The Jailbreakers’ Will

The Jailbreakers’ Will

It happened in the early hours of the morning on December 4, 1891. Two police officers were standing outside the Broadway Jail in San Francisco when they noticed two men walk into Hinckley alley, a narrow pathway that ran next to the jail building. Wondering what the men were doing there so late at night, the officers followed them. But by the time they got to the alley, the men had disappeared. As the policemen turned back towards the street, a sound caught their attention. It was an odd scraping noise that seemed to be coming from the wall above their heads.

BroadwayJail

The Broadway Jail in April 1906. Courtesy of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

“I think someone is cutting through the jail wall,” Officer Reynolds said to his companion. Reynolds ran inside the jail and sent up an escape alarm while the other officer stood guard in the alley.

The cellThe jail was immediately searched. All the cells on the first floor — the ones that held the male prisoners — were in order. On the second floor, where the women prisoners were housed, the jailers discovered two cellmates who were awake and playing cards at a table next to the wall. Their beds had not been slept in. They told the jailers that they were restless and couldn’t sleep.

An officer searched the cell and found that the box one of the women had been sitting on was quite heavy. He turned it over and discovered it was full of bricks and mortar. Next to where the women had been sitting, a cloth had been pasted on the wall with a piece of soap. Behind the cloth there was a large hole in the wall.

Using the handle of a spoon and a kitchen knife, Jennie Hastings and Hazel Corbett had come within one layer of bricks of escaping from the jail. The fourteen-foot drop to the street did not deter them in the least. It would have been “like stepping off a streetcar,” commented Jennie.

Hazel and Jennie

Drawings from The San Francisco Examiner newspaper.

It was an obvious question, but why had they done it? Jennie and Hazel said they had $1.30 between them and wanted to “spend it on a good old drunk.” They knew the walls were weak and it hadn’t been hard to cut through the inner layer of bricks.

When told about the men who’d been seen outside the jail, they insisted they’d planned the escape alone. Bad luck, though, that the men had gone into the alley at just the wrong time, leading to their plan being exposed.

According to The San Francisco Examiner, Hazel had been photographed “more than once for the San Francisco Rogues’ Gallery.” In October she’d been sentenced to 125 days to jail for petty larceny. Jennie, who worked as a prostitute, stood accused of robbing a client. She had been held in the Broadway Jail under $2000 bond since September on a charge of grand larceny.

One of the items that turned up when their cell was searched was a will. It read:

Last will and testament of Hazel Corbett and Jennie Hastings. This, 2nd day of December, 1891, A. D., in the city and county of San Francisco. We, the undersigned, give and bequeath all our personal effects as follows: The checkerboard and deck of cards to Major Barnett in cell 34; nightcap to Sofia Jackson, 60; all of our groceries to Annie Williams, in cell 63; can of molasses to Jennie Seymour, alias ‘Brick,’ also the salt, cell 64; twelve napkins and novels to cell 34; sateen dress and black mother hubbard cloak to Annie Kelly, cell unknown; lamp to Jessie Covens, and to the matron our best wishes and good will. Signed

“JENNIE HASTINGS”

“HAZEL CORBETT”

Thanks to Jennie and Hazel’s attempted jailbreak, the authorities decreed that women would no longer held in the Broadway Jail. A separate facility was established for them on the outskirts of the city at the Ingleside Jail. In January 1892, Jennie was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to spend a year at the new women’s jail.

In 1895 a client tried to slash Jennie’s throat during a drunken argument. She survived the attack. She made her last appearance in the news in 1897, when a gold pin was stolen from her “crib.” Anxious to get it back, she reported the theft to the police. As for Hazel, she finished her sentence for petty larceny and was not heard from again in San Francisco.

Featured photo: Jennie Hastings–Photo Number 13278–“An old time San Francisco pickpocket; also a grand and petty larceny thief of the old school.” Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks Documenting San Francisco History and Law Enforcement, ca 1895-1936; UC Berkeley Bancroft Library

Taking Her Oath

Taking Her Oath

I was very fortunate to purchase this news photo on eBay a few years ago. It shows newly minted SFPD policewoman, Blanche Payson, being sworn in by Police Chief D.A. White. I suspect the photographer was careful to make sure the photo on the wall of famed police detective, Isaiah Lees, was also visible in the picture. Lees, who died in 1902, has been credited as being the policeman who came up with the idea of the Rogues’ Gallery (mugshot photography). While that claim can be debated, there’s no doubt he was an early user of photography to help identify criminal suspects.

