"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Squirrel of Many Talents

Squirrel showed up yesterday.   I hadn't seen him for about a month and was concerned that he's become owl bait.

He was just as sassy as ever.

He found the peanut butter I'd spread on the spruce boughs for the little birds.   He's licking it off his paws in this photo.

He wondered if it was okay and I told him he was welcome.

And the next time it snows, I'm hiring Squirrel.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Wyoming Journals, Ch. 14: A Tale of Two Prisons

Chapter Three

Death Row

We leave the tiered cell block buildings of the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and walk into the afternoon Wyoming sunshine.   Its warmth is appreciated after the chill of the cellblocks.

Before us is “the yard.”  This is where prisoners were allowed to enjoy the outdoors for a brief time.



This is also where the prison once fielded a first rate baseball team, one that competed against the teams of the surrounding area of Rawlins.  Especially talented was the catcher, a man known as Seng.   The team had everything they needed to perform as a baseball team, including all the equipment and good uniforms.

From:  https://www.wyohistory.org/sites/default/files/images/stateprisonbaseballteam.img_assist_custom-360x269.jpg

The team was started by prisoner George Henry Sabin, who, along with several others, were convicted of murder when they, on behalf of cattle ranchers, ambushed the camp of sheepherders and killed three men.

That first rate baseball team came to an end when Seng came to the end of his time and was hanged for his crime.

Visible in the yard is the foundation of where a broom factory once existed, until prisoners burned it down during a 1917 riot in which the convicts protested deteriorating conditions in the penitentiary.

Thereafter, shirt manufacturing became the prison industry, which enabled one prisoner to escape by hiding in a crate of shirts.  During World War II, the prison had a woolen mill and made blankets of such fine quality that it received a contract from the Navy for blankets for the duration of the war.

Our guide leads us to a door that looks like a shed door, and opens it.   Before us is a Rube Goldberg contraption with ropes and buckets and 2x4s that look like they’re meant to collapse in odd directions.

Pretty sure this is a reconstruction, and not the original

On a November morning in 1903, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, desperado Tom Horn stood on a small trapdoor above this contraption called the “Julian Gallows.”  It was invented by James Julian to provide a “more humane” method of carrying out executions, one in which no person was required to trip the trap door.   Horn was the first to try out the gallows.

One hundred and thirteen years later, New York Daily News reporter David Krajicek described what happened next:

Horn’s weight on the trap door pushed down on a support post that depressed a spring which in turn opened a water valve. Flowing water gradually filled a can balanced on a support beam. Once full, the can toppled from the beam, which then knocked aside the support post, opening the trap and dropping the prisoner into eternity.

Denver journalist John Charles Thompson, who had a seat at the gallows, wrote that “the sinister sound of running water” persisted for 31 seconds before Horn fell.

“To the straining ears of the listeners,” Thompson wrote, “that little sound had the magnitude of that of a rushing torrent.”

Julian’s rig was supposed to offer a quick snap of the neck, the benchmark of a humane hanging. It didn't work. Horn dangled for 17 minutes before his pulse ceased.

We go upstairs to the room itself, passing by the death row cells with a warning from the guide not to walk in front of the cells.   

The trap door has been sealed shut.   When a condemned man stood on it with a noose around his neck, he could catch his last glimpse of the world outside this prison through a small window.

The trap door, now sealed.

In the next room is the gas chamber.   Its door swings open and we are invited in.   It’s quite small, with just enough room to walk around the chair in the center.  

As we turn around to leave, the guide explains why we are not allowed to walk in front of the death row cells.   Some years ago, a prisoner was able to escape his cell at night and let others loose.   They began working on an escape tunnel.

When the escape plans were discovered, prison authorities could never find out what the men did with the dirt from their tunnel.

Not until a section of the ceiling caved in, that it.   And once you know the story, you can see how the ceiling sections are bowed with the weight of dirt still up there, the bygone hopes of freedom of incarcerated men likely buried in it.

The  prison graveyard.   From Wyoming Historical site: 
Two hundred fifty people died here. Fourteen men were executed. The first two were hanged on the traveling Julien [sic] gallows. Seven others were also were hanged, and five were executed in the gas chamber, which was added to the prison in 1936.  Hill explains others died of natural causes, committed suicide or were victims of inmate violence.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Wyoming Journals, Ch. 13, A Tale of Two Prisons

Chapter Two

Behind Locked Doors

The manuscript begins with a several-page treatise on the reform of criminals, which, depending on one’s point of view, is either terribly ironic or terribly appropriate.

