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.
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.
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.
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.