Blanche Payson_marked

Here’s the full photograph. It was printed in reverse and a note on the back specifies that it needs to be flipped “so hands will be right.”

But back to Blanche: She was also a first. The photo was likely taken to announce the fact that San Francisco had hired its first “special” policewoman. Blanche would be charged with directing traffic and keeping things safe and orderly for women and children at the Toyland exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. “Mashers” (men who sexually harassed women) were to be her special quarry. She also guarded the Liberty Bell while it was on display at the expo.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Bush in Santa Barbara in 1881 to Thomas and Sarah Bush. By the time she married Eugene Payson, a commercial traveler, in 1908, she had changed her first name to Blanche. In 1910 Payson placed an announcement in the local papers that he wouldn’t be responsible for his wife’s debts. The couple divorced but she kept his surname. In 1923 she married Allen Thurman Love, but that marriage also ended in divorce.

Blanche was hired in part because she had family connections to policing: her uncle, Dan Martin, served as the first police chief of Santa Barbara. She also came recommended for the job by William Pinkerton, the renowned private detective of the Pinkerton Agency (“We Never Sleep”).

Blanche Payson advice (better photo) - Newspapers.com

Blanche directing traffic at the Panama Exposition.

Another useful attribute was that Blanche was an imposing physical presence. Depending on which press report you believe, she was somewhere between six foot four and six foot six inches tall. Not to mention that when she was hired, she weighed in at 235 pounds.

After the exposition ended Blanche moved to Hollywood and took up a new career: film actress. It’s possible the acting bug bit her when she was essentially “on stage” while working at the expo.

She made her first film, “Wife and Auto Trouble,” at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in 1916. She successfully transitioned to “talkies” and made many more films, mostly slapstick comedies, over the next three decades. With her towering height, she often played the “heavy” for comedians, including The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. She continued to appear in films until 1943.

Blanche Payson in reunion photo - Newspapers.com

Blanche (upper left) at a reunion of the Mack Sennett “Bathing Beauties” in 1950.

In 1925 a reporter interviewed Blanche about her police career. She informed him that, in her opinion, women made excellent police officers and were particularly well suited to being traffic cops. “Women do not lose their heads so easily as men. They do not burst into profanity on such slight provocation. They are not so dictatorial as men,” said Blanche.

Blanche died in Los Angeles on the 4th of July in 1964.

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Harry Vining, alias Edward Brooks, 19 years old, of 1 Harvard ct., Brookline, was arrested last evening by Inspectors Pierce and McGarr last evening on the charge of uttering forged checks. He was held on a warrant issued by the lower court, but the police have also an indictment warrant containing two similar counts. It is said he is also wanted in Brookline.

— The Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1905

It didn’t make for happy family holidays when Harry Lewis Vining was charged with three counts of check fraud the day after Christmas in 1905. Despite his youth, Harry had managed to pull off “numerous forgeries” of checks for almost a year, until he was finally caught in mid-December. He forged the signatures of a variety of real people on the checks and each check was made out to one of his aliases. Oddly, all the checks were for the same dollar amount — $29.

Harry was the younger of two children born to a Civil War veteran from Maine, John Q. A. Vining, and his wife, Julia Merrey Vining. John Vining worked as a carpenter and moved his family from Maine to Massachusetts by 1886, the year Harry was born. John and Julia were in their late forties when their only son entered the world. Bernice Snow, Harry’s sister, was almost 20 years older than her brother and had been a widow for seven years when her brother’s legal woes began.

Harry’s mother and sister showed up in court at his sentencing and turned on the water works — big time. Their show of emotion, along with the family’s “character and respectability” and the defendant’s boyish charm, softened the judge’s resolve. “Vining, my first intention was to send you to state prison, but I do not think you fully realize what you have done,” said Judge DeCourcy. Instead he sent Harry to the Concord Reformatory with a warning: if he got arrested again he would cool his heels in a Massachusetts state prison for a very long time. This explains why, when Harry got up to his little tricks again, he was in California — about as far from Massachusetts as someone could go in the United States.

