Unlocking History

Behind the photo: Frederick Beck spirals into 1891 prison stint

Mugshots of San Quentin inmate Frederick Charles Beck.
Frederick Charles Beck was 27 years old when he was sentenced to San Quentin State Prison in 1891.

An old saying claims a person’s eyes are the windows to the soul. Archival photos of those convicted of crimes can sometimes tell their own stories.

One such photo is of California native Frederick Charles Beck, a 27-year-old convicted murderer sent to San Quentin State Prison in 1891.

Beck’s piercing gaze and slumped shoulders convey something more. A closer look at his tale reveals a hard road that eventually led him to the gates of California’s oldest prison.

Frederick Beck’s San Quentin journey begins in Boca

In 1883, at just 19 years old, he worked at a hotel in Boca, a settlement near Truckee. Boca was a support town, providing lumber for construction projects. Boca’s elevation and snowy winters also provided ice.

“With the completion of the transcontinental railroad, there was a demand for enormous quantities of timber for trestles, ties, buildings, as well as fuel for wood burning locomotives and woodstoves. Even greater was the demand for clear, cold mountain ice,” according to the Truckee Donner Historical Society.

“Within a few years the growing town added a saw mill, telegraph office, shingle house, schoolhouse, hotel, and general store. By 1876, (the town) completed construction of the huge Boca Brewing Company.”

Waiter wields knife against assailant

On Aug. 26, 1883, hotel restaurant waiter Fred Beck saw local rabble rouser Michael Donohue walk into the dining room. Hoping to avoid a confrontation, Beck asked for someone else to cover his area.

After breakfast, Donohue’s companion excused himself for a moment. No longer distracted by his friend, Donohue looked around the dining room, spotting a potential target: Beck. The waiter suddenly found himself the subject of verbal abuse.

Beck threatened to throw the man out of the hotel if the disruptive behavior continued. That’s when a fight ensued and Beck fled toward the kitchen, arming himself with a butcher’s knife. Not one to back down, Donohue continued his assault. h

After the scuffle, Donohue’s hand was nearly severed and Beck was in handcuffs.

Donohue also had previous run-ins with law enforcement, as he was known for picking fights in the area.

“The excellent reputation Beck has borne since he came to Boca, his industry, economy and the fact that he sends all his wages to his widowed mother, coupled with the fact that Donohue, especially when under the influence of liquor, is overbearing and abusive, and has been in many rows both in Truckee and Boca, was largely in the (defendant’s) favor. Donohue’s wound is quite severe, and it is probable he will be a cripple for life,” according to the Truckee Republican, Sept. 1, 1883.

Murder in the City by the Bay

Leaving Truckee behind, Beck found employment as a waiter and bartender in San Francisco.

Vices began taking their toll on Beck. Much like Donohue’s history, Beck began drinking, gambling and becoming ill-tempered.

It all came to a head just after midnight Nov. 1, 1890. An argument over a 10-cent bar tab left one man dead and Beck facing murder charges.

“From all accounts the killing of John M. Bowen by Beck at 1777 Mission street was an unprovoked and brutal murder. Bowen was a waiter. Beck is also a waiter, employed at 1801 Mission street. Bowen occasionally tended bar for H. Hahn, the proprietor of the saloon in which the tragedy occurred. He was (tending) bar when Beck entered and had several drinks,” reported the Daily Alta California, Nov. 2, 1890.

Beck refused to pay for one of the drinks, leading to an altercation. Drunk and angry, he started hurling beer mugs at Bowen and Hahn. They threw him out of the saloon but Beck returned, this time armed with a knife.

“(He) plunged the knife deep into Bowen’s back, causing death a short time after,” the paper reported. “The murderer delivered himself up to the police. He bears the reputation of being vicious and quarrelsome when drunk.”

Frederick Beck serves time at San Quentin

After several days of trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The first-degree murder charge earned Frederick Beck a life sentence at San Quentin.

According to prison records, Beck was 5-feet, 6 1/2-inches tall with blue eyes and “light” hair. The records also indicate his right wrist was “crippled.”

He also spent some time at Stockton Asylum from February through June 1893 before returning to San Quentin. In 1897, he was discharged.

What became of Boca?

A small town in mountains.
Boca in the early 1900s was a hub of activity for timber and ice. (Truckee-Donner Historical Society.)

According to the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, a 1904 fire destroyed the hotel. What was left of the town was demolished in 1939, making way for a dam and reservoir.

“Today there isn’t much left of the remains of the old town of Boca except some concrete foundations from a few of the old icehouses near the railroad tracks. Other remains can be seen near the foot of the Boca dam and beneath Boca Reservoir whenever the water level is low.”

Did you know? Boca holds the distinction of being the site of California’s first brewed lager.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

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