San Francisco History

My Own Story


THE election of Fickert was really the end of our hopes of convicting the men who had debauched San Francisco.

Hardly had the election results been announced when Gallagher's brother came to me and demanded the $4500. I had promised to pay Gallagher for the flats that Calhoun's men had dynamited. I told him that we were not through with Calhoun yet. The jury had disagreed at the one trial, but there were still other indictments, and other trials.

"The bargain was that your brother was to stay with us till the case was definitely ended. It has not ended yet. When it does, I'll pay him the money."

Gallagher's brother left, dissatisfied. It was too well understood that Fickert was to take program from the Calhoun crowd for him to have any faith in our ability to try Calhoun again. I was still doggedly hanging on, hoping in spite of hopelessness, but he may have believed that I was about to break my promise. I do not know.

I only know that a very short time after this interview Gallagher disappeared. None of us knew where he was, or could locate him. No doubt he received help from someone and went away and kept away until Fickert had carried through the Calhoun program.

Fickert went into court with a written document, obviously prepared for him by the attorneys for the United Railroads, asking the dismissal of the Calhoun cases, and they were dismissed. All the other big defendants were also dismissed. The graft prosecution was over.

It had been a hard three years' struggle, three years of incessant effort, battling against every kind of opposition. It was over, and we had just one thing to show for it—Ruef in jail. Of all the men who had sold and bought San Francisco and the people of San Francisco, we had put just one behind bars, in stripes.

To this end Heney had given three years of his life, of hardest possible work, without receiving one penny for it, paying his own living expenses from money he had saved. He had been shot through the head and made deaf in one ear. He finished the fight almost without money, with his practice gone, and nothing but defeat at the hands of the people of San Francisco to repay him for it all.

He stood stripped, but still full of fight and fire, with a determination to succeed in life. The contest, of course, had increased the national reputation he had begun to earn in the Oregon land fraud cases. Though rejected by San Francisco, he had become a national character, which he still is, with a large following all over America.

Roy was ruined by the powerful people behind Fickert, who were interested in clearing Calhoun. His restaurant failed, his skating rink failed, he lost all his money. He had quite a large family on his hands, to which he was deeply devoted, and without money, ostracised by the business men who might have helped him, he became so desperate that he disappeared from San Francisco. He went without a word, and not even his family knew where he was.

But he had not lost heart. He knew what he was going to do. He found employment in the East, and when he was established there he communicated with his family. In time he made a moderate success, and later returned to California and became a prosperous vineyardist in the Santa Clara valley.

Burns, who received all the credit for obtaining the confessions of the eighteen supervisors—the feat that made the graft prosecution possible—became the nationally known figure that he is today, and accumulated a large fortune. So far as I know Roy has never received the smallest credit for his work, though he not only formed the plan which trapped the supervisors, but carried it out himself in every detail.

The failure of the graft prosecution was a bitter disappointment to me. I had hoped that we would be able to reach the big men, the men at the top of the whole pyramid of civic corruption. I felt that they were the men responsible for the shameful conditions in the city, and I was not satisfied that we had been able only to get Ruef, one of the less important men.

Still, I was glad that we had got him. That was a small triumph. I felt that our efforts had not been without some result, though we had failed in our real endeavor. This feeling, hardly formulated, lasted in my mind for some time after the end of the graft prosecution. Then one day in New York I learned something that had upon me the effect of an earthquake.

I was standing in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, idly talking with Burns and S. S. McClure, the publisher, when McClure happened to inquire, "Why did you fellows break the immunity contracts with Ruef?"

"Because he refused to play fair with us," I said. And I told about the letter that Gallagher had carried from Ford to Ruef, to which Ruef had first testified, and then refused to remember when it was needed in the Ford trial.

"Hell, no!" said Burns. "That wasn't the reason at all. Where did you get that story."

"You told it to me," I said.

"Oh, I never told you a story like that! That didn't have anything to do with our breaking the immunity contracts."

"You did tell it to me," I insisted. "And I've told it to a hundred others. What was the reason, then?"

"Ruef wouldn't testify that the money was paid him to use in bribing the supervisors. He wouldn't testify that Ford had ever said anything to him about bribing. He insisted on going on the stand and saying that the money was paid him as an attorney's fee."

A light burst upon me. I remembered the message Louis Byington had brought me, from Ford.

"Maybe it was," I said.

Burns would not listen to it a minute. He insisted that there must have been some verbal understanding that the money was to be paid as bribes to the supervisors. Anyway, he said, such testimony from Ruef would have been ridiculous. Of course the money was not paid to him as an attorney's fee. Of course it was bribe money, even though they had called it an attorney's fee. But Ruef had been stiffnecked, and had refused to swear that Ford had said a word to him about bribery. For that reason the immunity contract had been broken, and Ruef had been sent to San Quentin for fourteen years.