Bimini_Hot_Springs,_Los_Angeles,_Cal._(cropped)

Bimini Bath House, circa 1920. William H. Hannon Library.

On November 29, 1907 Harry strolled into the Bimini Baths, just west of downtown Los Angeles. He claimed to be an officer of the law and wore a deputy sheriff’s star to prove it. He removed his clothing, put on a bathing suit and headed off for a pleasant soak in the warm waters of the natural hot springs that supplied the popular bathing resort.

Harry 1907 prison

Folsom Prison Inmate photographs, California State Archives.

When Harry left the baths — clean, refreshed and relaxed — he couldn’t find his clothes anywhere. That was because J. N. Gunnett, the bathhouse watchman, recognized Harry when he came in. After Harry went into the baths Gunnett collected his clothes, locked them up and called the police.

Not only was Harry’s deputy’s star fake, he’d passed a bad check at the Bimini several weeks earlier, so Gunnett was ordered to keep a sharp eye out for him.

The officers arrested him and gave him his clothes back so he could get dressed, then they took him to jail. The Los Angeles Police knew him as “William Howard” and wanted him for passing 15-20 forged checks, some of which he’d tendered as payment at local saloons.

This time when Harry showed up in court, his female relatives were not in attendance sobbing their eyes out. He received a three-year prison sentence to Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento. Officials did not know Harry’s real name at this point so he was sent to prison as “William Howard.” He claimed to work as a set painter for the theater — his occupation in the prison register was “scenic artist.”

After Harry was released from Folsom, on April 19, 1910, he wisely left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. In September he “kited” a bogus check there to pay for groceries and he wasn’t caught until the following February. When he pleaded guilty to that crime he falsely claimed to be the son of Edward Payson Vining, the former Freight Traffic Manager for the Union Pacific Railway Company. Vining was also from Massachusetts and he was a well-known author. Though they shared a surname, his family was no relation to Harry’s family. If Harry thought this would cause the judge to give him a lighter sentence, he was mistaken.

Harry L. Vining in stripes_marked

Harry Vining in Folsom stripes. Collection of the author.

At this point officials knew his true name and that he had a previous record. His sentence was harsh — Harry got another five years at Folsom. Four aliases were also listed in the prison register for him — William Crawford, William Howland, William Howard and William Madison. Prison officials wanted to make sure they’d know him if he were arrested again under one of his aliases. He served three years and seven months and was discharged on September 25, 1914.

After Harry was freed from Folsom he moved to Eureka, California, where he married a woman named Beulah and worked as mechanic and “car operator” according to the 1917 city directory.

The film business, which got established in California around 1919, with its glamour and “get rich quick” mentality, might have drawn Harry back to the southern end of the state, perhaps to try his hand as a scenic artist for films.

It’s likely Harry died in Los Angeles in 1933 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — it sounds like a place he’d want to be buried. However absolute proof that it’s “my” Harry in that grave eludes me.

Note: I am indebted to my vintage photography collector friends, Ron and Fawn, for connecting me with three of the mugshots of Harry L. Vining that appear in this post. The photos inspired me to find out more about Harry’s life and crimes, and they’re a bit of a mystery themselves. Fawn discovered them in a Michigan antique mall, where they were displayed together in a frame. (Strange — why frame mugshots?) It appears that they were cut from an official Folsom prisoner photo album and repasted into another photo album, then later cut out of the album and framed.

Featured photos: Harry L. Vining’s mugshots from his 1911 incarceration at Folsom State Prison. Collection of the author.

Murder in Sacramento

Murder in Sacramento

He came up to the room. He had the clothes on his arm. He said that he beat a woman on L street out of them, and finally said he got them off Mrs. Gibson. He said he got her drunk and that he “croaked” her. I do not understand what croaked means. He never told me what it meant. He told me he killed the woman, and that the d — old — would not tell any tales on him. I put the clothes on the bed and afterwards on the rocking-chair. They lay there till the next day. There was a watch and a gold locket among the jewelry. The locket was of a small size and carved. I believe the dresses were all wrapped up in one when he brought them in. The jewelry was in the pockets.

