The Freedwoman

The Freedwoman

Mary Snowden and Cynthia Walton, two dusky damsels of Eufaula, who have been awaiting trial in the Muskogee jail on a charge of assault to kill, were tried by a jury and the result was a verdict of guilty as to Mary Snowden and acquittal as to Cynthia.

Muskogee Phoenix (Muskogee, Oklahoma), December 7, 1899

Mary Snowden was sentenced to five years hard labor and costs in the federal penitentiary after she was convicted of assault to kill. The 21-year-old had been married for just over a year when she became prisoner #2040 at Leavenworth. Details of the crime were not reported in the newspaper, which likely means the victim was also a person of color.

Matthew Snowden

Matthew Snowden, Leavenworth inmate photo

Her husband, Matthew Snowden, was a Creek Freedman. (Matthew’s mother had been a slave of Creek Indians. Emancipated slaves and their children were enrolled as tribal citizens). Matthew had served two stints at Leavenworth by the time he married Mary. Their marriage didn’t last long. In 1902, while she was still in prison, he got married again and the following year he was married a third time. By 1907 Matthew was incarcerated for assault to kill at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. His brothers, Littleton, Joseph and Horace, also served prison terms.

The Wichita Beacon newspaper described Mary and the Snowden brothers as “members of a band of cutthroats and outlaws.”

According to her marriage license, Mary’s maiden name was Grimmett and she was born in 1879 in Indian Territory. In 1896-97 she was listed with her mother, Mary Hill, on the Indian Territory Census, living in Tahlequah in Cherokee County. Based on her almond-shaped eyes, straight hair and high cheekbones, Mary probably had both Native American and African American ancestry.

Mary appears to have been unfazed by the prospect of going to prison — she stared confidently at the camera with the hint of a smile on her pretty face. Officials at Leavenworth described her as “colored” with “l. mulatto” skin tone, good teeth, dark brown eyes, black hair and a short, slender build. Her religion was Baptist and she was literate. At the time of her incarceration, both of her parents were deceased and she had no children.

Aylesworth Album Collection. - Photographs. - Box 1. FREEDMEN DANCE DURING ENROLLMENT AT FORT GIBSON

Part of what’s intriguing about Mary is what she’s wearing — the tiny, striped straw hat and coarsely woven shirt. A photo taken at a dance during the Freedmen’s enrollment in the Five Civilized Tribes at Fort Gibson, shows the clothing worn by freedwomen around the turn of the century — the small hat and the puffy-sleeved shirt with its ruffled collar are visible. Mary’s beaded necklace is the part of her outfit that may signal her Indian heritage.

Like most of the 12 women sent to Leavenworth, Mary was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas, because the federal penitentiary had no facilities for women. If she behaved well and earned “good time,” she would’ve been released in February 1904. Otherwise she would have served her full sentence and been freed in December 1904.

In 1906 she married James Brice, an African American man 12 years her senior. In August 1908, Mary was shot in her thigh (“Williams Causes Darktown Terror”) during an altercation with a jealous, drunken lover named Bub Williams. The wound was described as severe and may have been fatal because, although there was no announcement of her death, Mary’s husband was listed as a widower on the 1910 census.

Mary’s mugshot was one of a handful of early Leavenworth inmate photos that were re-photographed and made available online by National Archives staff. That’s lucky, because her photo is currently missing and may have been stolen from the National Archives in Kansas City, where the Leavenworth inmate files are held.

Featured photo: Mary Snowden, Leavenworth inmate photo, 1900. Collection of the National Archives.

The Subway Sting

The Subway Sting

New York, Oct 11 — A trim young policewoman proved to be more than a match yesterday for a husky mugger, making up in know-how and spirit what she lacked in size and strength.

 

Repeated reports of women being molested at a subway station in the financial district, which is lonely and nearly deserted at night, brought transit Policewoman Dorothy Uhnak, 25, to the scene.

 

With another policewoman and a transit cop hiding nearby and ready to aid her, Mrs. Uhnak climbed up and down the subway stairs hoping to lure a mugger. For six days nothing happened.

 

Finally last night a man grabbed her from behind with a strangle hold and shoved a gun in her face. She acted with lightening speed. Breaking his hold and knocking the gun from his hand, she turned on him and knocked him down. She had him sprawled at the bottom of the stairs by the time her two colleagues arrived.

The Miami News (Miami, Florida), October 11, 1955

Brooklyn resident John Thomas Bishop was booked on charges of felonious assault, attempted robbery and weapons law violations after his arrest by New York City Transit Authority cop Dorothy Uhnak. The event was widely reported in the news, with 6’1” John described as being “twice the size” of 5’5” Dorothy. The fact that John was black and Dorothy was white got special attention by the media.

Dorothy, a Bronx native, who was “half Irish and half Jewish” had been a policewoman for about three years when the 1955 subway capture catapulted her briefly into the spotlight and spurred her promotion to detective.

