Monday, June 14, 2010

Yuma Territorial Prison 1875 - 1909 by Bob Foster

Old time western dime novels as well as modern popular western novels and movies nearly always depict the plight of prisoners in the Arizona Territorial Prison at Yuma as being condemned to hell on earth, or worse. Modern audiences have come to believe many of the myths associated with the infamous prison--it was a prison only for men, the west's most hardened criminals--no one ever escaped--prison guards were actually fiends in disguise, hired to starve, harass, and brutally beat and torture prisoners--the prison was in a mercilessly hot, inescapable desert, with no water available for miles in any direction--prisoners gave up all hope of ever getting out, even when their sentences had been served--the list goes on and on.

The writer himself, a western history buff and avid western movie fan, believed all of the negative portrayals above, and even more, assuming Yuma must have been far worse than the notorious French prison on Devil's Island. This belief was strengthened as he read such things as Darkness engulfed "the hole" as the emaciated convict crawled about aimlessly seeking the cockroaches that shared his cell. Hungrily he sought these "cellmates" to supplement his diet. His face was thin and his body broken. Yet his eyes were filled with hate for the unmerciful men who were responsible for his present condition. Viciously he plotted in his weary mind against those who had imprisoned him in this hell on earth.

Was the Yuma Territorial Prison really a God-forsaken outpost of inhumanity western writers and movie makers would have us believe? As we explore the true history of the infamous prison perhaps we can learn the truth.

The Eighth Arizona Territorial Legislature of 1875 proposed a bill calling for the establishment of a penitentiary. It would be built next to the Colorado River, upon a hill donated to the Territory by the village of Yuma, where work on the prison was soon underway. On July 1, 1876, seven convicts were led up Prison Hill, and placed in their permanent quarters, which they'd helped build. Construction had not yet been completed, so work by the convicts continued. A kitchen, photo gallery, bakery, and bathing room were a few of the conveniences. Around 1885 a powerful generator provided the prison with electricity, as well as the town of Yuma. Enhancing the prison grounds were trees, shrubs, grass, and flowers. Hollowed out on the north side of the hill, facing the Colorado River, just a few feet below, a windowless library served inmates, guards and the public as well. The long narrow library, the first of its kind in the Territory, had numerous shelves literally filled with volumes of books.

Smoothly plastered walls painted with whitewash enhanced the beauty of this center of learning. With the coming of electrical power large blowers were installed to help circulate the hot air that hung within the main cell block. Most residents of Yuma had no such convenience--but they did have their freedom. With these "luxuries," including the prison hospital, the Territorial Prison at Yuma was considered "state of the art," one of the finest prisons in America. However, with bedbugs, cockroaches, black widows and occasional scorpions, life inside the prison was difficult, as it would have been in any prison at that time.

The Arizona Sentinel of July 13, 1895, reported, Strangers visiting Yuma should not miss a visit to the Territorial Prison. There has been so much written and said about the injustice and cruelty of confining persons here that strangers should make a point of paying a visit to the institution in order to be convinced of the fact that for coolness, cleanliness, care and humane treatment, there is not a prison in the world that can compare with the Arizona Penitentiary. At this place, selected on a high commanding bluff overlooking the broad Colorado, there is always a cool breeze blowing off the River. The work rooms, dining rooms, kitchen, library and all other apartments are either surrounded by adobe walls or excavated from the almost solid rock hill, with cement floors, making them extremely cool in Summer and warm in the Winter. As to the work, the inmates are treated more leniently and are as a consequence the best behaved of similar bodies of convicts in the United States. They are required to manufacture shoes and clothing and cook for the institution. A large number are allowed to manufacture canes and fancy ornaments.

Punishment of incorrigible convicts could, however, be most severe. Most prisoners shuddered at the mention of "the dark hole," a cave measuring 15 x 15 feet, dug into a rock hill, with a strap iron cage in the middle.

The "hole" was where prisoners confined to solitary confinement ended up. Usually one stay would correct even the most incorrigible prisoner's attitude as he or she sat in the pitch black hole, and was fed bread and water a couple of times a day.
The main guard tower, which is still standing, overlooks the entire prison. Beneath the wooden tower is the rock-walled reservoir, filled by the Colorado River.