— Testimony of Carrie Spencer, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1873

After Charles Mortimer was arrested for the brutal murder of Mary Shaw Gibson, the Sacramento police took a photograph of him. That photo, along with a rogues’ gallery photo of Mortimer taken sometime before the murder, may be the earliest example of the police using photography to help convict a criminal suspect.

Carrie Spencer_flatOn the morning of September 20, 1872, a passerby discovered the body of Mrs. Gibson at her Sacramento business. Mrs. Gibson, a 45-year-old widow from Ireland, sold groceries and liquor from the front room of her property on Jibboom Street and lived in the back room. Her head was lying in a pool of blood from a deep knife wound to her neck that had severed her jugular vein. She was fully clothed and there were signs that she had put up a fierce struggle with her assailants, because reddish-brown hairs were found tightly clenched in her hand. The police believed she had pulled the hairs from the beard of her attacker during the deadly assault. Cash had been taken from the dead woman’s pocket and clothing and jewelry were missing from her room. A glass of beer on the bedside table was taken as evidence and later found to contain strychnine.

Suspicion quickly focused on an ex-convict named Charles Mortimer and his prostitute “moll,” Carrie Spencer. The pair had been seen drinking in Mrs. Gibson’s establishment on the day of the murder. Dresses and jewelry belonging to the dead woman were found in the couple’s room at the Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel and Mrs. Gibson’s ring was found in Charles’ possession. Charles claimed he purchased Mrs. Gibson’s belongings from a man named “George.”

Mechnic's hotel

Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel, undated photo, Library of Congress

Most damning of all, Charles had a fresh injury to his face and he was missing some of his whiskers. He’d been to the local barber to get his beard trimmed to try and make the missing facial hair less noticeable. Police also found a partially empty packet of strychnine powder in his pocket.

The couple was arrested for the murder and photographed by the police. A comparison of a pre-murder photo of Charles to one taken shortly after the murder clearly shows that he normally sported a beard and it had recently been shaved off. His facial hair was described as being reddish-brown in color.

Charles Mortimer was born Charles Flinn in 1834 in Vermont. He was the eldest of five brothers. His family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, when he was still a child. By the time he was 14 he was in the state reform school in Worcester, where he was described as “idle and dissolute.” He moved west around 1860 and served a one-year sentence at San Quentin Prison in 1862 for a robbery he committed in San Francisco.

Another arrest for assault and robbery followed in 1864. At that time Charles claimed to have reformed and offered to show the police where he buried some stolen loot in exchange for leniency. While pointing out the spot to an officer, who bent down to get a better look, Charles knocked him over the head, grabbed his gun and beat him with it until he thought the man was dead, then made his escape. (The officer eventually recovered). The following year he teamed up with another escaped convict and committed a series of robberies under the name George Foster. These crimes landed him back at San Quentin for a seven-year stretch. Shortly after he was released, in 1872, he met Carrie at a dance hall in San Francisco.

In order to save her own skin, Carrie became the chief witness against Charles at the murder trial. He threatened to kill her if she testified against him, but she had little choice but to cooperate with police if she wanted to avoid being charged as an accessory. She pinned the blame squarely on him, claiming that she knew nothing about Mrs. Gibson’s murder until afterwards, when he showed up at their room with the cash, clothing and jewelry.

Charles was convicted and sentenced to hang. After his conviction he told his version of the story to the press in exchange for money to pay his lawyers. He admitted that he hit Mrs. Gibson with a beer mug, cutting her face and causing her to fall over, but it was Carrie, he insisted, who dealt the deathblow by cutting her throat while he held down the victim’s hands.

A month before the execution date an armed stranger tried to enter the Sacramento Jail, where Charles was being held, in the middle of the night. He was shot and killed by the officer guarding the jail entrance. The man was William John Flinn, Charles’ younger brother. Though he hadn’t seen his brother for many years, William traveled more than 3,000 miles from his home in Massachusetts to Sacramento, hoping to rescue Charles from the gallows.

