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.

 

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.

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.