First Lady of San Quentin

First Lady of San Quentin

She was prone to episodes of violence. Very little is known of her early life, including her birth name. Born in Ireland in the 1840s when the potato famine reached its deadly pinnacle, she immigrated to America and ended up in California. The name she became infamous by was “Mary Von.”

Mary was first mentioned in the news in December 1884 when she shot a man named Captain L. Haight in San Francisco. At the time she lived at 4 Eddy place and worked as a dress cutter. She and her victim quarreled after he tried to enter her rooms uninvited. Captain Haight recovered from the wound and Mary pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to a year in San Quentin Prison.

Mary claimed to have been married to a German nobleman by the name of Von Hammerschimdt and at the time of her first incarceration she was using the surname Hammerschmidt or Hammersmith. After her release from prison, in February 1886, she dropped Hammerschmidt and began going by the name Dr. Mary Von.

At this point Mary’s story takes a peculiar turn. She took out a string of advertisements in the Oakland Tribune, starting in late September 1886, offering her services as a natural or “faith” healer. She claimed to be able to cure numerous illnesses using her mind, with a special talent for women’s diseases. It’s impossible to know if Mary truly believed she had mental healing powers or if she was just another of the quacks and con artists roaming around the Bay Area in search of suckers to swindle.

Mary Von ad

Mary Von’s advertisement in the Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, Wed., Nov. 3, 1886.

Evidently she soon lost interest in the faith-healing field and began to explore other career options. Through advertisements taken out in a “matrimonial” newspaper in the spring of 1887, she met a New Zealand man named George Wesley Bishop. Bishop had just arrived in San Francisco for business and was reputed to be wealthy. He planned to stay awhile.

Bishop was looking for steady female companionship, despite being a married man, so he and Mary set up housekeeping together, with Bishop footing the bill. He rented a house on Powell Street and the couple moved in. He bought expensive gifts for Mary and a lot of nice furniture for the house. Mary claimed that she and Bishop were married, however Bishop was under no such illusion.

It only took a month for things to turn sour — Bishop decided Mary was only in the arrangement for his money — something he was rapidly running out of. He moved out of the house and demanded the furniture be returned. A lawsuit ensued in which Mary said her heart had been broken and, as consolation, she should get to keep the furniture. Bishop won the lawsuit. Recognizing that Mary was unstable, he decided he needed to return to New Zealand — the sooner the better.

Hearing Bishop was leaving town before she’d had time to appeal the court’s decision, Mary took matters into her own hands. Early on the morning of July 1, 1887, a woman described by witnesses as tall, portly and overdressed, waited near the gangplank of the R.M.S. Alameda at the Oceanic Dock in San Francisco — it was Mary Von and she had a gun hidden in her shawl.

Bishop arrived at the dock in the early afternoon and headed up the gangplank. Mary followed him onboard and without discussion she shot him in the back. A nearby passenger knocked the gun from her hand before she was able to fire a second time. Initially it was thought that Bishop would recover, but on July 3rd he died. Mary claimed she only meant to threaten him, not to murder him.

Mary was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence at San Quentin. She arrived at the prison on October 18, 1887. The following year she assaulted the matron of the female department with an iron stove lifter. Luckily for all, the matron survived.

Mary Von was the first woman photographed at San Quentin when prison officials began taking mugshots of prisoners in the late 1890s. Incarcerated there for 26 years, she was finally paroled in June 1911. Because the world had changed so much in the intervening years and because she had no friends or family left on the outside, Mary voluntarily returned to San Quentin the following year and died in the prison on February 16, 1913. She was buried in a San Rafael potter’s field, precise location unknown.

Featured photo: Mary Von, San Quentin Prison Registers, Inmate Photographs and Mug Books. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

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