Charles feigned insanity after the death of his brother but it didn’t help his cause. He was hanged on May 15, 1873. It took him 13 minutes to die. He was buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery, near the brother who died trying to save him.

Carrie returned to her previous pimp, James Willis, and resumed her career as a prostitute. In September 1873 she was arrested in Sacramento for trying to entice a young girl into a “house of ill fame.” Later that year, Carrie and James, who had been convicted of vagrancy and asked to leave the city, boarded a train to Stockton. They were seen in San Francisco, where it was reported that James was fined $300 for violently assaulting an African American woman after she refused his offer of drugged beer.

Mrs. Gibson’s family initially was unable to locate her will and were uncertain about how to divide her $13,000 fortune. Her will was finally found in March 1874 among a pile of papers taken from her house. Rather than leaving her estate to all six of her siblings, she left it only to the ones who had followed her instructions and immigrated with her to California, cutting out those who had remained in Ireland.

Featured photo: Charles Mortimer, before and after the murder of Mary Gibson, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

Photo of Carrie Spencer, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

Soldier Boy

Soldier Boy

MARYSVILLE, Nov. 9. — Barney McQuaid was to-day sentenced to five years, and Thomas Mays to ten years, in San Quentin for highway robbery committed near Sicard Flat on October 27. McQuaid and Mays are deserters from the Presidio and were attired in infantry uniform at the time of their apprehension.

The San Francisco Call, November 10, 1900

Tom Mays_marked

Two young soldiers, Hugh Bernard “Barney” McQuaid, age 19, and Tom Mays, age 22, carried out a robbery near a desolate area in Yuba County, California. The men were deserters from a military base in San Francisco, and it’s likely that they were training for service in the Spanish-American War when they left their army posts and headed north.

Barney and Tom in stripes

San Quentin mugbook, California State Archives.

Prior to joining the army, Barney had a few skirmishes with law enforcement back in his hometown of Minneapolis, mostly for being drunk and disorderly and resisting arrest. Barney had a tendency to use foul language and become violent when crossed. On one occasion he fought a policeman who was trying to arrest him with such intensity that several officers had to be called to assist. It’s likely his family figured that a stint in the army would straighten out the troubled young man.

During his incarceration at San Quentin, Barney suffered from mental illness so severe that the guards at one of the harshest prisons in America were unable to control him, so he was transferred to a California asylum, the Mendocino State Hospital. His condition was described as “improved” when he was released from the hospital.

Though his prison record stated he was discharged on June 10, 1904, Barney was actually sent home to his family in Minneapolis in September 1903. It may have seemed like a blessing to his parents, who had already put five of their eleven children into an early grave. Barney’s father, John, was a policeman and officials trusted him to keep his son away from the temptations of crime. It was hoped that the comforts family life would help Barney regain his sanity.

It didn’t take long for Barney’s parents and sisters to realize they weren’t equipped to deal with his illness. In early December he was admitted to the St. Peter Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, Minnesota. His condition was described as “Demented and Vicious.” His medical record lists the “alleged cause” of his insanity as “degeneracy” (possibly he had a history of homosexuality, then considered a mental illness) but there’s no doubt he experienced violent outbursts and was a danger to others. According to the hospital notes, he’d been ill since the age of 17, so he was mentally unstable when he enlisted in the army in 1900.

He is strong and robust. He is quiet and sullen, pugnacious at times. Says he is a soldier boy and must not be kept in the hospital.

— St. Peter Hospital patient notes for Barney McQuaid

Measuring just over 5’, 9” tall and weighing 195 lbs., 22-year-old Barney was a powerfully built man. Three weeks after he was admitted to the hospital, he escaped. Two months later he was captured and returned to the institution.

Barney never left St. Peter’s again. Eleven years later he suffered a stroke and died on September 23, 1914. He was 33 years old.

Featured photo: Barney McQuaid’s mugshot, from a glass negative, taken on the day of his arrest in Marysville, California. Collection of the author.

The Veiled Man

The Veiled Man

Ernest Long, marine engineer, who was arrested last Monday night on a charge of masquerading as a woman on the street, figured as a defendant in two court actions yesterday.