Three years earlier a photo of 22-year-old Dorothy, vaulting over a barrier in an agility course, appeared in the New York Times in an article titled “73 Girls in Shorts Take Police Tests.” She was one of a group of 138 women (out of 1240 applicants) who passed written and medical exams, making it to the final round of competitive physical tests to qualify for a job as a policewoman. Dorothy nabbed one of the 23 positions open for “aspiring women bluecoats” in 1952. Her starting salary was $3,700 per year.

Presumably John served jail time for the subway assault, though details could not be found. According to her 2006 obituary, Dorothy gave $125 she had won in a television quiz show to John’s pregnant wife after his arrest. “I wondered what it feels like, how a criminal tells his family what he’s done,” she said to Newsday. “I felt so sorry for him when I saw his family.”

lg_717444-Uhnak_Policewoman_coverDorothy was in the news again when her first book, a memoir titled “Policewoman” was published in 1964. In 1966, after 14 years on the force, she quit, fed up with the sexism she continually encountered. She told Newsday that she was “always chased out when something interesting happened.” She completed her college education and became a full-time writer.

Her first novel, “The Bait” won the Edgar Award for best first mystery novel in 1968 and was adapted into a TV film. The book introduced the character of Christie Opara, a female NYPD detective — quite a novelty at the time. The third Opara novel became the inspiration for the blaxploitation TV series “Get Christie Love!” starring Teresa Graves, with the race of the female protagonist changed from white to black.

In total four of Dorothy’s novels were adapted into television films, including her most successful book, “Law and Order,” published in 1973.

A pioneering policewoman and writer, Dorothy committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills at her New York home. She was 76.

Featured photo: Dorothy Uhnak and John Thomas Bishop after his arrest in the New York subway on October 11, 1955. Collection of the author.

One Knife and Two Diamond Rings

One Knife and Two Diamond Rings

After escaping from the Ingleside branch of the County Jail by leaping through an open window last night Mrs. Grace Rogers and Miss Marie Allison were captured several hours later by deputy Sheriffs at Ellis and Mason Streets. The women were still wearing prison clothes when apprehended.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 1920

Grace Rogers and Marie Allison didn’t know each other prior to their 1920 arrests in San Francisco. But the two women were well acquainted by the time they escaped together from the Ingleside Jail.

Ingleside-womensjail-2

Ingleside Women’s Jail, 1925. Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Twenty-year-old Grace was arrested on July 15th and charged with shoplifting several thousand dollars worth of goods from multiple downtown San Francisco jewelry stores. She and her husband had arrived in the city via steamer from Los Angeles three weeks earlier. At some point the couple had an argument and he abandoned her. Authorities were unable to locate the gentleman.

After fainting in the courtroom during her arraignment, a revived Grace commented, “I was lonesome and didn’t care what I did,” to explain why she stole two diamond rings, a wedding ring, two watches and a necklace. The stylishly dressed Grace, her beauty a distraction for the male store clerks, coolly palmed the valuables and made a hasty exit, disappearing into the Union Square crowds.

Grace Rogers_marked

Grace Rogers, jail mug book entry. Collection of the author.

Following her confession to shoplifting, Grace said she wasn’t going to worry anymore and that she “felt like a million dollars.” Her primary concern was to clear Donald Birdsall, a young man she met on the steamer, from being implicated in the crimes. “He is as innocent as a baby,” she claimed. “I was lonesome and this boy was nice so I invited him to come and see me.” Donald had been stopping by Grace’s lodgings regularly to escort her around town. She was dispatched back to jail and he was charged with vagrancy.

A much different kettle of criminal fish, Marie Allison, aged 19, was charged with assault to commit murder after she chased Percy Keneally, a taxi driver, through the downtown streets with a butcher knife. Marie and Percy had been romantically involved until she got word that he had a wife and child. On the morning of July 22nd, an incensed Marie located Percy at Sutter and Mason streets. She tried to confront him with the facts, but he refused to talk to her so she ran to a neighboring fruit stand and procured a large knife. She chased him for three blocks before she was arrested.

“If you let me go I will kill him the first chance I get,” she told the Court. “I thought he was a real man, but I made a mistake.” The judge raised her bail to $10,000 and sent her off to jail, where she met Grace.

Marie Allison_marked

Marie Allison, jail mug book entry. Collection of the author.

On the evening of August 4th, the cool shoplifter and the hot-headed, would-be murderer put into motion their daring escape plan. The women hid behind some boxes in the jail laundry and, while the other inmates were marched into their cells, the pair threw open a window and leaped to the ground. Next they scaled the high board fence around the jail. Their escape went unnoticed for some time, but eventually they were missed and a search posse was formed.

The ladies were picked up the following morning as they stepped from a taxicab near Union Square. The officers who arrested them insisted that the reason they were caught was because neither was wearing a hat! With bonnets on board, they wouldn’t have been recognized and probably would have gotten away.

Grace and Marie completed their jail time without further incident and neither was sentenced to prison. Grace apparently learned her lesson about shoplifting. Marie cooled down and didn’t kill Percy.

Featured images: Mugshots of Grace Rogers (left) and Maries Allison (right). Collection of the author.

