Faces of McNeil Island

Faces of McNeil Island

Located on McNeil Island in Puget Sound, the Washington Territorial Penitentiary opened on May 28, 1875. It had a stone cell house with 48 small double cells but no kitchen, bathrooms, offices, or guard accommodations. There was no heat or running water. A wooden guardhouse was added that enclosed the only exterior door of the cell house. In 1898 the wooden structure was replaced with a brick guardhouse.

McNeil

McNeil Island Penitentiary main building, 1909. University of Washington Libraries, Asahel Curtis, photographer.

The admission procedure was for the guard on duty to write the names of new prisoners in a daily journal. Each prisoner was handed his black and white prison “stripes” and immediately put to work doing chores. Prisoners supplemented their prison rations by growing their own food.

Life at the prison was grim — inmates worked all day, every day except Sunday and had to earn money for “extras” like soap and tobacco by making cedar shingles. Life was almost as bad for the guards, who lived at the penitentiary and were on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week with two and a half days off duty each month to visit family on the mainland.

Transportation to and from the prison was accomplished by rowboat for many years. Sewage was dumped into the shoreline and water had to be hand pumped by prisoners into a reservoir on top of the cell block. When water supplies ran low prisoners bathed in the cold, salty water of Puget Sound.

The name changed to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in 1891 when it became one of the first three federal prisons in the United States. Of the three, McNeil Island was the most distant from Washington D.C. and it was neglected. A prison hospital wasn’t built until 1906 and an additional cell house and electrical power plant were not added until 1911. A telephone didn’t arrive until 1923.

After it became a federal prison, McNeil Island housed prisoners who had either broken federal laws or committed a crime on federal lands. Common reasons for being imprisoned at USP McNeil Island in the early days included selling liquor to Indians, robbing a post office and, after 1910, breach of White-Slave Traffic Act, (Mann Act) that made it illegal to take a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”

Sometime around 1900 (no date was kept), officials at the prison photographed all the inmates of the penitentiary. Most were photographed in groups rather than individually. Initially the prisoners were told to come outside and line up along a brick wall where there was enough light to expose the glass plate negatives they used. Later a sheet was tacked up to hide the bricks. The photographer was unsure of how to operate the camera, leading to many plates being out of focus and underexposed. In one odd case a mugshot was pinned to the wall and photographed rather than the man himself being photographed. The notes shown to the right of each photo are all that was written about who is pictured. One man, identified only as “Kishtoo” was photographed twice.

The result of the photographic confusion is that the first set of prisoner photos taken at McNeil Island is extraordinary. In some of the photos, the prisoners, many of whom were Alaska Natives or Chinese, stood together in groups that were apparently of their own choosing and posed however they felt like posing. Some had probably never seen a camera before and look suspicious. Others appear angry, perhaps at being interrupted in their work. The looks on the men’s faces range from defiant to ashamed and from bored to perplexed.

On April 1, 2011, the penitentiary closed its doors permanently.

The faces of McNeil Island Penitentiary offer testimony to a distant time and a vanished place.

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All photos from the collection of the National Archives, McNeil Island Penitentiary Identification Photos of Prisoners.

 

Puzzled Police

Puzzled Police

On March 4, 1938, Jean Williams was arrested in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for disorderly conduct. Born in New York City, Jean told the police she worked as a “nightclub entertainer.” After conducting a search of her person, police placed Jean, who was dressed in men’s clothing, in the cell room for males. This was apparently her first arrest in Scranton.

Jean_Williams_confuses_police

Headline from The Evening News, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Saturday, March 5, 1938.

A friend arrived at the police station a short time later, asking why Jean had been arrested. After informing Captain John Lewis that Jean was female, the friend wanted to know why Jean was being held in a cell for male prisoners. Eventually he succeeded in convincing the police captain that Jean was a woman. She was transferred to the women’s cells and later discharged.

Scranton Police arrested Jean again for disorderly conduct on December 12, 1938. Her booking card indicates that she was 27 years old, tall and slender, with black hair and “maroon” colored eyes. In the “mustache” section of the card the police wrote “Hermaphrodite” in parentheses, as if embarrassed and needing to whisper the description. It’s unknown which cells she was placed in on that occasion.