Ironic because the author is believed to be a four-time resident of the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, Wy.   Appropriate because who better to know a criminal’s mind than another of that ilk?

I ascribe to both views.  I am nonetheless amused that a man who admits to being unable to control his temper and who usually made the wrong decisions in life, could speak about reforming himself and other criminals. 

 One paragraph he wrote sums it up: “…[W]hat makes it so hard to reform the man who has once been in states (sic) prison, is the fact that he is an ex-convict.   [I]n the majority of cases, a man on being released from prison feels like he has but little to lose, should he resume his lawless career.  [I]f he is to regain his former standing in society, depends almost entirely on the man himself.  [W]ithout the full cooperation of the man himself, help from others would be of no avail.”

The above quote is from The Sweet Smell of Sagebrush, believed to be the diary of a criminal named William Stanley Hudson, who also called himself Stanley Hudson, William Stanley, and John Kirby, in an effort to conceal his former prison identity to avoid being labeled an habitual criminal.  He was first sentenced to the prison at the age of 16 for stealing a saddle.

A little easy detective work found that Hudson was at the scene of all the crimes and events described in the diary.

The diary covers the years 1903 through 1912.  The last anyone heard of Hudson/Stanley/Kirby was in 1921 when he was released from prison for the fourth time, and thereafter disappeared.

It makes one wonder if one of his victims caught up with him and delivered some frontier justice, or if the author ascribed to his own theory of reform and became a law-abiding citizen.

My cousin Bud purchased the book in the gift shop of the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, and loaned it to me to read back in elk camp.   It can be a difficult book to read because the publisher, Friends of the Old Penitentiary, chose to print it much like the original manuscript is typed, that being the vernacular of the day as well as only the first letter of each new page being capitalized. 

You will notice that in the quote above, I placed the first letter of each sentence in brackets as is the custom today to indicate a change from the original manuscript.   Further, the paragraphs are exceedingly long.

By the time I read a few pages and got used to the format, I was glued to it. 

The prison was first built in 1901 of sandstone.  Succeeding additions blended with the original, but in an architectural style befitting the philosophy of prison punishment or reform of the times.  Someone would have to point that out to me because of the three cellblocks I toured, all were dark and cold, with cells about five by seven feet, and three tiers high.  In fact, “C” block, which I assumed to be the newest, seemed worse than the other two.

Some prisoners on the upper tiers were able to see daylight; some were in almost perpetual darkness, as in “C” block.  Heat and electric lights were added over the years.

A newer cell

An older, retrofitted cell.

Even worse, the prison was not run by state officials, but by a person who leased it from those authorities.   Here is the adapted description written by the author:

            At that time, the prison was run on the lease system.    The place was leased on about the same plan as one would lease a farm or other property.   A man named Graham had the penitentiary on a lease contract at the time of which I write.  He paid the state so much per head by the month or by the year for the use of the convicts.   And he paid the expense of running the place, hired his own warden and guards.   The state didn’t have much to do with it.   The prisoner was therefor at the mercy of Graham.   He owned the prisoner to the same extent that one owns a dog or a horse. 

He regarded his human charges as of being less value than a horse, inasmuch as there was no first cost connected with this proposition, at least it never cost him anything to secure all the convicts he wanted.  The prisoners were employed in the manufacture of brooms.      This factory no doubt yielded a handsome profit to the operators as well as Mr. Graham, the broom shop being the chief source of revenue it was therefore the aim of the management to use every available man at this work.

See any possibility of mistreatment there?

Perhaps the most surprising thing for me during the tour was the dining hall.   Convicts entered by the kitchen and walked down a long steam table that held pans of food.   They could take as much as they wanted.   I suspect this was the case in the latter part of the 20th century when penal philosophy changed to afford more humane conditions as the author of the manuscript wrote about having only hash or stew and of constant hunger.

A food tray.

I was distracted during the tour of the dining hall by a bird that had apparently found entrance through a broken window and was flying around trying to get out.  Because the broken window was low and the bird was seeking escape along the upper parts of the windows, I feared for its longevity.

This bird, yearning for freedom beyond the bars, evokes the many prisoners who did the same.

To be continued