That Crook Look

That Crook Look

His eyes are cold and his stare is intense. His thin lips curl in a slight snarl. If central casting needed an actor who looked the part of a ruthless crook, this stiff-jawed man would fill the bill perfectly. Even his suit, bow tie, starched collar and homburg hat can’t make the man who claimed to be “Henry Sarto” look honest.

Henry’s crime story goes back a couple of years prior to February 1916 when these mugshots were taken.

On March 27, 1914, Inspector J.B. Bradley, an agent of the Boston and Maine Railroad, discovered a man in the midst of robbing a freight train late one night at the Fitchburg Rail Yard, northwest of Boston, Massachusetts. He ordered him to stop but instead the man shot him twice. Fortunately the bullets tore through Bradley’s coat, missing him. Next the assailant hit Bradley in the face with a sharp object, injuring his nose. Then the man turned and fled, escaping capture, at least for the time being.

Bradley was not about to let the individual who tried to kill him go free — he searched long and hard for him. His efforts paid off, in January 1916, when a car was seen in the vicinity of more recent railroad car break-ins and the license plate number was taken down. The number was traced to a “Harry Taylor” living at 65 Oread Street in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Inspector Casey, a Worcester police officer, went to Taylor’s house on February 17, 1916, to question him about the break-ins, but Taylor pulled a gun on Casey and refused to cooperate. This was a stupid move on Taylor’s part because Casey returned with more officers and they took him into custody. 600 pairs of stolen shoes, stolen clothing and other stolen items were discovered in his home.

Henry Taylor_BackHe told police his name was “Henry Sarto” but that was an alias. He was charged with larceny from railroad cars.

His real name was Henry Leroy Taylor and stealing from railroad cars was his stock in trade. In fact he’d joined a railroad union in New York to increase his access to facilities for robbing cars in both New York and Massachusetts.

Henry’s first wife, Margaret, charged him with cruelty, neglect and desertion. After only two years of marriage they divorced in 1902 and Margaret was left with two young children to raise on her own. Henry had two more wives and three more children, but those marriages also ended in divorce.

The larceny charge was the least of Henry’s problems — police wanted him on the more serious accusation of attacking Inspector Bradley. A grand jury charged him with assault with intent to commit murder. On January 2, 1917, he was convicted of the charge and sentenced to four years in the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown, close to the tracks of the Boston and Maine Railroad he had spent so much time robbing.

If Hollywood had come calling, Henry might have ended up making an honest living off his scowl by playing the bad guy in silent films. But it didn’t happen that way.

Featured image: Henry Leroy Taylor’s 1916 police identification card (front). Collection of the author.

No Dainties for Him

No Dainties for Him

An impulsive, violent act has the potential to ruin a young man’s life. William Lincoln Parkhill committed such an act in 1896 in Sacramento, California.

Parkhill, a street vendor who sold tamales, attacked a child of ten, Lillie Frank, and attempted to rape her on the morning of Monday, August 24. Lillie (or Lulu; both names were reported in the papers) was home alone when Parkhill somehow got into the Frank house at 1327 Fourth Street.

The attack was interrupted when two neighbors of the Frank family heard Lillie’s screams and came running. Valentine Bitterworlf and Charles Caa discovered Parkhill trying to smother the child with a pillow. Parkhill made a run for it, grabbing a nearby horse and buggy nearby but the horse got loose and the buggy went nowhere. Parkhill was captured and turned over to the local sheriff.

The locals were so angered by the crime that they geared up to lynch Parkhill. Cooler heads prevailed and he ended up in the Sacramento jail. However one local woman, possibly attracted to Parkhill’s youthful good looks, tried to send him “baked beans and other dainties” in jail. The food was returned to her. The local newspaper reported the incident in an outraged tone, noting that the “dainties did not tickle Parkhill’s palate.”

One of the things no man can understand is the sympathy shown by some women to criminals and displayed under circumstances where no one would expect it to be.

The Record-Union, Sacramento, California, September 2, 1896

Lillie Franks testified against William Parkhill, as did Bitterwolf, the man who intervened and halted the attack. Parkhill, who looks unconcerned in his mugshots, did not have an attorney and he made no effort to defend himself. He pleaded guilty to the crime.

3William Parkhill_prison mugshots

William Parkhill, Folsom Prison photographs. California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.

19-year-old William Parkhill was given a 12-year sentence for assault to rape and sent to Folsom State Prison. He served 7 years and 8 months of his sentence and was released on May 19, 1904.

After his release from prison, Parkhill, who was born in Connecticut, returned to the northeast, settling in Massachusetts. In November 1904 he married a Boston woman named Mary French who was seven years his senior. He tried his hand at blacksmithing and at selling insurance. But by 1910 Parkhill had run afoul of the law again and found himself an inmate of the Massachusetts Reformatory in Concord.

He was out of prison when he registered for the draft in 1918, listing his mother Hattie, as his next of kin, his nationality as Canadian and, strangely, his profession as “train nurse.” William Parkhill died, aged 41, soon after completing his draft registration, possibly a victim of the influenza pandemic.

Featured photos: William Parkhill’s mugshot photos. The handcuffs are just visible at the bottom of the photos. Collection of the author.