Jean Williams_back_marked

Jean Williams’ police booking card (back). Collection of the author.

Jean identified as a female. Her face, with its delicate features and thin eyebrows, looks feminine, however she has a distinct adam’s apple, no breasts and she’s dressed as a male. The way her hair is tucked under at the back gives the impression that she’d recently been wearing a wig.

The confusion regarding Jean’s gender identity isn’t surprising. America in the 1930s was decades away from acceptance of people who didn’t fit clearly into traditional sex roles and appearances. The word “transgender” wouldn’t come into common use until the 1970s. It would take until almost the end of the 20th century, with advances in understanding of genetics, for the word “hermaphrodite” to be replaced by “intersex.”

Jean appears in only one Scranton city directory — the 1936 edition. Her profession is listed as “waiter” so she may have identified then as male. She worked at a Scranton tavern called the Ritz Café that was raided by police due to violations of the state’s liquor laws.

After December 1938 Jean could not be traced. Perhaps she’d had enough of being arrested by the puzzled police in Scranton, so she moved on.

Featured photo: Jean Williams’ police booking card (front). Collection of the author.

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Televangelists and their “healing” product scams have a history stretching far back in time. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, driven by news of events described as miracles, thousands of people lost money to clever con men (and occasionally women) posing as “divine healers.” One phony man of the cloth, going by the name Reverend Francis Schlatter, claimed to be able to cure the sick using handkerchiefs that he’d blessed. Send him your hard-earned cash, along with a handkerchief, and he’d bless it and return to you a “divine handkerchief” capable of healing whatever ailed you.

His name was as bogus as his handkerchiefs — he was born in 1838 in Switzerland and his real name was reported to be either Jacob Kunze or James Dowie. The original Francis Schlatter was an Alsatian cobbler and immigrant to the United States who, in 1894, felt the call of God in Denver, Colorado. Francis traveled around the west for two years, drawing huge crowds and supposedly healing the sick by clasping his hands together. He took no money for his services. He vanished mysteriously in Mexico and was presumed dead in 1896, though his body was never found.

real Frsncis Schlatter

Francis Schlatter, the healer, c. 1895. Collection of the Library of Congress.

The absence of Francis’s body created an irresistible opportunity for con men and imposters began popping up immediately after he disappeared. Since it wasn’t illegal in most places in the United States to use a different name from the one you were given at birth, the copycat Francis Schlatters simply started using that name, claiming they were the “real” healer who hadn’t actually died.

Kunze/Dowie partnered with a younger man named August Schrader around 1908. Styling themselves as “King” Francis and “Prince” August, the pair traveled around America and Canada organizing churches — they weren’t picky about the denomination — and officiating at weddings and funerals. They also offered prayer for a fee and the blessed cure-all hankies, sent through the mail.

Schrader and Schlatter

August Shrader (left) and his partner, “Francis Schlatter” (right). The Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, February 6, 1917, page 18.

They set up shop in Oakland, California, by 1910, but were asked to leave when people complained that their morals were “not conducive to the best interests of the neighborhoods where they carried on their practice.” Next they landed in Los Angeles (city of all things fake) and established their “Baptist Church, Inc.” — described as a cult — at a property they purchased in Hollywood. Garbed in long black robes, with flowing hair, thick beards and high silk hats, they attracted attention wherever they went.

It was the handkerchief scam that finally brought the pair down. Many of the people who sent money for handkerchiefs complained that they didn’t work. No one was cured of being blind or deaf (and certainly not of being dumb). In June 1916, postal inspectors arrested the men in New York and returned them to Los Angeles for indictment. The charge: conspiracy to use the mails to defraud.

Francis Schlatter handkechiefs

News photograph dated July 18, 1918. Collection of the author.

They signed over their Hollywood property to the lawyer who represented them at trial. August, aged 49, died of pneumonia before the trial finished and was given a pauper’s burial. “Francis” declined the offer to officiate at the funeral of his friend and business partner.

