Unlocking History

San Quentin undercover probe foils deadly 1891 plot

Two mugshots of lawmen are superimposed over a sketch of San Quentin prison.
Warden W.E. Hale, top left, and Captain Edgar foiled an 1891 escape plot by using a new officer posing as an inmate. The sketch of San Quentin shows the prison as it was in 1891. Hale and Edgar were former sheriffs.

One 1891 incident at San Quentin State Prison highlighted the need for prisons to have investigative officers on site.

Long before the state established Investigative Services Units or the Office of Correctional Safety, staff used the tools and skills at hand to maintain public safety and institutional security.

Many examples of ingenuity and investigative skills can be found throughout the state’s prison history.

In 1893, Folsom Prison Warden Charles Aull was prepared when he caught wind of a planned uprising.

Just five years later, in 1898, Correctional Officer Ben Merritt headed a posse to track down an escapee from San Quentin.

The latest installment of Unlocking History explores one of these early investigations, an 1891 plot at San Quentin.

(Editor’s note: Correctional Officers were listed as Guards prior to the 1944 job classification change.)

San Quentin guard goes undercover

In 1891, Capt. John C. Edgar was approached by a San Quentin inmate who spun a wild tale of inmates plotting to escape. At first, the correctional captain dismissed the tip since inmates often sought to curry favor, sometimes with inaccurate information.

“This particular convict knew but one of the ringleaders,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 7, 1891, “and could give no information as to how the break for liberty was to be made.”

Capt. Edgar decided to at least observe the man alleged to be one of the escape organizers.

“The more Edgar thought of the matter, the more he became impressed with the idea that his informant had told him the truth. He began by watching the convict named by his information, and in less than 24 hours was convinced that there was a conspiracy of some sort,” the newspaper reported. “Warden Hale was at once consulted and by his advice, a new guard was hired.”

San Quentin prison Warden Hale with bushy beard and mustach.
San Quentin Warden William E. Hale, a former sheriff, served in his post during the 1890s.

Former sheriff assumes warden post

Former Alameda County Sheriff William E. Hale was a recent arrival, having been appointed warden six months earlier. Edgar, a former prison employee, was rehired by Hale.

The new warden put his law enforcement skills to work and the new guard was placed undercover as an inmate. For two days, Guard Irwin made connections, gathered information and reported back to the warden and senior staff.

What they heard, “made their hair fairly stand on end and from that moment all the head officers and the warden himself made the prison proper their headquarters night and day.”

According to the plot, 200 inmates were going to be taken beyond the walls to work on a new road connecting Tiburon and San Rafael, “three miles of which was to be done by prison labor.”

When the 200 inmates, all with short time remaining on their sentences, were gone, the inmates inside the prison planned to act. Some of the guard line would be away to supervise the 200 laborers, leaving fewer guards at the prison. Those 200 trusted inmates could have resisted the escape attempt, so the plan hinged on their departure.

Prison leadership continued to act as though they knew nothing of the plot but secretly decided they weren’t going to send the men to work on the road.

Gathering more information

With only one ringleader identified, Warden Hale put his investigative team back to work.

“They instituted a system of espionage over him which very shortly resulted in the discovery of his accomplices. In all there were seven men in the conspiracy. They did all the planning and made all arrangements, and although they had made known their intentions to four or five convicts whose assistance they needed, they said nothing to the majority of the prisoners, trusting that when the time came for action, the great body of the convicts, spurred on by an opportunity to escape, would join them in their efforts to open the prison doors,” the paper reported.

The plotters changed plans when the trusted inmates were not put on a road crew. Guard Irwin, still undercover, reported his findings to the warden.

“Governor Markham was expected to visit the prison and the new plan was to wait until he went through the institution, suddenly seize him and then, using (him) as a shield, march against the guards. This plan was quietly nipped in the bud by Warden Hale and the Prison Directors, who notified the governor,” the paper reported.

The plotters decided the time for waiting was over. They would leave on their own, without the help of any of the others in the prison.

The ringleaders

The seven leaders were stagecoach robbers William Hanlon and Harry Manning; convicted murderers C.C. Sullivan, Charlie Dorsey and Abraham Turcott; safe cracker Mickey Delaney and burglar George Ross.

Man wearing short tie stares ahead.
Stagecoach robber and convicted murderer Charles Dorsey.