I returned to San Francisco with a great deal to think about.


THE longer I considered the story Burns had told me, coupling it with Byington's statement, and with other small incidents that now occurred to me, the more convinced I became that Ruef had not broken faith with us, but that we had broken it with him.

It became apparent to me that Ruef had promised to tell the truth, in return for the promise of immunity, and that later, when he refused to tell more than the truth, the immunity contract with him was broken, and he was sent to the penitentiary.

This seemed to me a terrible thing. Yet I could not escape the conclusion that we, who had been working to purify the city, had done this terrible thing. And as I thought more about it, other things that we had done came into my mind, and I could not deny that in themselves they were not virtuous or praiseworthy acts.

But, I reasoned, we were intent upon doing a praiseworthy thing. It was our intention to rid the city of men who were corrupting every nook and corner of it, who were linking up the lowest dives with the highest places in the community, who were selling the rights of our children, and the morals of our young men and women. If, in the heat of our enthusiasm, we had done questionable things, at least we had done them for a good cause, and with a good end in view.

It came to me then that doubtless other men justified themselves in the same way. I thought of Ruef in a new light. I thought of him as a young man, just out of college, ambitious, clever, energetic, desiring to make a place and an honorable name for himself in the world's affairs. I thought of the conditions he had found around him, of the price he saw other men paying for success, of the temptations pressing upon him to win popularity, honor, and acclaim by the only methods open to him, methods that he saw used by other men who were successful and admired.

It was not Ruef who had made those conditions. It was we, the people, who had made them. We had made money our measure of success, careless how the money was acquired; we had been bad citizens, careless who controlled our city or how they controlled it, if only each of us was left alone to bend all his own energies toward getting wealth and honor. We were responsible for the environment in which Ruef found himself, we had set up the standard of success which he tried to reach.

We did not question the methods by which a man got money; we only demanded that he get it. Even now, we were not punishing Ruef so much for what he had done as for being found out. Other men, equally guilty, were walking abroad in the light of day, enjoying friends, success, popularity. We had not altered the conditions in the least; we had not changed our standards of value; we had not ceased to flatter and fawn upon the man who had got hold of money, no matter how he got it.

It came to me that Ruef, seeing these things, justified to himself the things he had done, just as I justified to myself the things that I had done. I had been fighting for a clean city, but my motives had not been all pure, civic devotion. I had not been unaware that I was making a big and conspicuous fight, that it was making me a big figure in men's eyes, and that if I won I would be something of a popular hero.

All these motives had mingled to give me one strong, burning desire—to win the fight. It had seemed to me that many questionable acts were justified if they would contribute toward that end. I knew Ruef and Ford and Calhoun and Schmitz were guilty; I wanted them convicted, and I had not greatly cared how it was done.

Now, thinking of Ruef, I believed I saw that he had felt the same way. No doubt many motives had entered into his desire for success. He had wanted to stand well in men's eyes, he had wanted to repay the affection of his people by making them proud of his achievements. He had come from college, a young man, to find San Francisco what it was, and he had made his place in it, doubtless justifying himself at every step.

When I thought of Ruef in this way, I felt a change in my attitude toward him. I thought of the years I had spent, doggedly pursuing him, with the one idea of putting him behind bars, and it seemed to me that I had been foolish and wrong. It came to me that I should not have directed my rage against one man, human like myself, but that I should have directed it against the forces that made him what he was.

Those forces were not changed by our putting Ruef in San Quentin. Money was still the only standard of success, the only measure of power, and it still is; great corporations still continued to control an apathetic people; all the influences that had made Ruef were still busy at work making more Ruefs. We had done nothing but take one man from beneath those influences, leaving an empty place that another man would immediately fill. We had done nothing but wholly wreck one man's life.

I began to feel that I should ask Ruef's pardon for the harm that I had done him.

At last one day I went across the bay to San Quentin to do this. It took all the philosophy I could summon to uphold me on the trip. It was a difficult thing, after three years of bitter enmity, to go to Ruef and tell him that I was sorry I had taken the stand I had taken.

The thing I had come to do grew harder every moment while I waited for Ruef to come into the visitors' room at San Quentin. The captain had sent a man to tell him that a visitor was waiting. At last Ruef came in. His eyes fell upon me, and went past me, looking for someone he thought wanted to see him.

I went over to him then and held out my hand. I told him that I had come to see many things differently, that I was sorry for much that I had done, and I asked him to forgive me. We talked for some time.

Later, when he had become convinced of my sincerity, he told me his own story of the breaking of the immunity contract.


