The follies were a high point in the dreary lives of the prisoners at San Quentin. An annual tradition held near the end of December, the prisoners wrote, directed and starred in each and every act.
During the early years, when there were few female prisoners, the men produced and acted in the show, dressing as women to perform the female roles. But by the 1920s, the number of female prisoners at San Quentin had grown substantially. In 1928 the women prisoners took over the follies.
“Against a prison background, women who have killed for love or money, found an hour’s forgetfulness in the annual Christmas show,” wrote Ethel Bogardus, a San Francisco Examiner reporter who attended the follies that year. Ethel was engaging in a bit of hyperbole — most of the women incarcerated at San Quentin hadn’t killed anyone.
But of few of them had.
Louise Peete, sang “My Little Gray Home in the West.” “I don’t mean this one,” she whispered to the audience, causing them to break into loud applause. Louise left several dead husbands and lovers in her wake before she was convicted of the murder of Jacob Denton, a wealthy mining executive, in 1921. She would be released from prison in 1939, thanks to the efforts of Margaret Logan, who believed in Peete’s innocence, helped her win parole and employed her after her release. Louise repaid Margaret by murdering her. In 1945 she would be convicted of the murder; Louise met her end in San Quentin’s gas chamber two years later.
Dorothy Ellingson, a teenager and self-described “jazz-maniac” who’d been convicted of manslaughter after shooting her mother in 1925, took on a role in the show. Though she had no previous acting experience, she said she enjoyed it and promised to appear in future shows.
Dorothy Mackaye, an aspiring actress in pre-prison life, played a school marm in the follies that year. Dorothy hadn’t murdered anyone but she’d been convicted of obstruction of justice related to covering up the death of her husband, Ray Raymond, after her jealous lover, Paul Kelly, bashed his head into a wall. With her red hair piled high on her head, gold rimmed glasses on her nose and dressed in a long black skirt, Dorothy announced, “I am delighted to greet the friends and parents of our little school. We want to show how we are cultivating our little minds.”
Playing a pair of the school marm’s unruly pupils, Tessie Pena (featured photo) and another prisoner spilled onto the stage in the heat of a vigorous fight. Described as a “showgirl” before her conviction, Tessie was serving a life sentence for the stabbing death of her elderly benefactress, Frances Cole. Frances made a disparaging comment about a photo of Tessie’s mother, and in a fit of anger, Tessie stabbed her 18 times. Often violent while in prison, she would be paroled but returned to prison for a parole violation in 1942. She would die in prison in 1962.
Three years later —1931 — was a banner year for the show, due to the fact that four murderers got involved in the production that year. Clara Phillips, who’d had a brief role in 1928, took on the job of director. Tessie Pena appeared again, writing and starring in the opening sketch. Good to her word, Dorothy Ellingson made an encore appearance (before her release the following year). A newcomer to the prison, Erna Janoschek, had a major part that year.
Clara (aka “The Tiger Woman”) had been convicted in 1922 of the brutal hammer murder of Alberta Meadows, a rival for her husband’s affection. She was arrested but she escaped from the Los Angeles County jail. When she was recaptured in Honduras, she negotiated a guaranteed parole date in exchange for not fighting extradition to the U.S. The public would not be pleased to see her leave prison in 1935, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop her. As a free woman she would take up a career as a dental assistant — a trade she’d learned at San Quentin.
Erna, a teenager, had been convicted of the murder of a baby in her care in 1928 when she was working as a nanny. Her motive for the slaying was to get back at the child’s mother, Thais Scott Liliencrantz, whom she hated. Diagnosed with schizophrenia while in prison, she may have undergone a lobotomy. She would be paroled in 1940.
An unidentified reporter wrote up a brief synopsis of the 1931 follies for The Examiner. Details are sketchy but one of the acts, “A Satire of Don’ts,” sounds intriguing. There was also a musical comedy that featured twenty-six prisoners, half of them dressed as men. A Hawaiian chorus and an Apache dance rounded out the show.
1931 marked the final year for follies — at least for the women at San Quentin. In 1932 a new women’s prison opened in Tehachapi. The women were transferred there and the San Quentin women’s prison closed.
Featured photo: 1926 news photo of Tessie Pena from my collection. San Quentin mugshots courtesy of the California State Archives. Photos of Clara Phillips and Dorothy Ellingson courtesy of Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.