Unlocking History

1913 case of incarcerated mom ends in pardon thanks to parole officer

Dirt road lined with small cabins. Inset over the top is a woman in a hat with numbers at the bottom.
Del Norte County, circa 1915. (Courtesy California State Library, E.F. Mueller Postcard Collection). The county sheriff came under scrutiny following the trial of Ruby Bartol (photo inset) who was accused of helping assault her daughter. The convicted mother of five was received at San Quentin Dec. 18, 1913, but the case came under fire, eventually drawing the attention of the warden, governor and attorney general.

State leaders question mom’s trial and conviction

Originally known as a State Parole Officer, today’s parole agents help their clients find jobs, steer clear of negative influences and adhere to their parole conditions. In honor of Parole Services Week (July 18-25), Inside CDCR takes a closer look at a curious case of an contentious marriage, a daughter caught in the middle and a trial that drew the attention of the governor, prison warden, attorney general and State Parole Officer Ed Whyte.

Four people found themselves serving time in San Quentin State Prison in 1913 while another was sent to Folsom after they were convicted of allegedly violating a young girl. The five were eventually released after an investigation found their incarceration had been a “miscarriage of justice,” according to news accounts at the time.

The judge who heard the case was dragged in front of the state Assembly on possible impeachment charges and the sheriff in the county was accused of encouraging the girl to give false testimony. The case drew the attention of the governor and the attorney general while San Quentin Warden James Johnston advocated for the release of those convicted. Years later, after she was released from custody, her parole officer pushed for a pardon.

Girl accuses five adults in assault case

According to newspaper reports at the time, 30-year-old Ruby Bartol was sentenced to 40 years in prison based on the testimony of her 11-year-old daughter, May. The girl claimed her mother and Mrs. Josephine Horn, 30, held her down while three men violated her. Horn was sentenced to four years while Fred Hoosier received 35 years in Folsom Prison. Two other men also received prison sentences of five years each.

At the time, San Quentin held female inmates in the Women’s Department. Bartol was received Dec. 18, 1913, but given her pregnancy, other arrangements had to be made for the baby’s birth.

“Ruby Bartol, serving a 40-year term in San Quentin penitentiary, was moved today to a sanitarium in Ross, where she expects to become a mother tomorrow. She was taken away from the prison (grounds) so the child might be born free. Mrs. Bartol has been in prison about eight months (including her time in jail during the trial),” reported The Tacoma Times, March 6, 1914.

Case starts falling apart

May’s story began to crumble. The girl changed her testimony to say she was unsure if the men violated her but she still “suffered indignities.” With so much publicity surrounding the trial and convictions, May went to live with an aunt in Montana.

Sheriff A.J. Huffman’s integrity was called into question. During an appeal hearing, the accused men denied anything happened to young May Bartol. One man said he confessed because, “the sheriff said to him that, if he contested the case, he would receive a life sentence. But if he would enter a plea of guilty, he would receive a less severe punishment,” according to the Pacific Reporter, 1914.

The courts upheld the original verdict despite the new accusations.

Eventually, May returned to California to testify again, but this time she spoke about the misconduct allegations made against the sheriff and judge.

Legislature investigates Bartol conviction

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, April 17, 1915, one of the accused men testified to the state Legislature that the judge knew they were innocent.

“I don’t think Judge Childs knew we were all innocent at first, but later, when he found out, he was willing to stand by the Sheriff,” said 23-year-old Otto Creitzer, one of the men sentenced to five years.

He said the group was “set-up” by estranged husband Frank Bartol. The jilted hubby aimed to exact revenge on Orville Taggart, whom he believed to be responsible for breaking up his marriage to Ruby.

“The thing was a frame-up. The reason the little girl testified as she did was because the sheriff told her he would send her to jail if she didn’t. (I know) because I heard her tell her mother in front of the jail. We were upstairs and could overhear,” Creitzer testified.

Threats against accused

Taggart testified the judge threatened hanging if he didn’t help convict the others.

“The judge told me he had enough evidence to hang me and he urged me to do as he advised. He said that unless I did as he directed, he would give me a heavy jolt (at the end of a rope),” Taggart said. “We rehearsed the story I was to tell on the stand against Mrs. Horn. … I told Judge Childs many times that I was innocent.”

According to Taggart, the judge told him, “You plead guilty and I’ll give you a five-year sentence and send a personal letter to the warden of San Quentin asking him to take good care of you.”

The judge kept his word and sent a letter to Warden Johnston.

Why convict Josie Horn?

Woman in hat with numbers 28052 at the bottom.
Josephine “Josie” Horn, 30, was received Dec. 18, 1914. She was paroled in 1916.

Investigating legislator Satterwhite asked why the judge wanted Taggart’s testimony against Horn.

“He said that Josie Horn had to be convicted in order to save Sheriff Andy Huffman. She had to be convicted in order to make good the story of Andy Huffman,” replied Taggart. “(The judge) admitted he knew my confession was false. He said he had known me and my family for a long time. ‘I believe you are innocent,’ he said, ‘but I’ve got to stand by Huffman because he stood by me.'”

On May 5, 1915, the Associated Press (or AP) reported on the judge’s impeachment hearings as the story was picked up across the country. The girl said the sheriff told her to go into graphic detail when she testified. He also allegedly gave her dates to use when detailing the incident.

The girl testified in front of the assembly committee in 1915. The April 30 edition of the Sacramento Morning Union called her testimony “startling.”