RUEF'S own story of the making and breaking of the immunity contract was this:

He had known nothing of the confessions of the supervisors until after he was brought back from the Trocadero and lodged in the Little St. Francis Hotel. Then, the graft prosecution, feeling that it could not trust the sheriff as his custodian, Judge Dunne appointed an elisor, William J. Biggy, to take charge of him.

In order to keep him entirely away from his friends and associates a big residence was rented on Fillmore street, and Ruef was lodged there under the constant supervision of the elisor. No one was allowed to see him save by permission of the graft prosecution.

Here he was informed of the confessions of the eighteen supervisors. He was shown that he was doomed, that his only hope lay in appeasing us by confessing his own share in the briberies. Rabbi Nieto and Rabbi Kaplan were allowed to see him, and they pleaded with him to yield. However, he steadfastly refused to do so.

"At last one day they told me that my mother was very ill, seriously ill, that she was calling for me. They said I might go to see her. Rabbi Nieto came to accompany me, and I was taken home.

"When I entered the room my mother was lying in bed. She was pale and very much changed. My old father was standing beside her. She stretched out her arms, with tears pouring down her cheeks, and said, `Oh, Abraham, Abraham!'

"The rabbi said, `You see what you have done to your mother, and to your gray-haired father. It is because of what you have done that your mother lies here, as you see her now. Will you not try to spare them further shame and disgrace?'

"My mother said, `Listen to our friend, my son. Do as he tells you, for my sake.'

"Then for the first time I broke down. I wept, and I said that I would do anything they wanted me to do.

"After that Rabbi Neito and Rabbi Kaplan saw Burns and Heney and Spreckels and made the arrangements. I was to be given immunity if I would tell the truth. So I told them everything. I felt bitter humiliation as I did it. I knew that I was betraying my old associates. I was torn between my loyalty to them and my love for my family. I felt that in confessing I was doing a worse thing than I had ever done before, but I did it.

"Then before the Ford trial, when the evidence was being arranged, I was told that I must testify that Ford had given me the money for the purpose of bribing the supervisors, that something had been said between us to that effect.

"This was not true. Nothing whatever was ever said as to the way in which the money was to be used. We spoke of it always as an attorney's fee. The understanding between us was never put into words. I assumed that Ford supposed that I was to use the money as bribes wherever it was needed to get the overhead trolley franchise; I knew that he did not pay me $200,000 in the belief that I would keep it all, myself, as my fee. But nothing was ever said that indicated this understanding.

"I was willing to go on the stand and tell the whole truth. But I would not go beyond the truth. I felt bitterly ashamed that I had gone so far as I had, and nothing would persuade me to go further. I had betrayed my old associates badly enough, without swearing to falsehoods against them.

"I refused to testify that Ford had ever said anything in regard to bribing the supervisors, and for this reason the immunity agreement with me was broken, and I was sentenced to San Quentin for fourteen years."

This was Ruef's story, and I believed it absolutely. I began at once, through the Bulletin, to plead for mercy for Ruef. I wanted to tell this story fully and publicly, and base my demand for Ruef's parole on the ground of simple justice. But I was unable to do so.

Crothers was unwilling that the halo which rested upon us for our share in the graft prosecution should be disturbed. We had won considerable credit in the fight, we were looked upon as disinterested, ardent crusaders, incapable of any wrongdoing. With all his power as owner of the paper, Crothers refused to allow this impression to be disturbed. So I was obliged to make my appeal for Ruef on purely sentimental grounds.

My changed attitude on Ruef displeased all of my former associates in the graft prosecution. Suddenly for me to ask for mercy for Ruef caused them to say, and perhaps to believe, that I had in a measure renounced the fight that was so dear to them all.

This was Judge William P. Lawlor's attitude. Shortly after his last election to the superior bench he called to thank me for the help the Bulletin had given him in his campaign, and to say goodby. He was about to go East to visit his old home. During this interview the judge said with a good deal of feeling that he was sorry I had been unfaithful to the graft prosecution.

I quite lost my temper at this remark. "I have not been unfaithful," I replied. "But now that I have cooled off, I can see and think more clearly. I don't like many things we did to convict these men. I approved of all of Burns' methods at the time, but upon reflection I can't help thinking that we sometimes turned just as sharp corners as the defendants and their detectives."

"Mr. Burns is an honest man," said Lawlor with considerable heat.

At this I lost control of myself. "You say he was honest? I know he was not," I declared. "You must remember Captain Helms, one of our witnesses in your court in the trial of Calhoun."

"Very well," Lawlor replied.