The working convicts also dug tunnels beneath the prison to allow river water to flow beneath the prison to help keep it cool. Atop the southeast guard tower was the Lowell Battery Gun, a weapon of improved design over the old Gatling Gun. The Lowell Gun was manufactured by the Ames Mfg. Co., of Chicopee, Massachusetts, and could be fired 600 times a minute with perfect accuracy at 1000 feet. In an emergency it could be fired 1000 times a minute. It had a horizontal sweep of 90 feet and could be raised to any elevation. Prisoners thought twice about trying to escape its withering fire
At the Sallyport, or main gate, on the north side, facing the Colorado River, was the huge strap-iron grilled gate that swung beneath the thick archway of the entrance.

In front of it sat a mustachioed guard toting a 44-40 Winchester rifle. He checked the credentials of all who entered or left through the Sallyport. Surrounding the prison was an impressive wall totally confining the prison yard. Solid rock served as the foundation of the walls which were masterfully engineered. Atop the solid stone wall adobe bricks were used to construct the walls, approximately sixteen to eighteen feet high, and the base of the walls averaged eight feet thick at the bottom and five feet at the top.

When prisoners first arrived they were questioned as to their nationality, education, occupation and religion. Their heads were shaved and their pictures taken. They bathed and were issued uniforms of alternate black-gray or black-yellow stripes that ran vertically or horizontally. When the prisoners entered the prison they were allowed to have a cap, two pair of underwear, two handkerchiefs, two towels, one extra pair of pants, two pairs of socks and one pair of shoes. Officials permitted prisoners to have a toothbrush, comb, photographs, a toothpick, books, tobacco and bedding.
During the prison's short life, thirty-four years, it confined men and women from twenty one foreign countries including China, Mexico, Russia, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Germany and England. Many of the most hardened criminals were American-born, including Anglos, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. In all, 3,069 prisoners served time in Yuma, some of whom were women. Men and women prisoners, of course, were separated. There were young and old, the youngest being Charles Smith, fifteen, sentenced to one year for grand larceny. But in all they represented a number of trades and occupations, including prostitutes, carpenters, cooks, farmers, gamblers, wheelwrights, sailors, laborers, and gunfighters. Their offenses included, but were not limited to, rape, polygamy, robbery and murder, stagecoach holdups, cattle rustling, drug trafficking, whiskey selling and horse stealing. 110 prisoners died of various causes while serving their sentences and are buried in the prison cemetery, to the east, outside the rock and adobe walls, on a barren plot of ground overlooking the meandering Colorado River.

Twenty six convicts successfully escaped from Yuma and were never captured. Others tried, but were either captured or shot. The most exciting and daring escape try came on a bright fall day in September, 1887, when seven Hispanic prisoners decided they'd had enough of the Yuma Prison. Master minded and led by Prisoner Puebla, they devised what they considered a fool-proof escape plan.

As Superintendent Thomas Gates sauntered along the walkway toward the Sallyport to leave the prison on business, Prisoner Lopez sidled up to him and began a thoughtful conversation about learning the shoe trade. As they casually walked along Gates listened thoughtfully. Suddenly Prisoners Vasquez and Bustamente, coming up from behind, grabbed Gates and ordered him to get them through the Sallyport gate or they'd kill him where he stood_ Soon Prisoners Puebla, Villa, Baca and Padilla joined the group, Gates in the middle. Gates ordered the convict at the gate to open up; he did.
Once outside the stone walls Villa, Padilla, Baca and Lopez rushed to Gate's house to procure weapons. Enroute they met Yardmaster Fredley who tried to stop them. He was instantly struck with a heavy pick. Even though severely wounded Fredley grabbed Padilla, hurling himself and the prisoner over a steep embankment on the west edge of Prison Hill. Padilla was captured and was out of the fight. Prisoner Baca ran, but Guard E.O. Williams opened fire and dropped him with two shots. Wounded, Baca was out of the fight. Vasquez and Lopez made it to Gates' house, stole a pistol and five rounds of ammunition and returned to the captured Gates, who was struggling fiercely with his captors. Momentarily he broke free and signaled to Guard Benjamin Franklin Hartlee, high up in the main guard tower, to open fire on the whole lot. An expert rifleman, Hartlee fired and brought Villa down. Infuriated, Lopez jammed the stolen pistol against Gates' head, indicating to Hartlee that if he shot again he'd blow Gates' brains out. But Gates fought Lopez and shoved the pistol aside. It accidentally discharged, hitting Prisoner Puebla in the fleshy part of his arm. Prison employee Rule ran up, pistol drawn, to shoot either Puebla or Lopez, or both. But he found Lopez had the drop on him. They both fired at each other and both missed. Rule took off running and Lopez took off after him, his pistol aimed at the fleeing man's back. Sharpshooting Guard Hartlee, high up in the tower, now had a very clear shot at Lopez and opened fire twice, dropping him. Employee Rule turned around, ran back to Lopez and dispatched him with a pistol shot.