 

He appeared in Police Judge D.S. O’Brien’s court to answer to the masquerading charge, where he entered a plea of guilty.

 

The costume which Long wore at the time of his arrest was produced in court. It consisted of frilly lingerie, spiderweb silk stockings, fancy pumps and other feminine attire.

 

Judge O’Brien continued the case until next Wednesday to gave (sic) Dr. O’Neill further time for observations.

 

Mrs. Lulu Long, the engineer’s wife, made him a defendant in divorce proceedings in the superior court yesterday afternoon, alleging cruelty.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 1922

Ernest Long was arrested on March 21, 1922, in San Francisco for dressing in “women’s garb” and for carrying a concealed weapon — a revolver — that police found on him. At the time of his arrest Ernest worked as a marine engineer on the steamship “Rose City,” which traveled between San Francisco and Portland.

Ernest Long passport photo

Ernest’s wife, Lulu, told police he awakened her in the middle of the night and forced her to help him dress in women’s clothes, then instructed her to go back to bed. Lulu also claimed that Ernest had been dressing as a woman for the past seven years, since their marriage in 1915, and that he only owned one suit of men’s clothing.

“I’m trying to hook up with a vaudeville circuit,” he explained. “But I’m not ready yet. I wouldn’t want any publicity right now.” Seems like an odd comment from a man who spent his life working in male-dominated jobs, including as a machinist, engineer, plumber and sailor.

Unfortunately he got plenty of publicity, when articles about his arrest appeared in newspapers around California and in his native town of Portland, Oregon.

Why was Ernest arrested? In 1863 a law was passed in San Francisco making it a criminal offense for a person to appear in public in “dress not belonging to his or her sex.” The law would remain in place until 1974. San Francisco was not alone — many other American cities also passed laws prohibiting cross-dressing.

 

cross dresser group

Men arrested in 1927 in Los Angeles for cross-dressing. Jesse Brown Cook scrapbook.

Ernest was born into an extremely unusual family. His father, Pon Long, was Chinese and his mother, Selina, was born in England. The couple met in 1877 when Selina worked as a teacher in a private Chinese school in San Francisco. Pon, described as a lawyer and merchant, had immigrated to America in 1869. The couple managed somehow to get a marriage license, despite the anti-miscegenation law in California prohibiting marriage between people of different races. Their marriage, described in the news as a “strange affinity,” shocked San Franciscans.

The Long family spent the next 12 years in Portland, Oregon, where they were tolerated despite the law there against interracial marriage. In 1889, when Ernest was an infant, Pon, Selina and their six children sailed to China. A seventh child, Mabel, was born in Hong Kong in 1892. The family spent years dividing their time between China and America. The children, including Ernest, identified as Caucasian on census and passport documents.

The San Francisco police photographed Ernest in full gear for use as evidence in court, even though the clothes he wore when arrested were submitted as evidence. Unusually for police suspect photos, he looks relaxed, pleased and dreamy-eyed. His legs in their “spiderweb silk stockings” appear heavy and masculine, but his feet are surprisingly petite. It’s probable that he saw bound feet on girls and women while he lived in China. He may have hoped to emulate the look, considered a mark of beauty in China and also thought to be a sexual stimulant for a woman’s male partner.

The 1922 arrest wreaked havoc on Ernest and his family. Lulu filed for divorce and later deserted him, taking their three children with her. However the couple reunited and had five more children, though ultimately, they divorced in the early 1940s.

Ernest died in San Diego, California, 55 years after his arrest for “masquerading as a woman.”

Featured photos: Ernest Long, Mar. 21/22, Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks Documenting San Francisco History and Law Enforcement, ca. 1895-1936. Collection of the UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Also shown: Ernest Long, 1917 passport photo.

 

 

Starts and Ends in Jail

Starts and Ends in Jail

Annabelle Johnson was in the pokey in Denver, Colorado, charged with larceny. The year was 1901 and her jailer was the deputy sheriff, a fellow named Charles Brown Blackwords. Charles, or C.B. as he was known, fell in love with the attractive young woman and talked her father into mortgaging his home to furnish the bond to get Annabelle out of jail. The lovebirds eloped together, despite the fact that C.B. already had a wife and children in Denver. Annabelle’s dad lost his house when she didn’t show up for court.