"You probably also know that Helms had been one of Calhoun's detectives doing his dirty work. After he finished his testimony, Burns came to me with Helms and wanted me to get $10,000 for him from Rudolph Spreckels. Burns then left me alone with Helms. I asked him if Burns had promised him $10,000 before he testified. Helms told me that he was living on a ranch in Humboldt county when Burns' men came to him and offered to pay his mortgage of $7500 and give him an additional $2500 if he would come to San Francisco and testify against Calhoun. This was the felonious bargain that Burns had made and which he turned over to me to carry out. I sent Helms away and later told Burns that if he had made such a promise he should fulfill it. I would have nothing to do with it."


WHEN I finished telling Lawlor the Helms story, he started with, "If Burns did that—"

He got no further. In a frenzy, I shrieked at him, "How dare you say `If Burns did that!' How dare you question what I am telling you occurred in this room? Further than this, you committed perjury yourself when you made an affidavit that you were impartial and could give Ruef a fair trial. Only a short time before you made the affidavit you told me in your room at the Family Club that the dirty blankety-blank should be made to crawl down on his hands and knees from the county jail and be put on trial on one of the big indictments. I think I agreed with you at the time and rejoiced in your attitude, but I see it differently now that I have had time to reflect."

My voice carried far out into the local room and alarmed the reporters.

Of course, I was soon sorry for what I had said, and it is humiliating to tell it, but it is necessary in order to make clear the meaning I wish this story to have.

Lawlor left my room with foam on his lips. He has never forgiven me.

I went on with my efforts to accomplish the parole of Ruef, but owing to Governor Johnson's attitude toward him I could make no headway. I criticised the Board of Prison Directors for nullifying the statute that provided for the parole of any first offender who received less than a life sentence at the end of one year. The board had made this law inoperative by passing a rule that each prisoner must serve half of his net sentence before his petition for parole would be given a hearing. Prior to my efforts in Ruef's behalf this rule had been frequently broken, but as soon as I tried to make it apply to Ruef the board endeavored to live up to the letter of their rule, and only in rare instances violated it. The power against me was too great to overcome. The Governor insisted that Ruef should serve half of his "net" sentence, four years and five months. Not a day was subtracted. The fight to free him was long and bitter. In the midst of it I was invited to address the Jewish Council of Women. Having nothing in my mind but the Ruef case, I chose that as my subject, hoping against hope that I could yet accomplish Ruef's release. My talk before the Jewish women was rather in the nature of a confession. In it I said:

"I shall never forget the morning that Ruef started for the penitentiary. All the bitterness and hatred of all the years of pursuit came into my mind to reproach me. I thought, `Is this success, or is it utter failure? Is this a real victory or an appalling defeat? After all the years of mad pursuit, is this the harvest? The imprisonment and branding of one poor, miserable, helpless human being.'

"In imagination I followed Ruef on his journey to the prison. I saw him being shaved, and photographed and striped and numbered, and degraded and humiliated. I thought of his tears, and of his suffering, and of those who were near and dear to him. And then it dawned upon me for the first time that my life, too, had been filled with evil; that I had done many cruel things; that I had at no time been fully fair to him, or to the others who were caught with him; that I had been striving, as he had, for success, that I had been hunting others in order to make money out of a successful newspaper; that I had been printing stories that made others suffer that I might profit; pandering to many low instincts in man in order to sell newspapers; that I had told many half truths and let many lies go undenied. And when I thought of all that Ruef had done and of all that I had done, I could not see that I had been any better than Ruef, and so I asked for and pleaded for mercy for him with the best arguments that I could command. I asked for his parole at the end of one year. I urged it on the ground that it was a legal thing to do, that the State's statute provided for the parole at the end of one year. In making the plea I encountered a rule of the prison board which forbade any prisoner applying for parole until he had served half of his net sentence. That, according to my view, nullified the spirit of the law, and was, therefore, illegal and wrong. The campaign went on for his parole. I was met on every hand with protests and objections, expressions of hatred, and at best this, `He is not repentant. Why doesn't he repent?'

"I wonder if any of us has repented. What is repentance? Certainly no man can fully repent in prison. Repentance must be free and voluntary. The state can not force it by locking a man up in a cell for a term of years. It can make him suffer; it can make him weep; it can make him a craven; or it can make him bitter and resentful and vicious, and make him desirous of wreaking vengeance upon society that is wreaking vengeance upon him. But it can not give him humility, which is the essence of true repentance. I wonder how many of those who are hating Ruef and who are opposing his parole have repented. How many have that rare quality, humility? And how many are there who know that mercy is beautiful and precious, and even practical? We, who consider that we are good, can, of course, easily forgive the little evil we see in ourselves. And if we can do this much in our own case, why can we not extend this forgiveness to the greater evil we think we see in Ruef? I have tried to repent for the bitterness of spirit, the ignorance I displayed in pursuing the man Ruef, instead of attacking the wrong standard of society and a system which makes Ruefs inevitable. I may not have entirely succeeded, but at least I have reached the point where I can see the good in the so-called bad people, and can forgive and plead that mercy be shown to Abraham Ruef.