Bustamente took a swing at Gates with a sharp butcher knife. Guard Hartlee had another clear shot and blasted Bustamente. Vasquez became the next target and Guard Hartlee fired another sizzling round, dropping Vasquez where he stood. Though Puebla had been accidentally shot by Lopez, he was still on his feet as vicious as ever, the last Hispanic in the fight. Armed with a large butcher knife he decided to finish off Superintendent Gates. He drove the gleaming butcher knife into the back of Gates' neck and twisted viciously. Using Gates' body as a shield, Puebla was trying to avoid Guard Hartlee's deadly rifle fire.

Barney Riggs, a prisoner serving a life sentence, rushed in to help Gates. The Superintendent shouted for Riggs to get Lopez's pistol and kill Puebla. The enraged Hispanic pulled the knife from Gates' neck and repeatedly stabbed it into his body. Riggs jerked the pistol from Lopez's dead hand, pulled the hammer back and blasted a hole in Puebla's chest. As he staggered backwards a blast from Guard Hartlee's rifle smashed into Puebla's back, and Riggs fired one more shot into the dying man's chest. Riggs caught the staggering Superintendent and another inmate named Sprague rushed forward and helped staunch the terrible bleeding. Gates never fully recovered from his horribly painful wounds and was later forced to resign his position. The unending pain caused him to eventually commit suicide.

Four prisoners were killed, three were wounded, and Superintendent Gates survived the attack. The entire incident took less than five minutes. Thomas Gates, in his written report of the incident, stated: "Guard Hartlee does not know to this day, why it was that he did not kill convict Riggs as he had the latter covered by his rifle and knew him to be a life convict, but something seemed to tell him not to shoot; had he killed Riggs, Puebla would certainly have killed me."

Many well known criminals were confined to the Prison, serving sentences of varying lengths. The most renown woman convict was Pearl Heart, serving five years, oddly enough for stealing a stage driver's pistol.

She and sidekick Joe Boot held up the Globe stage. They were quickly apprehended by the Pinal County Sheriff. Both were jailed for robbing the stage and were tried for that crime. Boot was convicted of robbing the stage and sentenced to thirty years in Yuma. Pearl's lovely female proportions, and her flirting, charmed the lustful male jurors and she was quickly acquitted. But the Judge wasn't so lenient--he ordered her to be tried on a second charge of stealing the stage driver's pistol. The jurors were forced to convict her after carefully reviewing the evidence, and Pearl was sentenced to five years.

The trial was a sensation--a woman stagecoach robber--a female Black Bart. Papers all over the country wrote glowing descriptions of the beautiful robber. By the time she arrived at the Prison she was very famous. She loved her new found fame and used it to her advantage, receiving the undivided attention of guards and convicts alike. Pearl played upon the sexual fantasies of these men to win many favors and perhaps her quick release. On December 15, 1902, Pearl was granted a pardon and allowed to walk through the great iron gates of the Sallyport. Before she left, the Prison doctor confirmed her pregnancy. She tried to capitalize on her fame and become an actress, but had no acting talent--she succeeded, however, in getting herself out of Yuma. Her partner in crime, Joe Boot, successfully escaped from the Prison on February 6, 1901, and it was believed he fled to Mexico, never to be heard from again.

Many other women, not nearly as famous as Pearl Heart, served time in Yuma. Most of the time women prisoners were released long before their full sentences were served. Some were quite vicious. Elena Estrada was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter, when she stabbed her unfaithful lover, then cut open his chest, pulled out his heart and threw the bloody mass into his face. She served very little time before being released. Bertha Trimble was convicted of rape. She and her husband Walter were convicted of raping Bertha's daughter. While Walter raped his step-daughter Bertha held her down as the deed was being committed. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, though she served very little time.

Scant background records on many of the male prisoners keep us from knowing who they really were or what they'd done with their lives before ending up in Yuma. One, however, and probably the most renowned of all, was Buckskin Frank Leslie, who often wore a buckskin jacket with fringes drooping from the sleeves and bottom of the garment, thus his unusual moniker. Buckskin was a gunman, fond of whiskey and fast women, a fast draw and crack shot. Once in a while he carried a Peacemanker .45 hooked to his belt with a quick-fire rig. The pistol was attached by a stud to a slotted plate on the wearer's belt, and could be fired by swiveling the gun from the hip before an opponent could blink his eyes.

