The Youngest Prisoner

The Youngest Prisoner

Late in the afternoon of July 19, 1904, a young boy named Claude Hankins sneaked up behind his coworker, George Mosse, while George was milking a cow at the Bolles Ranch. Claude put a pistol near the back of George’s head and pulled the trigger, shooting him dead. Then Claude returned the pistol to where he’d found it in George’s room and fled on foot six miles to the nearby town of Marysville in Yuba County, California. He had $68 in his pocket that he’d stolen from his victim. He checked into the Golden Eagle Hotel and fell asleep.

Marysville map

Bird’s Eye View of Marysville and Yuba City, 1888. The Golden Eagle Hotel is on the right, second drawing from the top. C.P. Cook, artist. & W.W. Elliott Lithographers. Collection of the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library.

George O. Thompson, the ranch manager, and the ranch housekeeper were temporarily away when the murder occurred. They returned later that afternoon and, upon discovering the body and being unable to locate Claude, they called the coroner and the sheriff. The coroner confirmed that George had been killed with a gunshot to the head. Sheriff Voss began searching for Claude.

The sheriff found Claude at the hotel and took him to the police station for questioning. He told a wild story about two men showing up at the ranch, asking for food and money. He said one of the men shot George with his pistol and the pair took off with his cash. No one believed this story and soon the truth came out — Claude admitted to shooting George and stealing his cash.

Before moving to the ranch, Claude, aged 14, lived with his sister and her new husband, Atwell Webb, in Alameda, east of San Francisco. The arrangement had not suited Atwell. He complained that Claude was a wild and uncontrollable boy who ran with a bad crowd and “liked cigarettes.” He sent him to the Bolles ranch, about 150 miles northwest, in order to try and straighten him out or at least to get him out of the way. Claude received no pay and was expected to work for his room and board.

Claude had been at the ranch less than two weeks when the murder occurred. He’d written to his sister, Lugenia, telling her that the work was too heavy for a boy of his size and that he was frightened of his coworker, George Mosse, who regularly threatened him with violence. Claude confided to his sister that he even sometimes feared for his life.

Born in 1890 in Stockton, Kansas to John and Helene Hankins, Claude was the younger of the Hankins’ two children. The family moved to California shortly after he was born and his parents divorced when he was nine. Claude’s mother became sick in 1903, so he left school in order to try and help care for her, but she died later that year. Claude’s father was out of the family picture, living in Arizona.

George Mosse was not the murdered man’s real name. He was George Balch Morse, born in 1856 in Oakland to Harry and Virginia Morse. George’s father, Harry Nicholson Morse, was a well-known lawman, heralded as the “bloodhound of the far west.” Harry was sheriff of Alameda County from 1864-1878. At the time of the murder he had his own private detective agency. However Harry and his only son were estranged, thanks to George’s erratic and violent behavior.

George Balch Morse

George Balch Morse. Ancestry.com.

As a teenager, George attended military school but had been kicked out due to insubordination. It was also suspected that he started a fire at the school. He was a talented horseman but he was accused cruelty to animals.

George’s first wife died in 1880, leaving him with three young children. He married a widow with a young son but things did not go smoothly for the Morse family. George’s fascination with guns became an obsession. A desire to be known as a dangerous man began to rule his actions.

A dispute with a neighbor over a boundary fence led to George taking potshots at the man in 1889. He behaved so bizarrely that the neighbor complained to the East Oakland constable. A court hearing was held where it came out that in addition to arguing with and shooting at his neighbor, George had beaten both his wife and his stepson. The court found him sane but gave him a severe caution to control his violent behavior. His wife divorced him.

At first Claude was reluctant to tell the whole story of what went on at the ranch. Eventually it came out that George not only beat him but he also tried to rape Claude. Of course at the time the word “rape” was never used in this context, but newspapers reported that Claude said George tried to commit a “crime against nature” on him the day of the murder. The allegation was supported by the fact that, when the sheriff took Claude to jail, the buttons on his pants had been torn off and he had to find a needle and thread so Claude could repair his pants.

Some wondered if it would be reform school for Claude. Absolutely not! Despite his age and the terrifying story of abuse he told, Claude was tried for the murder of George Morse. Either no one looked too hard into George’s violent past or no one cared. Apparently not a single person wondered why the son of a famous lawman, a man who was educated, had a family, had been a professional (he had worked as both a plumber and a draftsman) and a property owner ended up on a remote ranch, working as a hired hand—a common laborer.

Charles Dray, the boy Claude replaced at the ranch, came forward during the trial with alarming details of the threats George had made towards him. (“He threatened time and again to cut my head off and take my heart out…”) But Dray withdrew his claims after he had a visit from the ranch manager, George Thompson. Claude’s father made a brief appearance, but only to tell the court that he was alive and had never been charged with a crime, as Claude had alleged earlier. Evidently clearing his name was the extent of John Hankins’ interest in his son’s fate. Other adults at the ranch testified that Claude had been treated kindly.

Claude’s sister told the court her brother was a good boy, but her voice was drowned out by those determined to seek revenge for the death of a famous lawman’s son or to avoid shouldering responsibility for the circumstances that drove Claude to pull the trigger in a desperate effort to protect himself.

The murder was described as having been done “in cold blood.” Claude was found guilty of 2nd degree murder. On November 1, 1904, Claude Frederick Hankins, 14 years old, 4 foot 11 ½ inches tall and 98 pounds was sentenced to 16 years in San Quentin State Prison. He was likely the youngest person ever sent to San Quentin.

Claude Hankins and others mugbook

Claude Hankins (right) with two other inmates sent to San Quentin around the same time, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs. Collection of California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Claude’s attorneys made an application for him to be paroled in November 1907. Parole was denied. Part of the reason was the statement the judge at the trial made about Claude and the possibility of parole:

My opinion is that the boy is a degenerate absolutely without conscience or moral sense. The statements he makes in his application are so ingeniously false that I have no faith in his reformation nor hope that he would become a useful member of society if released upon parole…his crime convinces me absolutely that this boy, although so young in years, is a very dangerous and confirmed criminal.

Eugene P. McDaniel, judge in the trial of Claude Hankins

His request for parole was finally granted and Claude was released from San Quentin in November 1909. Aged 19, he had grown a full foot taller while he was incarcerated.

He moved to Seattle, Washington, where he married Etta Collier in 1914. The couple had two daughters and Claude was employed for many years a truck driver and later as a bosun for a shipping company. There is no evidence he ever got into trouble again with the law. He died, aged 75, on April 10, 1965, in Seattle.

If you’re interested in seeing the mugshots of Claude taken on the day of his arrest by Clara Sheldon Smith, a professional photographer, and reading more of the newspaper stories about the case and trial, check out Arne Svenson’s fascinating book called Prisoners.

Featured photos: Claude Hankins, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs. Collection of California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

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