"You can imagine how Ruef and the other men who were indicted with him viewed us, who were in hot pursuit. You can imagine that they knew enough of us to know that we were not what we pretended to be; that we were not fit to preach to them from a pedestal. They knew that we were full of evil, too. They knew that our lives had not been perfect and you can well understand how deeply they resented our self-righteos attitude toward them, and our abuse of them, and our hatred of them, and our intemperate invective and relentless warfare upon them. They knew us because they knew we were human, and that it is human to err. They knew that we were no better, and no worse, than the average human being, and while they perhaps were conscious that they had done wrong, they knew we were bad, too; but we had not been found out. Perhaps our misdeeds may not have involved the breaking of the Penal Code. But perhaps they had, and we had escaped detection.

"Ruef and the others had merely been found out and caught. Being found out was Ruef's chief crime. I feel sure that if he had escaped detection, even though we were possessed of a general knowledge of all that he had done, he would still be honored and respected in this community. So Ruef, after all, was punished for his failure, not for what he did."


AFTER Ruef and I became friends, I used to frequently go to prison to see him. On one of my visits, I had to wait a little while for Ruef, and while I was waiting Warden Hoyle handed me a typewritten article to read. It was about the indeterminate sentence.

I read it through with great interest and asked him who wrote it. He said it was written by a prisoner named Donald Lowrie, who had written many other things that were quite good.

At once I became interested in Lowrie. I asked to see him. The warden called him in from an adjoining office, where he was acting as bookkeeper. He was in stripes. I told him that I had read his article and thought he had great possibilities as a writer. I said: "If you could get out of here I would take you on The Bulletin."

His face brightened. "If you can get me out on parole, I will be glad to try writing," he said.

I appealed to the Board of Prison Directors and they said they would be glad to parole him. Thereupon, I visited Lowrie and told him he was going to be paroled, and I thought the best thing for him to do was to write an honest, straightforward story of his life in prison.

He said that he would be glad to do it, except that his mother would object; that she was conventionally minded and thought that the family had been disgraced by his misconduct.

I told him to suit himself about that, but that I thought he could get rid of the stigma of the prison immediately if he were frank about himself. Otherwise, he would continually be pointed out as an ex-convict.

He finally decided to write the story, under his own name, and when he came out of prison he had already written the first two chapters of his now famous book, "My Life in Prison." I started the story as a serial in The Bulletin, and it made an instantaneous sensation.

Within two weeks after it started, Lowrie was the speaker before the Commonwealth Club at the Palace Hotel, and from that time he was in great demand all over California, speaking before women's clubs, in high schools and in churches. His story was largely responsible for the prison reforms in California and also for the great changes in Sing-Sing prison, brought about by Tom Osborne. Osborne gives credit to Lowrie's book for awakening his interest in prisons, and when Osborne was made warden of Sing-Sing he sent for Lowrie to act as his secretary.

My faith in Lowrie recalled and reawakened an old interest I once had in prisoners. Many years before when I was a police reporter on one of the city papers a patient in the Emergency Hospital asked me to write a letter for him to his wife. The man was Pat Sullivan. He was recovering from an attack of delirium tremens. He was one of the strongest men physically I had ever seen. He had a massive frame, broad shoulders and a thick neck. His brow was low and his eyes were small. His face was unpleasant, but I became interested in the story he told me.

He was born in Ireland and when quite young came to America and became a stoker in the American Navy. For many years he held this job and when he quit in San Francisco, he had saved $7000. He wanted to go into business for himself, and being attracted by the red lights, he bought a dive on the Barbary Coast. Women had never come into his life up to this time, but in the saloon he had bought there was a woman hanging around attracting other men. She was 35, divorced, with a son 10 years old. The court in granting the divorce had given the child to the father on account of the loose habits of the mother.

She was a dream of loveliness to Sullivan. He fell in love with her at first sight, married her and established a little home of his own.

She drank a great deal and ran about with other men. Sullivan took to drink and he soon lost his saloon. He went to work as a laborer, still trying to cling to the woman he loved. Frequently, she would disappear while Sullivan was at work. He would come home at night, find her gone, the few sticks of furniture sold, the house empty and deserted. Then he, too, would get drunk, lose his job, hunt her up, take her back and try it again.

