“At that time, I did not know what had happened. Then he said, ‘Sarah shot herself.’ I said she had not. He repeated his remark and in the next few minutes said it many times, over and over, ‘Sarah shot herself, Sarah shot herself.’ He asked to me to walk back to his house with him. I went with him and on the way, he said to me, ‘Paul, remember, I did not shoot Sarah. Sarah shot herself, Sarah shot herself.'”

According to Paul, Figueroa began talking about himself in the third person, saying “I don’t see what object George had in shooting Sarah.”

Investigators said the gun was missing one cartridge. They also found the bullet embedded in the floor underneath the blood-soaked carpet.

With his aunt’s damning testimony, he was sentenced to hang and sent to San Quentin. He was present for the play in 1911. The following year, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Charley Dorsey

Also mentioned was Charley Dorsey, a stagecoach bandit serving a life sentence.

According to news accounts, Dorsey had a way of getting people to do what he wanted by through charm, guile and manipulation.

Sketch of man with bushy mustache and dark hair.
Charley Dorsey, circa 1892, Los Angeles Herald.

Dorsey, also known as Charley Moore and C.H. Thorn, killed a man in Nevada City during an 1879 stagecoach robbery , earning him the life sentence. He and his accomplice were caught in the summer of 1882. According to some reports, the only reasons he didn’t end up at the end of a rope is because his attorney pushed his exemplary military war record.

“He can blow a safe or crack a crib or roll a drunk or hold up a stage, but he can do so much more than mere handiwork as to make him in some respects the most dangerous convict now doing time in the civilized world,” reported the Los Angeles Herald, December 6, 1892, almost two decades before the play at San Quentin. “He is also a soft-voiced, mild-mannered convict, with an apologetic manner and bearing the external impress of honest distress. To an observant student of the criminal classes, Dorsey is a remarkable man.”

According to the Herald, when Dorsey found himself again in prison, he quickly tried finding another inmate he could manipulate into aiding his escape.

“George Shinn was near the end of his term and had been so good a convict that he was made a trusty and given the removal of garbage as his daily work. A horse and cart were furnished and Shinn drove where he liked, within or outside of the prison reserve. On December 1, (1887), (he persuaded) Shinn to permit him to hide in the swill cart and be carried beyond the guard lines.”

For two years, Shinn served as Dorsey’s partner in crime. Famous Wells Fargo Detective James Hume, longtime nemesis of Dorsey, managed to capture the pair and return them to San Quentin.

William Clark

The article lists William Clark as a forger. After some digging, it appears Clark served prison sentences in New York and Maryland. Both were for crimes committed in 1895 and 1900.

After his previous prison stints, Clark made his way to Mexico, where he became acquainted with C.A. McCarthy. Years later, Clark made his way back to California and somehow managed to wiggle his way into a job as a clerk at the Republican League of Los Angeles County. He also worked as a clerk for a U.S. senator. He cashed a bogus check for $20 in 1908. Again, he was facing forgery charges.

While in county jail waiting for his trial, he spotted his friend McCarthy, who had recently been convicted of forgery. Now McCarthy was awaiting transfer to Folsom Prison.

The two hatched a scheme to get McCarthy off the hook. Crafting a letter, they sent it to Robert Devlin, one of the prison directors. While working for the senator, Clark learned a few tricks and was acquainted with Devlin. They forged an official-looking envelope, letterhead and drafted a plea for McCarthy, claiming he was being railroaded. The letter was intercepted, instead, landing on the desk of Judge Willis, the trial judge for both cases.

“Judge Willis did not lose much time in denying the application for probation after reading the prison record of the accused man. Clark was put on the stand and confessed that he had written the Devlin letter, but said it was only done to assist an old friend. Clark’s attorney made a strong appeal for the clemency of the court, but Judge Willis was not in a mood to be trifled with,” reported the Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1909. “He then sentenced Clark to five years at San Quentin.”

According to the newspaper article, Clark was “a man of considerable talent in a business way, but (had) been afflicted with the bad check mania for a number of years.”

He was paroled but landed back in prison.

“R.C. Clark and William Clark, brothers, who were paroled from prison last December, returned voluntarily today with the information they had broken their paroles,” reported the Chico Record, April 29, 1913.

“They said there were convicted recently in Humboldt County for illegal fishing and each served 30 days in jail. RC Clark has 16 months (remaining) to serve for embezzlement and William Clark has 11 months to serve for grand larceny.”

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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