He was convicted of the mail fraud charge and sent to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington State, arriving on March 18, 1917, where he was booked into the prison as “Francis Schlatter.” It was unusual but he was allowed to wear his silk top hat in both his mugshots. (Normally the side view would be hatless.) His booking card notes that he had lost almost all his teeth and was less than five feet tall. He was released from prison on June 1, 1918.

On October 16, 1922, a man going by the name “Francis Schlatter” was discovered dead in a cheap rooming house in St. Louis, Missouri. Many newspapers reported that this was the man who’d been imprisoned at McNeil Island for mail fraud. But was it?

Francis Schlatter obit

The Topeka Daily Capital, Topeka, Kansas, October 25, 1922, page 15.

The informant on the man’s death certificate was Luverna Schlatter, who’d been contacted because she was thought to be the ex-wife of the dead man. Luverna was divorced from a different “divine healer” going by the name Francis Schlatter. However the body of the man who died in St. Louis in 1922 was not buried in Miamisburg, Ohio, as stated on the death certificate. In a bizarre twist, the body went unburied. On May 7, 1945, it was discovered in the basement of a St. Louis funeral home.

One plausible scenario is that Luverna, who lived in Chicago, went to St. Louis and discovered that the corpse awaiting her there was not that of her ex-husband, but belonged to the man who’d been incarcerated at McNeil Island* so she left without it. The death in 1922 of the fake Francis Schlatter is as much a mystery as the death of the man he spent years impersonating.

Featured photos: Francis Schlatter, McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. Collection of the National Archives at Seattle, Washington, record group 129.

*Update: I recently received a copy of an article from the Denver Times, dated October 19, 1922, from David Wetzel, author of The Vanishing Messiah. The article describes how the man who was imprisoned at McNeil Island was still alive at that date, when he visited the Los Angeles Times offices to tell the paper he was not the man who had recently died in St. Louis.

Bigamy Boss

Bigamy Boss

Charles Boss was married to at least six women — simultaneously. Would that make him a sextagamist? Charles was described as Fitchburg’s “much-married man,” though he wasn’t really into matrimony. What he was into was larceny, and marriage got him not only into a woman’s heart, but also into her home and pocketbook.

On March 29, 1910, Charles, aged 68, was charged with larceny from the 55-year-old proprietor of a lodging house, Mrs. Anna Beaumont. Anna was also his wife, or one of them, anyway. In his carte de visite mugshot, taken in Lowell by photographer Napoleon Loupret, he appears confident and younger than his chronological age. On the back of the card, a policeman has noted that he had “done time” in the New Hampshire State Prison (NHSP) and that he was an “all round thief.”

Charles and Anna were married in Lee, Massachusetts, in 1909. Charles told Anna he was a Civil War veteran with a nice pension. A generous woman, Anna gave her new spouse a wedding gift of $200 cash along with a watch and chain. Charles shipped $700 worth of clothing and household items, including Anna’s silver, across the state to Lowell where they planned to reside. Anna paid the shipping bill.

A few days after the wedding the couple boarded a train to Lowell. Once aboard, Charles headed to the smoking car. Anna remained in the passenger car. She disembarked in Lowell, but he didn’t. Initially she thought he’d simply missed the stop. However when he didn’t arrive, she asked questions around town about her husband and began to smell a rat.

What Anna discovered was that his name wasn’t Charles Webster, as he’d told her, it was Charles Webster Boss. He was well known to the Lowell police, with a history of larceny from his employers. She told her story to the chief of police, and then proceeded to investigate on her own. She discovered that Charles was indeed a Civil War pensioner, so she watched the pension list to see if he was picking up his money. When she found that he was, she alerted the police. When police located him he was walking towards Lowell, carrying a shotgun over his shoulder. Having taken $700 worth of his wife’s belongings, he was bound over to a grand jury to determine if there was enough evidence for trial.

Charles Boss Civil War pension

Civil War pension record of Charles Boss. U.S.Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933.