It was after one of these disasters that I found him in the city prison. In the letter I wrote for him he pleaded with her to brace up. He would get another job and they would again try to be happy together. As the case interested me, and as I had a little influence with the Republican boss, I got Sullivan a job as a coal heaver on the State tug. He went to work, rigged up a flat, got his wife back and tried it again. In a few months, another crash came. The woman was back "cruising" on the Coast, and Sullivan was in the gutter.

Coming down town one morning on the dummy of the California street car, the gripman said cheerily, "Good morning, Mr. Older." I looked up and it was my old friend Sullivan, with a brand new uniform on, looking happy and contented.

He answered my inquiring look with, "Well, we are all right again, Mr. Older. I have got a little flat and some furniture and we are living together. She has promised never to leave me again." He was full of confidence.

I lost track of him for a year or more. Meanwhile, I had become city editor of the Post. One morning I picked up the morning paper to read that a ghastly murder had been committed. A man had lain in wait for a woman on Pacific street, had jumped upon her from a dark doorway with a knife, and had cut her to pieces. The man was described as a hardened, degenerate brute. Arrested, he had shouted blasphemies, declared he was glad he had murdered the woman, that he would do it again if he had the chance. The man was Sullivan.

I went to the city prison to see him. Long before I entered the barred enclosure around the tiers of cells I could hear him yelling, raving, shouting oaths. He was walking up and down his cell. He was a hideous-looking sight, his eyes bloodshot, the hair matted over them, and his jaw covered with unshaven beard.

As soon as he saw me he stopped raving. He became quite calm. The prison keeper allowed Sullivan to pass out into the corridor to visit with me. We sat on a bench in an open space opposite the cells. I asked him how he came to do it.

"She drove me mad," he said. "I kept on forgiving her time after time, and she grew steadily worse. Finally I decided to try it with her in the country. Perhaps away from temptation she would do better. I rented some land near Fresno with the idea of going into truck gardening. She refused to go without her boy. I went over to Oakland and stole the boy from his father and together we went down to the farm. It was all right for a few months, but one evening when I came home from town I saw a man leaving the cabin. I went in and found her dead drunk.

"In the morning when she was sober I told her we couldn't stay there any longer. Country people wouldn't put up with that sort of thing. I gave her some money and sent her back to the city. I remained, settled up my affairs and followed her in a day or two, still hoping that we might make a go of it. But she was off again. I tried to find her, drinking hard while I was searching for her. I finally found her in a saloon on the Barbary Coast, drinking with some men. I asked her to come home with me. And she laughed at me! She threw back her head and laughed at me, and went on drinking with the men. She said, `Go on, you drunken bum!' She went on laughing at me. So I went out, and went up the street, and waited for her in a dark doorway, and when she came by I killed her."

We were sitting together on the bench while he said this, outside his cell in the corridor. He had got this far when two or three nicely dressed ladies came in, with some religious tracts that they were distributing to prisoners. One of them came up to us, and recognizing Sullivan from the story and pictures in the paper, she held out a tract to him, and said, "Poor man, aren't you sorry for the dreadful thing you've done?"

Sullivan rose from that bench like a wild beast. He yelled, "Sorry? No, I'm not sorry. I'm glad! I'm glad! I'm glad! If she came back to earth I'd kill her again! It's all over now but hanging me, and I want it done quick!"

It took five men to handle him and get him back into his cell again.

I went to the office and wrote the story, and in it I told what I knew of Sullivan's life, of how many times he had forgiven the woman, and tried again to make a decent life with her, of how many times he had failed, and still tried. It was a sympathetic story, and at that time, nearly thirty years ago, a sympathetic story about a murderer was practically unknown.

Sullivan made no attempt to escape hanging. He went into court and pleaded guilty, and asked only one thing of the judge, that there should be no delay. He was speedily hanged.

So when I came back to my interest in forsaken and suffering people, it was no new thing to me. It was rather a return of a train of thought never wholly forgotten, now brought strongly to the surface of my mind by my experience with Ruef and Lowrie. I became very much interested in prisoners, believing that they were only men like other men, who by some accident of fate had fallen upon harder lives than others.

The next few years were to alter considerably that point of view.


LOWRIE and I organized a little relief bureau in the Bulletin office. We aimed to help men who came out of prison. We did help many. We got positions for paroled men and for men who had done their time, and in that way I became acquainted with many of the desperate characters of California.

In the beginning, before I understood as much as I do now, I believed that the men in prison were just like the men out of prison, except that something had gone wrong in their affairs at some period of their lives. Some accident had overtaken them, and they had been caught. It still seems to me true that very few men out of prison have escaped doing something, at some time, that broke one of our many laws.

With other convicts, I felt that environment, drunken parents, or poverty, had caused them to drop out of line with the rest of us. I felt that they had had no opportunity to develop into what we call normal human beings.