“She (said) she was coached by Sheriff Huffman previous to the trial (urging) her to give false testimony in this respect,” the newspaper reported.

Mother wasn’t home during alleged incident

May also admitted her mother, Ruby Bartol, wasn’t home at the time of the alleged attack. The mother had gone to meet a neighbor to collect payment for a cow she sold him. Josephine Horn and two men were home with May and her younger siblings. At the time, Bartol and her husband, Frank, were separated.

The girl claimed she heard the men having relations with Horn. She alleges she confronted them and threatened to tell her mother.

According to the girl’s story, Horn and the men concocted a plot to put the girl in a situation so embarrassing that they could use it as blackmail to prevent her from telling.

Validity of charges questioned

What actually happened, if anything, is unclear but many Del Norte County residents didn’t believe the allegations.

“Contrary to the general opinion that prevailed until the last minute, the assembly committee decided tonight not to hold Judge John Childs of Del Norte county for impeachment, following four weeks searching investigation into charges of misconduct filed with the legislature by 37 residents of the northern county,” the AP reported. “The hearing … attracted unusual attention chiefly because of the presence of (the) convicts as witnesses against Childs, who tried their cases. They testified they had been ‘railroaded’ to prison by the jurist. Among the prisoners was Mrs. Ruby Bartol, who was sentenced with four others for an offense against May Bartol.”

The incarcerated people were escorted to the Capitol by Warden James Johnston and prison Matron Jessie Whalen. (Read more about Whalen.)

May was brought in from Montana to testify. She saw her mother, but their reunion was anything but cheerful.

“The girl’s mother was there awaiting her. Neither displayed any emotion. A stranger never would have known that they were mother and daughter. The short visit they had was painful to both of them. It was terminated by Matron Whalen,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, April 30, 1915. “While May and her mother were together, Frank Bartol, the husband and father, nervously walked the corridors. … Finally he was permitted to go into the room where May was (after) Mrs. Bartol … had been taken away.”

Help from state leaders leads to Parole Officer supervision

The Governor’s office and the state Attorney General began poring over the transcript of the hearing.

“The girl testified … that Sheriff Huffman had advised what to tell the court at Crescent City relative to dates on which the attacks occurred and what to say in respect to her debauchery by the men,” reported the Sacramento Union, May 1, 1915. “If credence is placed by the legislative investigating committee on May’s new testimony, there (could) be a movement made to have the prisoners pardoned.”

Ruby Bartol denied any wrongdoing and said she had no knowledge of an attack against her daughter.

Their sentences were converted to parole in 1916.

“Warden Johnston of (SQ) will soon release Mrs. Ruby Bartol, Mrs. Josie Horn, Otto Creitzer, Orville Taggart and Fred Hoosier, serving from four- to 40-year terms, and reprieved by the state prison board. The quintet, the board held, had been sentenced through a miscarriage of justice on misconduct charges involving Mrs. Bartol’s daughter (May Bartol). Judge Childs of Del Norte county presided in their case and afterward was acquitted (of) impeachment charges arising partially from this case. The warden’s office announced today that the parties would be freed as soon as they get satisfactory employment – a condition of their parole. This may take several days,” reported the Rogue River Courier, Feb. 28, 1916.

The Feather River Bulletin, March 2, 1916, also reported on the parole decision. Judge C.E. McLaughlin, with the prison board, told the newspaper the group had been wrongly convicted.

“These cases have been carefully studied and examined by me. The records on appeal have been read and re-read, and the state of each prisoner taken separately,” the judge said. “As a result, I am firmly convinced that these prisoners are innocent of the crime for which they were imprisoned. … The vote to parole in each case was unanimous on the part of the prison board.”

According to the newspaper, “Childs was not impeached, although the committee declared it believed he was guilty of some of the charges made.”

What happened to the daughter?

May Bartol remained in Montana but died a few months shy of her 16th birthday. While the cause of death wasn’t listed, it coincides with the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Parole officer advocates for pardon

Parole officer portrait of man in coat and tie.
Ed Whyte, State Parole Officer, circa 1921.

After parole, Bartol remarried and moved to Clovis. She consistently reported to Ed Whyte, the state parole officer, and the local sheriff. Years later, an application for pardon was put in with the governor.

“(She) has been on parole for … years and during such time her conduct has been … industrious and proper. … Various officials, both county and state, endorse the granting of executive clemency,” wrote Paul Yarwood, secretary to the Advisory Pardon Board, on May 29, 1928.

She continued trying, eventually earning a pardon in 1932. It was all thanks to the support and help of those who originally sent her to prison.

“(She) was cleared of a crime which she (always denied committing). Governor James Rolph pardoned her yesterday,” reported the Santa Ana Register, April 5, 1932.

Model parolee helped by parole officer

“Every month since (her parole), she has made her report to the sheriff of the county in which she resides. The mother of five children, she has reared them all since she has been out of prison,” the newspaper reported.

Bartol claimed her husband was responsible for the allegations made by her daughter.

“She has not heard from him in years but today she has no ill-feeling towards him. (Her pardon request) had the signatures of the district attorney, the judge, and as many of the jury as could be found,” the newspaper reported.

Her estranged husband, Frank, passed away in 1946. Ruby Bartol relocated to Clovis, married Sherman Coulon and took his last name. He passed away in 1961. Her story came to an end in 1968 at age 85.

According to her obituary notice, she was survived by three sons, a daughter, a dozen grandchildren and several great grandchildren. Her headstone reads, “Beloved Mother.”

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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