The couple headed to San Francisco. C.B.’s wife divorced him in 1903 and he and Annabelle were officially married. They decided to find work as servants for the wealthy, however they didn’t intend to do much cooking or cleaning. The plan was to get hired (using fake names) and become trusted employees. Then they would abscond with as much jewelry, furs and other valuables as they could lay their larcenous hands on.

The scam worked well for quite awhile. They pulled off robberies in San Francisco, Sacramento, Reno and Denver. However when they robbed W. E. Gerber, a Sacramento banker, of $6000 worth of diamonds and other valuables in December 1910, plans went awry. Law enforcement was onto their racket.

Annabelle, traveling under the alias “Jessie Croffer,” was arrested at the train depot in Ogden, Utah, and taken to the city jail. She’d been alone and was heading east on the Southern Pacific train. She had in her possession a large trunk that was presumed by the cops to hold the stolen loot.

Mrs. Blackword (sic) stated immediately after having been placed in jail that she wished her trunk contained dynamite, and that when the officers opened it, it would explode and blow the box into smithereens.

The Ogden Standard (Ogden, Utah), Dec. 28, 1910

C.B. was arrested in Sparks, Nevada. He confessed to authorities that it was entirely his wife’s fault — she was the one responsible for the robberies! He was just an innocent victim of her criminal enterprises, despite the fact that they’d purchased a car with some of her ill-gotten gains.

Blackwords headline

The San Francisco Call, March 7, 1911.

The stolen loot was recovered, including three diamonds sent as a gift to a friend of the Blackwords and other jewels the couple pawned in Reno. Stolen linen, clothing and cut glass were located in the trunk Annabelle wanted to blow up.

Annabelle pleaded guilty to grand larceny. C.B. pleaded not guilty but he was convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery. The couple was sentenced on March 6, 1911. She cried and made an impassioned plea that her husband was innocent and that he should not go to prison but he got a six-year term in Folsom. She got a seven-year stretch in San Quentin.

The strange thing is that there’s no record of C.B. being incarcerated at Folsom or any other California prison. Annabelle served four years and eight months at San Quentin and was released in December 1915. She and C.B. divorced in 1918.

Featured photo: Mrs. C.B. Blackwords (aka Annabelle Blackwords), San Quentin Inmate Photographs. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Give Him Up

Give Him Up

A Montana-born woman, 34-year-old Mae Kavanaugh, was convicted of writing “fictitious checks” and sent to San Quentin State Prison, the infamous northern California prison, on March 25, 1918, to serve a two year term.

Eight years earlier, in 1910, Mae and a male accomplice, H. S. Farnsworth, lured a man to their rented Santa Cruz cottage. Suddenly the lights went out and the victim, John Hodges, found himself in the dark with Miss Mae. A man found alone with a single woman could only be after one thing, and if his wife found out, it would be highly embarrassing for him, perhaps even disastrous. Mae pulled a gun on Hodges and demanded $500. Not having the cash on him, Hodges wrote her a promissory note.

farnsworth2

H.S. Farnsworth, San Quentin Mug Book, July 2, 1910. California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.

Instead of paying up, Hodges reported the couple to the sheriff. Farnsworth, a man described as a “once wealthy contractor” was convicted of extortion and given the maximum sentence of 5 years in San Quentin. “I’m sorry I can’t make it more,” commented the judge when Farnsworth was sentenced.

I am down and out. I was once well to do but met with reverses, and this thing appealed to me as a chance to make a raise.

—H. S. Farnsworth, June 28, 1910, Santa Cruz, California

Mae was very lucky; she got probation and was ordered to “give Farnsworth up.” Apparently she gave up Farnsworth, but neglected to give up crime.

San Quentin is the oldest correctional institution in California. It housed women from the time it opened in 1852 until 1932, when a prison for women was built in Tehachapi.

Featured image: Mae Kavanaugh, San Quentin mug book photo. California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.