The 1910 investigation and arrest opened the floodgates on the marital escapades of Charles Boss, revealing that he’d married at least six New England women, including Anna Beaumont. He promised his wives that his pension would provide a nice income after marriage. Once married, he stole whatever he could lay his hands on and quickly moved on. In addition to larceny he was charged with bigamy in several Massachusetts counties.

His mistake was marrying Anna — she trailed him, found him and wasn’t willing to let him off the hook. His previous wives didn’t try to locate him, probably due to embarrassment at being cheated, then abandoned.

Charles was born in 1842 in Troy, New York. At the age of 18 he served a prison term for larceny in the Middlesex House of Correction in Massachusetts. He was actually telling the truth about being a Civil War vet — he was a private in Company C of the 27th Massachusetts Infantry and was awarded a disability pension for his service.

soldiers home chelsea

Old Soldiers Home, circa 1920. Collection of the Chelsea Library Archives.

By 1919 he lived in a county almshouse in New York. The following year he resided in the Old Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Charles Webster Boss was a thief and a heart breaker, but you have to give him credit — the old soldier knew how to rock the mutton-chop whiskers.

It’s pure coincidence that 21 Central Street, where Charles was photographed in Lowell, is now the office of a divorce lawyer!

Featured photo: Carte de visite mugshot of Charles Boss, circa 1910. Collection of the author.

Starts and Ends in Jail

Starts and Ends in Jail

Annabelle Johnson was in the pokey in Denver, Colorado, charged with larceny. The year was 1901 and her jailer was the deputy sheriff, a fellow named Charles Brown Blackwords. Charles, or C.B. as he was known, fell in love with the attractive young woman and talked her father into mortgaging his home to furnish the bond to get Annabelle out of jail. The lovebirds eloped together, despite the fact that C.B. already had a wife and children in Denver. Annabelle’s dad lost his house when she didn’t show up for court.

The couple headed to San Francisco. C.B.’s wife divorced him in 1903 and he and Annabelle were officially married. They decided to find work as servants for the wealthy, however they didn’t intend to do much cooking or cleaning. The plan was to get hired (using fake names) and become trusted employees. Then they would abscond with as much jewelry, furs and other valuables as they could lay their larcenous hands on.

The scam worked well for quite awhile. They pulled off robberies in San Francisco, Sacramento, Reno and Denver. However when they robbed W. E. Gerber, a Sacramento banker, of $6000 worth of diamonds and other valuables in December 1910, plans went awry. Law enforcement was onto their racket.

Annabelle, traveling under the alias “Jessie Croffer,” was arrested at the train depot in Ogden, Utah, and taken to the city jail. She’d been alone and was heading east on the Southern Pacific train. She had in her possession a large trunk that was presumed by the cops to hold the stolen loot.

Mrs. Blackword (sic) stated immediately after having been placed in jail that she wished her trunk contained dynamite, and that when the officers opened it, it would explode and blow the box into smithereens.

The Ogden Standard (Ogden, Utah), Dec. 28, 1910

C.B. was arrested in Sparks, Nevada. He confessed to authorities that it was entirely his wife’s fault — she was the one responsible for the robberies! He was just an innocent victim of her criminal enterprises, despite the fact that they’d purchased a car with some of her ill-gotten gains.

Blackwords headline

The San Francisco Call, March 7, 1911.

The stolen loot was recovered, including three diamonds sent as a gift to a friend of the Blackwords and other jewels the couple pawned in Reno. Stolen linen, clothing and cut glass were located in the trunk Annabelle wanted to blow up.

Annabelle pleaded guilty to grand larceny. C.B. pleaded not guilty but he was convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery. The couple was sentenced on March 6, 1911. She cried and made an impassioned plea that her husband was innocent and that he should not go to prison but he got a six-year term in Folsom. She got a seven-year stretch in San Quentin.

The strange thing is that there’s no record of C.B. being incarcerated at Folsom or any other California prison. Annabelle served four years and eight months at San Quentin and was released in December 1915. She and C.B. divorced in 1918.

Featured photo: Mrs. C.B. Blackwords (aka Annabelle Blackwords), San Quentin Inmate Photographs. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.