No Place for Her

No Place for Her

It’s rare that someone becomes famous for going to prison, but that’s what happened to 14-year-old Lizzie Cardish in 1906. After pleading guilty to arson of a government building, the judge presiding over her case was required, under federal statute, to send her to prison for life. If the crime had occurred nine years earlier, the mandated punishment would have been death.

On the evening of January 17, 1906, Lizzie, a member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, set fire to the boys and girls building at the Menominee Indian Training School, a boarding school in Keshena, Wisconsin. Indian schools deprived the children sent to them of their culture with the goal of transforming them into “civilized” people. No one was injured in the fire, however the building was completely destroyed.

Lizzie Cardish is a comely Indian maid of about sixteen years and in court Tuesday afternoon she was neatly and becomingly attired in a white gown and waist and wore a pretty dark straw hat trimmed with blue ribbon. In appearance the girl is remarkably intelligent for one of her race, and her features are quite regular.

The Oshkosh Northwestern, June 13, 1906

Lizzie’s motives for starting the fire were reported to be either a wish not to attend school or a desire to go to a different school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Whatever her reason, it was an act of defiance against decades of horrendous treatment meted out to Native Americans by the federal government.

On June 15, 1906, Lizzie was taken to USP Leavenworth to serve her sentence, however the penitentiary had no place to put her! Leavenworth, a federal prison in Kansas, was built to house male prisoners. Evidently lawmakers never considered the possibility that women might occasionally break federal laws.

CardishLizziephoto001

Eleven women had been sent to Leavenworth prior to Lizzie. Their presence caused major difficulties for the warden, R.W. McClaughry, who had to find a secure, guarded place for them away from the male prisoners. Lizzie, by far the youngest, was the last female prisoner ever sent to Leavenworth.

The warden was not willing to keep Lizzie at the penitentiary for more than a day. Her mugshot and fingerprints were taken and the following day she was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas, where there was a women’s department.

Lizzie Cardish_Kansas

Lizzie Cardish, Kansas Dept. of Corrections. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

The public was outraged, not only that a young girl had been sentenced to life in prison for a crime in which no one was injured, but also that she was sent to a prison for male offenders. Many people demanded that her sentence be commuted, including Judge Quarles, the man who by law had no option but to pass a life sentence on Lizzie.

President Theodore Roosevelt commuted Lizzie’s sentence, in September 1906, but she wasn’t released immediately. She was sent to the Illinois State Training School for Girls in Geneva, until she reached the age of 21. Government officials demanded that she to be brought to USP Leavenworth from the Kansas State Penitentiary before being transferred to Geneva. As far as officials were concerned, Lizzie was still “officially” incarcerated at Leavenworth.

Lizzie commutation

Lizzie Cardish’s commutation document, Leavenworth prisoner file. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

William Howard Taft succeeded Roosevelt as president in 1909. He commuted Lizzie’s sentence on April 20, 1910, and she was released. She was 18 years old.

Lizzie dropped out of the news after her release from the training school. She was married twice—both her husbands were Menominee—and had eight children. She never set another fire.

Featured photo: Lizzie Cardish, Leavenworth Penitentiary prisoner photograph. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

Rival Burning

Jacob Kowalsky_front_cropped_marked

Jacob Kowalsky’s mugshot photo from his Sing Sing Prison Bertillon card, November 12, 1908. Collection of the author.

Jacob Kowalsky was in the grips of the green-eyed monster in July 1908. An Austrian immigrant who worked as a carpenter, Jacob was upset with John Smith, a young man who once boarded in his Bayside home. When John lived with the Kowalskys, he made the mistake of flirting with Jacob’s wife.

Bayside, a community in Queens, is now a crowded, heavily residential borough of New York City, but back in the early 1900s it was still semi-rural. Farms were scattered here and there, along with large summer residences owned by the wealthy wanting to escape the heat, smell and clamor of nearby Manhattan.

It was a scalding hot day when John, carrying a load of freshly harvested hay, came riding along in his wagon, pulled by a team of horses. He was bound for his barn and it was so hot that he didn’t notice at first that his hay was on fire. Suddenly he realized the heat was increasing and it was on the side of the wagon away from the sun, which made no sense. By the time he turned around to check, his load was entirely ablaze.