Leslie hailed from Tombstone. During the early 1880's, when Wyatt Earp and his brothers worked in the Oriental Saloon, Leslie likewise worked there as a bartender and knew the Earps as well as Sheriff John H. Behan, who later became the Superintendent of the Yuma Territorial Prison from April 12, 1888 to April 7, 1890.
In the days when Buckskin Frank strode the streets of Tombstone, unafraid of anyone, he and charming Mary Galeen met in a local saloon, had a few drinks, and decided on a secret rendezvous together. But hunkered down on a balcony above the street Mary's enraged husband waited patiently, his gun cocked. He fired as Leslie and Mary exited the saloon--but he missed. Buckskin's response was automatic as he quickly cleared leather, drawing his six shooter, taking careful aim, fired and blew off the face of Mary's husband.

Leslie was cleared of any wrong doing, the act declared self defense, and he and Mary wed. However, the marriage didn't last because of Leslie's drinking, unfaithfulness, etc. Mary complained to her friends about Frank's odd quirks, stating that he'd once had her pose for him against a wall like an artist's model while he shot bullets around the outline of her body.

Though Leslie killed a number of men he was never convicted of murder until 1889. One evening when drunk, and furious with a prostitute friend, Molly Bradshaw, he killed her. Brought to trial, he was sentenced to life in Yuma, where he was soon greeted by former Sheriff John Behan of Cochise County, where Tombstone was located, now Superintendent of the Prison. It is not recorded what they said to each other.
Finally sober, Buckskin Frank Leslie became a model prisoner and worked diligently in the infirmary tending to patients as the chief assistant to the prison physician. Leslie served Dr. P.G. Cotter during several epidemics when his own health was endangered. Unselfishly, Leslie deprived himself of rest for weeks at a time while serving the patients. He never once complained about anything. His good conduct was brought to the attention of Governor Benjamin J. Franklin, who recommended to the Arizona 19th Legislative Assembly that Leslie be pardoned. Another reason Governor Franklin favored a pardon was Leslie's gallant service as a scout in the United States Army during the Geronimo Campaigns. The Governor stated, Frank Leslie is a man of good character and education.

After serving seven years Leslie was pardoned and walked through the Sallyport of the Yuma Territorial Prison, a free man. He wandered south into Sonora where he lived and worked for a time before heading north to Alaska in search of gold. In 1925, in his eighties, Frank Leslie died.

The Prison's colorful history came to a close on September 15, 1909. Crowded conditions at the every-growing prison forced the removal of all prisoners to Florence. Like Yuma, the prison at Florence was built by the prisoners who inhabited the institution.

The Yuma Territorial Prison continued to be used for other functions. It was used as a school, as a hospital, and by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and was a filming location; such actors as John Wayne, Gene Autry and Ken Cooper made movies in or around the Prison.

During the 1930's and 40's many Yuma citizens worked diligently to convert the old institution into a museum. In 1961 the Arizona State Parks began operating the prison as a state historic park. Just off Interstate I-8, in north Yuma, the historic site is easily accessible. Open to the public, there is a museum containing many prison artifacts made by prisoners, several of the weapons used by the guards, and a theater providing information on the prison. Visitors can walk through the prison, in and out of the cells, and visit the infamous "dark hole."

The End

The historical reference used on page 1 Darkness engulfed _the hole_ as the emaciated convict....comes from Prison Centennial 1876 - 1976, Page 3, Preface: Cliff Trafzer and Steve George, Rio Colorado Press, 1980. Some facts and statistics also gathered from this source.

Other facts and data gathered at the Museum of the Yuma Territorial State Prison Historic Park, Yuma, Arizona, personal visit February, 2000.

Page 2, Quote from the Arizona Sentinel, July 13, 1895 concerning the Territorial Prison..
Page 7, Quote from written report of Thomas Gates concerning the shooting of Inmate Puebla.

Eleven photos are submitted and their sources quoted on each photo. The black and white photos are laser copies and are reproducible.


  1. Wonderfully researched and written. Thanks for this fascinating piece of history. The prison dates from a time when incarceration was regarded as an aspect of rehabilitation rather than punishment. It's good to set the record straight about Yuma.

    I glanced at some of this history a while ago in reference to the film 3:10 to Yuma, in which the prisoner Ben Wade says he'd served time there before and wasn't worried about going back because he'd escaped - more than once, I think. Given what you say, that boast seems unlikely.

  2. I have visited Yuma Prison several times over my short 31 years. I always enjoyed walking through the gates, museum, grounds and even the cemetary, learning something new with every visit. Your wonderful descprition and well written article brings Yuma Prison to life. I hope to see this part of history survive for many more generations to enjoy.