It took a long time for me to learn differently, and I still am not sure just what it is that causes men to become professional criminals. But I am convinced that they are men who are in some way different from the rest of us. They see life from a different angle. There is something peculiar, some twist in their brains.

We can not see what it is, because men's brains are hidden by a cap of bone. We can not look into a man's mind and see what is happening there. We can see a club foot, for instance. We can see that a club-footed man is not normal; we do not expect him to walk like other men. But when a man has some abnormality in his brain we can not see that. We expect him to act like the rest of us, and, when he does not, we punish him. But that is because we do not understand. We do not punish a club-footed man because he does not walk normally.

For many years I have known criminals intimately, watched and studied them. Many of my first beliefs have been altered or destroyed in those years. Now I can only say I do not understand their motives, I do not know what makes them what they are. Until we do understand, I believe that we should withhold judgment, that we should be patient and try to understand.

The story of Charley comes to my mind.

I used to visit the prisons often and talk to the men. On one occasion I was shown into the hanging room of San Quentin by Warden Hoyle. A prisoner made a little talk to me, explaining the various trappings of death. He talked in a mechanical, sing-song way, as if he had made the speech many and many a time.

He started with the rope, which was tied to a heavy weight. He said this weight was kept at the end of the rope for a certain length of time to take all the elasticity out of it, so that when the man dropped throught the trap the rope would not stretch. It would hold firm and crack his neck quickly.

He went from this rope to other features of the death process, explained the trap and how it was sprung by three men cutting three different cords, so that no one man knew that he had been the one to do it. His matter-of-fact manner made the death scene very vivid and terrible.

I was interested in him. He was an old man, very fine looking, erect, strong, notwithstanding his age—he was nearly seventy. I asked the warden who he was. He said: "That's Charley. He's in for life for murder. He was a stage robber, one of the most desperate men among the criminals of California. He's been here twenty-nine years."

I said, "My God, why isn't he paroled?"

Warden Hoyle replied: "I wish you could get him paroled. He's a fine character. I would trust him with a million dollars to go around the world with it, and I know that he would keep his word and return when he said he would with every dollar intact."

I talked with Lowrie about him, and it turned out that he and Lowrie were great friends. Lowrie was very eager to have him paroled. I found this was quite difficult to accomplish.

Charley and his partner had robbed a Nevada county stage in the late seventies. They had taken $15,000 from the strongbox. The money was owned by a banker, who was a passenger on the stage. When he saw the money in Charley's hand he could not control himself. He leaped from the stage and tried to grab this money. He threw his arms around Charley.

Charley's partner told him to stand back. The banker continued to struggle with Charley, and Charley's partner shot him dead.

This banker had been a prominent man in Nevada City and the whole country rose in pursuit of the two men.

Feeling was very high. Charley and his partner fled with the money, bought a team of horses and an express wagon and got across the Santa Fe plains into New Mexico. They made their way to New Orleans, divided what was left of the money and parted, Charley going one way and his partner the other.

Charley went to a little town on the border line of Indiana and Ohio and went into business there. He bought a small lumber yard, worked hard and prospered. He became quite successful and was very popular. In fact, he was spoken of as a candidate for mayor of the town.

Meanwhile, of course, the Wells Fargo detectives had not ceased to hunt him. They had not been able to locate him, until his partner committed some other crime in St. Louis and was arrested. While under the influence of liquor in his cell he told his cellmate the story of himself and Charley, and the cellmate, hoping to get some of the reward, notified the officers.

Chief of Police Lees of San Francisco and Wells Fargo's chief detective went on to the little town in Indiana.


CHIEF OF POLICE LEES and the Wells Fargo detectives came upon Charley without warning, in his little lumber yard in the Indiana town. He was sitting in the office with some of his friends, and they were discussing his coming election as mayor. The policemen entered and arrested him.

They loaded him down with forty pounds of iron, an Oregon boot and handcuffs, marched him to the little station, and brought him back to Nevada City for trial for murder. The partner was tried also, sentenced to death, and hanged. Charley escaped by one vote.

The juror who held out for life imprisonment was an old Confederate soldier, and it was the old sympathy between these comrades that saved his life. The jury finally came over to the one man and agreed upon a verdict of life imprisonment, and Charley was sentenced to San Quentin for the rest of his days.

He had not been there long before he began to plan an escape.

At that time, while there was terrible cruelty in San Quentin, and horrible punishments were inflicted, the prison was loosely run. Prisoners were not compelled to wear a complete suit of stripes, only trousers. They might wear any kind of shirts, coats or hats that they had or could obtain. They were also allowed to have on their persons whatever money they brought in with them, or could get after they were locked up. Charley had about $165.