He jumped down from the wagon and began to unharness the horses in an effort to and keep them from being burned alive. He managed to get the animals unhitched, however in the process his hands and arms were seriously burned and the horses were badly burned in their hindquarters. John recognized Jacob, who was running away from the blazing wagon. No one else was in sight except for a farmer coming along behind with another wagonload of hay.

The Bayside and Little Neck fire brigades managed to put out the blaze before it spread beyond the wagon. Jacob was arrested and charged with arson.

Jacob, who spoke no English, had to testify through an interpreter at his trial. He admitted he was present when the fire broke out, but claimed he saw two boys set the fire and then run off. The boys were never located. The farmer driving behind John testified, damningly, that Jacob appeared on the roadway and asked him for a ride home! He declined, fearing the man might set his wagon on fire too.

Jacob complained that when John was his boarder he tried to “boss everybody around, including my wife.” John’s attentions to his “young and buxom” wife were apparently the real crux of the problem. He accused John (unjustly, according to John) of trying to steal her affections. He didn’t ask John to leave but literally threw him out of the house.

The jury believed John Smith’s version of events. The prosecution argued for a conviction on first or second degree arson since John had been on the wagon at the time the fire was set. However Jacob got a lesser sentence of third degree arson for “setting fire to an uninhabited place.”

According to newspaper headlines, Jacob Kowalsky “smoked out a rival for his wife’s affections.” More accurately he tried to set the rival on fire. It earned him four years in Sing Sing Prison.

Jacob Kowalsky_front_marked

Jacob Kowalsky’s Sing Sing Prison Bertillon card (front). Collection of the author.

Female Firebug

Annie Ackerly_closeup_marked

Annie Ackerly, mugshots from her prison card, 1908. Collection of the author.

On the night of December 10, 1907, an unoccupied apartment in a multi-family building at 114 Wyckoff Street was on fire. Wyckoff Street is in the heart of one of the most populous tenement districts in one America’s largest cities—Brooklyn, New York.

Heat from fire melted the water pipes, causing water to drip through the ceiling of the apartment below. The sound of dripping water awakened the children sleeping in the apartment and an alarm went out. The fire department put out the blaze before anyone was injured.

An examination by the new assistant fire marshal, Tom Brophy, revealed that someone had set the apartment on fire. Oil soaked newspapers, wood and furniture were strewn around the apartment, along with “seven-hour candles” that had been placed in strategic locations and lit. The windows had been covered with blankets to obscure the blaze and cracks in doors and windows were stuffed with cotton to keep smoke from escaping.

Ackerly home after fire

News photographs of damage to the Ackerly apartment. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 24, 1908.

Brophy recognized the name of the renter of the apartment that had burned—Annie Ackerly. He recalled that Annie had collected insurance money from an earlier Brooklyn apartment fire in another building. He also remembered that Mrs. Ackerly had a boarder who lived in her former apartment, an old veteran with a wooden leg. Her insurance claim included the man’s wooden leg, valued at $60, even though she had booted him (and his leg) out of her apartment before the fire occurred, so obviously the leg hadn’t burned.

The previous fire was also judged to have been arson. Annie accused a man named Thompson of “burning her out.” Thompson was arrested but never charged with anything.

With two apartment fires and a false insurance claim to her name, Brophy’s suspicions of Annie were aroused.

The young fire marshal traced Annie and her two young sons to her mother’s home in nearby Port Jefferson. Port Jefferson is in Suffolk county and he knew he needed to get her back to Kings County, where Brooklyn is located, in order to investigate and possibly arrest her.

“Has Thompson set my house on fire again?” she asked, after being informed that her apartment had burned. Brophy told her that he suspected the fire was arson and he wanted her help in locating Thompson. He asked her to accompany him back to Brooklyn, which she did.

Back in Brooklyn a $2000 insurance policy for the Ackerly residence was discovered hidden in the shirt of one of Annie’s sons, along with a damning written inventory of her losses from the Wyckoff Street fire. She was arrested and charged with arson.

Mrs. Anna Ackerley (sic) was convicted of arson yesterday in the County Court. She is the first woman to be convicted in Brooklyn of such a crime in more than a quarter of a century. Mrs. Ackerley, who is a handsome woman, had been separated from her husband for several years. She has two sons. As a penalty for the crime of which she has been convicted she may be sentenced to the state prison for fifteen years.

—The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 24, 1908

Annie Ackerly_front_marked

Annie Ackerly, Bertillon card (front), Auburn State Prison. Collection of the author.