The previous year, Manning, Hanlon and Turcott escaped beyond the walls, grabbed rifles that had been hidden for them and took refuge in a thicket in the hills. There was a gun battle with the guards, one of whom was severely injured, losing his arm. Dorsey was also an escape artist, having taken flight in 1887 and was only recaptured in October 1890.

The plan was simple. The safe cracker would smuggle tools into his cell, using them to cut his way out.

“When out of his cell, he was to use a skeleton key made by Ross, who is a splendid mechanic, and liberate the other men. Once out of their cells, the guard was to be ambushed and killed. There were to be no halfway measures about it. Conversations between the men, overheard by Irwin and some of the officers of the prison who were (hidden) in places where they could hear every word, left no doubt as to the convicts’ intentions.”

They also overheard about accomplices who would wait outside the walls, armed with extra rifles, horses and civilian clothing. With this warning, Warden Hale had investigators locate the accomplices to foil their plans. Officers also found the stash of clothing and guns, as well as the extra horses.

The warden then acted, questioning each of the ringleaders and placing them in single cells without visitors or contact with other inmates. They confiscated a skeleton key found in Ross’ pocket.

Accomplices on the outside

One of the accomplices turned out to be inmate C.C. Sullivan’s brother, S.W. Sullivan. The outside relative smuggled guns and ammunition to the prison in milk shipments meant for the hospital. Another inmate, George Welles, was tasked with transporting the milk into the prison. The conspirators convinced Welles, considered young and impressionable, to help them in this process.

“Among the duties assigned Welles was that of carrying into the prison hospital each day a bucket of fresh milk for the sick prisoners. The revolvers and cartridges were wrapped in rubber, dropped into the bucket of milk and thus carried inside the walls by Welles. The guard whose duty it is to search prisoners working outside as they enter the prison never thought of investigating those buckets of milk,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, Sept. 26, 1891. “After entering the prison, Welles would go to the hospital, where Sullivan was working, and transfer the weapons to him. Sullivan would seize the first opportunity to give them to Abraham Turcott, who concealed them under the floor of the carpenter shop, from where they were unearthed.”

Prison Director Sonntag praised the staff’s investigative work.

“It’s a good thing they discovered this conspiracy, for I consider it one of the most dangerous ever hatched in the prison,” he told reporters.

What happened to Captain Edgar?

Illustration of San Quentin Captain John C. Edgar published in 1906.
John C. Edgar was Captain of the Yard at San Quentin and a former Yuba County Sheriff.

Capt. John C. Edgar was appointed warden of San Quentin, assuming his duties Feb. 1, 1906. He fell gravely ill and resigned the following year.

One unflattering view of Edgar came from former inmate Donald Lowrie, who published three books about prison life.

“Early in July 1907, John C. Edgar sick in bed and close to death, resigned the wardenship of San Quentin prison. In the chapters of this narrative dealing with his administration, I have told facts very much to his discredit both as man and as warden. … As an individual John C. Edgar had many good qualities. As a prison official of the old school, he was a success. But as a Warden of the new school, he was a dismal failure,” wrote former inmate-turned-author Donald Lowrie in his 1912 book, “My Life in Prison.”

While criticized for the procedures and methods in use at the time, Warden Edgar was also a proponent of innovation.

He praised the 1893 parole law. He wrote that since the law was enacted, the recidivism rate was 9 percent.

“My report would be incomplete without due recognition being given to the parole system, the advantages of which are apparent,” Warden Edgar wrote in 1906. “The very low percentage of violations is certainly indicative of the wisdom and care exercised by (the board) in extending parole privileges.”

The former Yuba County sheriff and longtime prison officer died in January 1908 at the age of 74.

What happened to Warden Hale?

William Hale came to California in 1861 when he was 19, trying his hand at mining in Placer County before working at the San Francisco Stock Exchange.

In 1884, he was elected sheriff of Alameda County, serving two terms. The lawman was appointed San Quentin warden in 1891, where he remained until 1899.

His health began to fail a few years earlier during the high stress time of William Durrant’s incarceration and eventual execution. He semi-retired, operating a stock broker business in Oakland. One evening on July 11, 1900, Hale suddenly took ill. His wife summoned the doctor but he passed away shortly before midnight. He was 58.

Read more about Charlie Dorsey

Stage robber, convicted murderer and escape plotter, Charlie Dorsey spent years in prison. He was present for the first outside play brought into San Quentin in 1911 and saw many changes over the decades of his incarceration.