Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

“Yes, I killed ‘em. They beat me. I was their slave.”

 

And so Dan Tso-Se, 16-year-old Navajo is to go to Fort Leavenworth with the brand of Cain upon him, because, goaded to desperation by the ill-treatment he had received from five members of his tribe, he fired bullets into them as they slept in their tepee. Dan Tso-Se will be taken to the federal penitentiary to serve a ten-year sentence some time Friday.

The Salt Lake City Tribune, June 18, 1909

At 5 feet ¼ inch tall and 91 pounds, Dan Tso-Se, brand of Cain or not, would require protection when he entered USP Leavenworth on June 21, 1909, to serve a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. A Navajo boy of uncertain age — perhaps as young as 13 — Dan would be housed with hardened adult criminals, many of whom were twice his size. To make matters even worse, Dan was unable to communicate with his captors because he didn’t speak English.

A news report stated that Dan lived with his uncle on the Navajo reservation near Aneth, Utah, and it was this uncle, along with an aunt and an unidentified woman, who were the people Dan shot and killed with a 22-caliber rifle, along with wounding a third woman. After the murders Dan fled on horseback with his younger brother Tony. The pair weren’t located for a month.

According to prison documents, one of the people Dan shot and killed was his sister. Other documents state that he killed four men who had systematically mistreated him. Dan spoke no English; he spoke only the Navajo language, so there were undoubtedly facts that were lost in translation, resulting in confusion about what led up to the murders and who was killed.

Dan trusty

With long, disheveled hair and clad in ragged overalls and a dirty shirt, Dan appeared in the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, Utah, in April 1909.

It was the first time that the Indian boy had ever been off the reservation. Streetcars, automobiles and other things of the paleface civilization filled him with terror. It was with difficulty that he was persuaded to walk along the street to the courtroom to enter his plea of guilty.

The Salt Lake City Tribune, June 18, 1909

Informed of Dan’s maltreatment at the hands of the people he shot (whoever they were), the judge reduced the charges against him from murder to manslaughter, giving him four concurrent ten-year sentences. Absurdly, he was also fined $400. The sheriff then handcuffed him and escorted him to the federal prison in Kansas. There his hair was cut and he was given clean clothing before his mugshots were taken.

Dan sent a letter, written in Navajo, to his brother Tony while he was incarcerated. All letters to and from prisoners were read and officials were suspicious of the contents of the letter. “I guess we will have to take his word for it as I have no one who can talk to him,” wrote the deputy warden to the prison warden. There were other Native American prisoners at Leavenworth, but none of them spoke Navajo.

Credited with good conduct time, Dan was paroled on March 7, 1916. Prison officials had been informed that he was not welcome at his home reservation, so he was sent to the Wind River Indian Reservation near Fort Washakie, Wyoming. In an effort to find out how the young man had fared years after his release, the Leavenworth warden tried to locate Dan in 1928, but found no trace of him.

Featured photo: Dan Tsose, Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate photograph, 1909. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

 

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. Claude then returned the pistol 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. 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 people expressed the opinion that reform school would be the best option for Claude, but the court did not agree. 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 earlier alleged. 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 made by Eugene P. McDaniel, the judge at Claude’s trial:

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.

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 professional photographer Clara Sheldon Smith and reading more of the newspaper stories about the case and trial, check out  Arne Svenson’s fascinating book titled Prisoners.

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