Known locally as the “Woman with Iron Nerve,” Annie was believed to be one of the most desperate firebugs ever captured by the Brooklyn Fire Department. She was convicted of 3rd degree arson and, due to her callous disregard for the lives of her neighbors, sentenced to a minimum of 14 years in Auburn State Prison.

Interesting note: The Wyckoff Street apartment building in Brooklyn where Annie set her fire is still standing and has a 2017 value of over $3,500,000.

Her Radiant Smile

Her Radiant Smile

Christmas 1907 was not shaping up to be a merry one for Pauline Lyons. The 26-year-old Texas woman was sentenced, just before the holiday, to spend the next eight years in San Quentin State Prison. To add insult to injury, this was her third trip inside. However no one would suspect that she was anything less than thrilled about the state of affairs, judging by her radiant smile when her mugshot was snapped on December 17th.

In fact four things stand out about Pauline in all her mugshot photos: she was attractive, well-groomed, fashionably dressed and she had a beautiful smile.

Born Ethel Wilson, her first recorded court appearance was on October 19, 1895, when she pleaded guilty to battery and was fined $20 for blackening the eye of Helen Lewis, a fellow Los Angeles prostitute. She was 14 years old at the time.

Pauline Lyons 2

1st Prison Stay: Ethel Wilson, San Quentin Prison Photograph Album, August 1, 1899. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Four years later, in May 1899, she was accused of robbing a client named Peter Jonssen of $10.17 in the tenderloin district of Los Angeles. This time she got more than a fine; she was sentenced to San Quentin for four years. With such a long sentence it’s likely she had other run-ins with the law that were not reported by the press. She served two years of her sentence and was released on August 1, 1902.

Sometime between her 1902 release from prison and 1906, when she was arrested again, she got married and changed her name to Ethel Lyons. Her husband, R. F. Lyons, was employed as a cook for the crew at the Oxnard sugar beet farm of Albert Maulhardt. Ethel worked as a housemaid for Mrs. Maulhardt.

In August 1906 Ethel pleaded guilty to stealing $500 worth of jewelry from her employer. She hid the valuables in her mouth in order to smuggle them out of the house.

Ethel was bound over, and the little court audience was visibly moved as Mrs. Maulhardt gently pressed the hand of the erring woman who sobbed as she was led away.

—Oxnard Courier, August 3, 1906

Ethel’s husband was fired from his job as cook (though he apparently played no part in the theft) and she made another trip north to San Quentin. This time her sentence was one year, of which she served ten months. She was released on June 12, 1907. With two stints in prison behind her, she must have yearned to avoid another incarceration. Unhappily it didn’t work out that way.

Pauline Lyons1

2nd Prison Stay: Ethel Lyons, San Quentin Inmate Photograph Album, August 12, 1906. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

After getting out of prison for the second time Ethel decided a name change was in order and began calling herself Pauline Lyons. She remained in northern California, settling down in Oakland. The following month she and a companion, Joe Thompson, were arrested and jailed for setting a fire in West Oakland. The pair was also accused, in the confusion that followed the fire, of robbing Charles Valentine of a diamond valued at $300. Pauline pleaded not guilty but she was convicted and sentenced to eight years in San Quentin.

Pauline Lyons3

3rd Prison Stay: Pauline Lyons, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photograph Album, December 17, 1907. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

She was released from prison on April 17, 1913, after serving five years and four months of her sentence. Possibly Pauline Lyons became an upstanding citizen, keeping her nose clean thereafter. However an intriguing set of newspaper articles presents a different possible scenario.

In 1931 an African-American woman named Pauline Lyons was jailed in San Bernardino, California, accused of shooting a man named James H. Hoggans at close range with the intent to commit murder. Hoggans was wounded in the mouth, ear and arm. She claimed Hoggans threatened to hit her with a chair so she grabbed a .38 caliber revolver out of a nearby coat pocket “to bluff him” but evidently ended up shooting him instead. Her age was reported as 33 years, so if this was the same Pauline Lyons who was sent to San Quentin three times, either the reporter was in error or Pauline had shaved 17 years off her age. Hoggans recovered and decided not to press charges and Pauline was released from jail.

Assuming the two Pauline Lyons are one and the same, the attempted murder charge scared her straight because as far as I can determine Ethel Wilson, aka Ethel Lyons, aka Pauline Lyons, stayed out of jail from then on.