Unlocking History

Officer Jolly walked toughest beat for 33 years

A prison gate in the background with two grainy photos of a prison guard.
Charles Jolly worked at Folsom Prison for 33 years. He's shown at left in 1900 and at right leading a posse to recapture escapees in 1903, his neck bandaged after being slashed during the escape attempt.

Correctional Officer Charles Jolly gave up his first career as a grocer after a devastating fire destroyed the Folsom business district. Already in his mid-50s, he went to work at Folsom State Prison in 1893. By the time he passed away in 1926, he held the record as the longest serving employee of the state prison system, logging 33 years.

This is the story of a man who survived two large prison breaks, pulled through serious injuries and continued to help maintain public safety for more than three decades.

From gold-seeker and grocer to guard

Born in Pennsylvania in 1837, Jolly came to the west like many others at the time — seeking his fortune. For a few years, he tried his hand at mining in Nevada and California, finally settling in the Folsom area in the late 1850s.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Jolly’s life went through many changes, becoming a businessman and marrying his sweetheart.

In 1886, a devastating fire tore through the business district, destroying his grocery store. Like others, he rebuilt and continued operating for a while, at least according to a newspaper article published five years later.

“On Thursday, Charles Jolly (exhibited) in his store two immense watermelons, which were looked upon with covetous glances by everyone who saw them,” reported the Folsom Telegraph, Sept. 19, 1891. “They were raised on the tract of L.H. Landis in the Orange Vale colony. One of them weighed 40 pounds and the other a little over that weight. (They) were about as broad as they were long.”

By 1893, he was ready for a change and landed a job as a guard at Folsom State Prison. (Editor’s note: After 1944, guards were reclassified as correctional officers.)

Dangerous days on the job

Officer Jolly had his first brush with death during the massive break of 1903. At the time, the Folsom prison didn’t have walls.

“The most desperate prison break in the history of this state occurred here at the prison this morning shortly after 7 o’clock,” reported the San Francisco Call, July 27, 1903. “Thirteen (men), most of them in for life terms, made their escape, capturing Warden Thomas Wilkinson; Capt. of the Guard R.J. Murphy; stenographer Harry Wilkinson (the warden’s grandson); General Overseer McDonough; Master Mechanic Charles Ward; Guards J. Klenzendorf, L.C. Vetress Jr., Guy Jeter, C. Jolly, O. Seavy, James Dolan, William Hopton and Stage(coach) Driver T.C. Brown.”

Guard William Cotter was fatally attacked with knives and razors. Capt. Joseph P. Cochrane was badly wounded and near “death in the prison hospital. Warden Wilkinson was slashed across the body with a razor, but his injuries are not serious. W.C. Chalmers, a guard, was slashed on the right hand by a razor (by) lifetime convict Al Meyers, who was captured after he had gone a few steps from the rear prison gate.”

Before fleeing the prison, rioters used their hostages to get the gate unlocked and then made their way to the armory.

There, they armed themselves with 10 rifles and 15 revolvers before destroying the remaining weapons. Well armed, the men walked with their hostages along the hill through the prison orchard. Half-an-hour later, they released the warden.

“(Warden Wilkinson said) the convicts forced the captured officers to change clothes with them. The last the Warden saw, the band was heading for Mormon Island, about a mile from the prison,” the San Francisco Call reported.

Posse tracks down escapees

Soon after the warden’s arrival, more hostages were released, including a wounded Officer Jolly. The staff straggled in wearing only undergarments or the striped clothes of the escaped convicts.

Despite suffering a slashed throat, Jolly led a posse of guards to recapture the escapees. Meanwhile, other posses were formed with sheriff’s deputies from Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties.

Governor Pardee ordered Company H of the National Guard to assist.

The escapees, fleeing in a four-horse wagon, robbed merchant John Mendis at Pilot Hill. After relieving his general store of provisions, they proceeded toward Coloma.

The posses caught up to the men and Folsom Prison Guard Curry “opened negotiations by shooting one of the horses attached to the convicts’ wagon.” With their transportation disabled, the escapees returned fire. One of the inmates was killed in the melee while others fled into the woods.

It was a tense few days but most of the escapees were recaptured returned to prison.

Officer Jolly seriously injured in second break

A year after the massive break, another group hoped to repeat what they saw as a successful escape attempt.

Grainy photo of elderly man.
Charles Jolly in his later years.

On Dec. 29, 1904, convicts rushed prison staff, taking two hostages: Captain of the Guard Richard J. Murphy and Officer Jolly.

What the convicts didn’t know is prison staff had been given new orders regarding escape attempts. When a new warden arrived at Folsom, he studied the large break and came up with plans to prevent such a thing from happening again. Warden Archibald Yell’s new rules meant there would be no negotiating for the release of hostages.

“The guards opened fire on the mutinous convicts. The officers of the prison were not permitted to be used as shields by the conspirators,” reported the Sacramento Star, Dec. 30, 1904.

Murphy was stabbed in the back during the attempted break. When staff opened fire, Murphy was also shot in the leg. Jolly was hit in the back of the neck, the bullet exiting his jaw.

“(The officers) obeyed my command quickly and (ran) to the prison,” Warden Yell said. “The convicts evidently thought they could run the same scheme that they last year, but we were prepared for them. Now they will probably be (well behaved) for a while.”

Four were killed in the uprising and four were injured. Murphy and Jolly were the only two staff members injured. At the time, authorities believed Jolly’s wound would prove fatal, but he pulled through.

“Charles Jolly, who was shot during the break at the prison over a month ago, has almost entirely recovered and will probably soon be able to resume his duties,” reported the Folsom Telegraph, Feb. 4, 1905.

Meanwhile, Capt. R.J. Murphy was dismissed by Warden Yell in 1905. Having worked at the prison for 25 years, Murphy opted to pursue a simpler career, taking over operations at the Enterprise Hotel in Folsom.

Over the years, Jolly continued being involved in the Folsom community, serving as an elected trustee for the school board.

At the prison, he promoted to lieutenant and was assigned less strenuous duties. Jolly was still working at Folsom Prison when he died at age 89 in 1926.

Crimes of the times

According to prison director reports from the mid-1890s, the majority of those incarcerated committed property crimes. Burglary landed a third of the 905 inmates in Folsom Prison. Meanwhile, 13 percent were in for murder or manslaughter.

Other crimes in the report include 10 people convicted of “providing liquor to an Indian,” one for “permitting wife to remain in a house of prostitution” and another for “seduction.”

Did you know?

Officer Charles Jolly saw many changes and technological advancements during his 33 years of employment.

  • In 1893, Folsom Prison became the first prison in the nation to have electric lights.
  • In 1894, an ice-making plant was established on the second floor of the Folsom Prison powerhouse.
  • In 1895, a rock crusher was constructed at the prison quarry.
  • In 1903, the prison chapel was constructed.
  • Former Warden Thomas Wilkinson died at his Oakland home, Feb. 24, 1904.
  • In 1909, construction on the prison’s outer walls began. That same year, the prison purchased locomotive engine 2083.
  • In 1913, the striped uniforms were replaced by blue chambray shirts and jeans.
  • In 1916, the first Folsom Road Camp was established.
  • In 1923, the outer walls were completed.
  • In 1924, Capt. P.J. Cochrane was killed in an accident at the prison quarry. He was saving inmates when a boom fell and crushed him.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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