He noticed that a prisoner drove a cart out of the prison grounds down to San Quentin Point two or three times a day. He also observed that when it was raining there was a tarpaulin over the cart, and by watching he found that the man at the gate looked under the tarpaulin about once in every four times the wagon passed him.

Charley figured that if the driver of the wagon were a friend of his, he would have three chances to one of making his escape when it rained. Charley did not know the man who drove the cart, but he found in the prison a man who wanted to escape and was willing to take a chance.

Charley unfolded his plan to this man, and said, "If you could get the job of driving the cart when the winter season begins, we could make it."

His friend said, "That's easy." Immediately he began work on a beautiful inlaid cribbage board. When it was finished he presented it to Director Filcher. Filcher was delighted and said, "I'll make my wife a Christmas present of this. Is there anything I can do for you?"


"What is it?"

"I'd like to have the job of driving the cart."

"Sure!" said Filcher. "I'll get it for you in fifteen minutes."

It was done. Then Charley got an extra pair of striped trousers, took them to the tannery and had them dyed. He put them on under his striped trousers and wore them constantly. His partner had only striped trousers, but he wore high boots, and had a raincoat that came to the top of his boots. Charley said, "Now all we have to do is to wait for a rainy day."

The rainy day came. It rained nearly all winter. The state was flooded. The first day that it rained heavily, Charley told his partner that they would make their attempt that day. At the proper moment, he crawled under the tarpaulin, and they started. On the way the driver said, "I'll have to stop at the commissary office. They may have something to take down to the Point."

"My God!" said Charley from under the tarpaulin. "Why didn't you tell me that? We're caught."

"Well, maybe they won't have anything."

Charley lay hidden in the cart while the driver went into the office. The commissary did not have anything to send to the Point. The driver went on toward the Point. As they approached, he saw a guard, and reported this to Charley. Charley was directing the escape from under the tarpaulin. He said, "Make a detour. Drive over to Mrs. Mahoney's and ask her if she doesn't want some coal."

Mrs. Mahoney did not want any coal. Her suspicions were aroused immediately. She said, "No, I don't want any coal, and you know very well I don't want any coal."

By this time the guard had disappeared, and Charley whispered, "Drive on to the Point."

When they reached it, they both jumped out and disappeared around the Point and along the bay shore, toward San Rafael. They broke quickly into a barley field, wandered into some deep ditches, and covered themselves with barley and straw. Within an hour they heard the guards on the hills.

The guards were out with guns, combing the country. Charley and his partner heard them coming and going all day, while they lay hid. When night came they slipped out, and made their way along the coast line of the bay in the darkness. It was raining hard. They walked several miles, until dawn, when they hid again and remained hidden all day.

They continued this for several days and nights, in the rain, without food. They became desperately hungry, and one evening about 6 o'clock Charley made an attempt to get some food. He walked toward a little cottage. A woman was standing in the door, calling her husband to supper. Charley could smell the hot food, and through the window he saw the table spread. It drove him frantic, but he did not dare go nearer, for he knew that by this time the whole state was placarded with notices of a reward. The desperate Charley was at large, the most dangerous man ever known in California.

He lay hidden until the husband went in to supper. Then he crept to the chicken house, grabbed two chickens by the neck without letting them make a sound, wrung their necks and carried them off. His partner had found a few potatoes in a garden, and together they went away with the chickens and potatoes. In the brush they found an old tin can built a fire, and boiled the food.

Charley was so hungry that he drank from the can. There was a scum on it, and he became deathly sick, with terrible pains. He probably had ptomaine poisoning. His partner, seeing his agony, said, "Well, Charley, I guess we better go into San Rafael and give ourselves up.

Charley was able to say, "Give ourselves up, HELL!"

"What can we do?" said the partner.

"Die in the brush, of course."

All night and all the next day he was desperately ill. The next night he was able to go on. He had now eaten nothing for almost a week. They made their way to Benicia, stole a boat and crossed to Port Costa. Here they hid in the railroad yard among the freight cars. In their wanderings, his partner had lost one of his boots in the mud, and the stripes on one trouser leg showed beneath his coat. About 9 o'clock Charley walked up into the little town of Port Costa and went into a little shop, run by a woman.

There were several men standing around the stove, discussing the escape of Charley. He walked bravely up to the counter and said, "I want a pair of 28 overalls and a pair of number 8 shoes." The woman eyed him suspiciously and said, "You don't wear 28 overalls."


Source: Library of Congress. California As I Saw It, 1849-1900. Vol. 194. [database online] Washington: Library of Congress, 2000. Older, Fremont. My Own Story. San Francisco, CA: The Call Publishing Co., 1919.

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