Everything Librarian

Monday, June 4, 2018

Who Was Inmate Jack Johnson (1878-1946)?

Jack Johnson is an African American boxer with a colorful history including one stay in Federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1920. While in prison, Johnson made good use of his time by penning an autobiography on post office stationery.

Birth of a Fighter

John Arthur Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878. And, according to his autobiography, nothing eventful happened to him until he was twelve. During an encounter with a neighborhood bully, Johnson's Grandmother Gilmore encouraged him to fight back by telling him that if he didn't whip his bully, the grandmother would whip Jack. In the words of Grandmother Gilmore, “Arthur, if you do not whip him I shall whip you.” This one event helped Johnson overcome his flight or fight mechanism and set it permanently on Fight. From Johnson's point of view, it was this turning point that made him realize he had a talent for fighting.

Jack Johnson in Leavenworth Prison

The autobiographical document of Jack Johnson is handwritten mostly on the stationery of Leavenworth post office. So what was the crime that caused Jack Johnson to serve time in a Federal prison? He was charged with a violation of the Mann Act and ordered to serve a year and a day. The Mann Act is a piece of legislation that makes it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes-- in this case the crime was a black man who traveled with a white woman. The woman was Lucille Cameron a prostitute from Milwaukee who was the companion of Johnson just a month after his wife Etta Duryea killed herself in 1912. He was convicted in 1913 and Johnson fled the country for about 7 years to avoid going to prison but eventually turned himself in in 1920.

In Federal Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, Johnson was a celebrity. On the outside, Johnson was also a celebrity. As a powerful black man who chose to have white women as companions he was intensely investigated by the Department of Justice, the predecessor of the FBI. You can read the government reports of Johnson's comings and goings here.

Names, Dates, Rounds, and the Purse

So what can we learn about the first African American heavyweight champion of the world from his prison autobiography? First of all, Johnson has a detailed memory of his fights, especially the Tommy Burns fight that took place in Australia in 1908. Jack Johnson has a great memory for numbers -- especially in recalling his fights he specifically remembers how many rounds the fight went, how much his opponent weighed, and how much money he wins as the purse. Regarding a fight with Klondike in Memphis, Tennessee, Jackson recalls,

'I was 22 years of age then and I received a thousand bucks for that fight, some dough for a youngster, eh? Well I knocked Klondike out in the 12th round, and believe me Klondike will never forget that fight for I sure gave him a lacing.'

Johnson Effected By Racism

We also know that racism effected Johnson very strongly and very personally. Johnson describes a fight in Philadelphia with Jack O'Brien,

"As soon as I entered the ring I was greeted with a tremendous groan of hisses and cat calls intermingled with but a few cheers of my admirers. I was there to fight as best I could and although I was credited with being crooked in my dealings, my opponent O’Brien was equally guilty by his own confession. The sole reason therefore to account for the hisses and catcalls hurled at me was my racial difference. Why should a man who is trying to do what his audience expects him to do and pays for, be the target of vile abuse, all on account of his color of skin?"

Johnson and Women

While Johnson had many white women in his life, his prison-penned autobiography only makes mention of his mother (Tiny Johnson), his grandmother (Grandmother Gilmore) and he refers to bringing his wife (unnamed) along to Australia when he fought Tommy Burns. Other than that there are no mentions of the many women in Johnson's life. By most accounts his relationships with women were tumultuous and contained violence. According to American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns at least four of his female companions, Clara Kerr, Hattie McClay, Belle Schreiber, and Lucille Cameron (wife number two), were prostitutes. Johnson's first wife, Etta Duryea, was a well-educated woman who was allegedly prone to depression. When Johnson suspected his wife of having an affair he beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized. Duryea shot and killed herself, unable to handle Johnson's infidelity and abuse. In his autobiography, Johnson ironically goes out of his way to talk about his graciousness,

"I had already determined to become a great fighter, and I realized that to whip a boy smaller than myself was no credit to me, so for that reason I never forget a boy smaller than myself, as a rule I choose those who were larger than myself."
Sadly, Jack did not apply this rule to the women in his life.

Johnson's Work History

The handwritten autobiography of Jack Johnson describes most employment situations as brief. Johnson is often hired as a trainer for other fighters but soon loses his job, he says because he was too good of a fighter, but perhaps Johnson also had trouble getting along with others. Many of his stories are very similar to this one,

"...I set out to find another job and was successful in securing the same in Frank Child’s training camp. I only worked for Frank for about 20 days when we had an argument which caused me to lose my job but at that I didn’t lose much."
At the very least, I think we can all agree that Jack Johnson had a very strong personality to match his fighting spirit. It has to hurt to be the heavyweight champion of the world but still treated like a "colored person" in his home country. This social inequity would definitely make someone prone to have a chip on their shoulder.

A Life on the Road

Jack Kerouac would have enjoyed reading the escapades of this iconic American prize fighter. Jack Johnson begins his life in Galveston, Texas but ends up traveling to Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, California, and Tennessee. Jack Johnson travels all over the USA to fight, but these are the states he specifically mentions in his prison autobiography. Jack Johnson also travels all over the world to England, Canada, Australia, France, Spain, and Mexico. Johnson definitely spent a lifetime traveling for his work. In one particularly colorful episode, Jack talks about traveling by freight train:

It was early in the morning and I had been sleeping soundly when I was awakened by a tattoo in the soles of my shoes. Upon waking up, I gazed into the face of a big brakeman. He held a lantern in one hand, and in the other he held a club in a most threatening way. He addressed me in a tough manner and said “Well boy if you haven’t any money you will have to jump off.” This remark and the slap he had given me on my feet angered me and I raised to my feet and replied that I didn’t have any money and I didn’t feel like committing suicide. I would not jump off. The train which I was riding was what is known as a high call (?) and at that particular time it was traveling at a very dangerous rate of speed and no doubt I would have been severely injured or perhaps killed had I been foolish enough as to jump off. Well when I made this remark the brakeman made a pass at me with his club, but I side stepped it and hit him in the jaw and followed that with an uppercut to his nose which knocked him into the land of nod. He was just coming to when I noticed that the train had slowed down a great deal and looking out the door I saw many lights so judging that we were in K.C. I jumped off. I hustled something to eat in K.C. and after waiting all day I boarded another freight for Chi.

2018: Jack Johnson is Pardoned

I found this prison autobiography online a few months ago and thought that the handwriting quality and length made it a liability to transcribe, but when Jack Johnson received a Presidential pardon in May 2018, I had to return to these documents. Ironically, it is Sylvester Stallone the movie star whom we have to thank for this pardon. Stallone is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Rocky Balboa in the American films that began with Rocky (1976). So, a fake white fighter championed for a real African American fighter to be pardoned for his racially motivated conviction from almost 100 years ago. In signing the pardon, President Trump criticized President Obama for not signing the pardon. It is interesting to note however that the Justice Department advised against the pardon.

"In a television interview, Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., had also raised the fact there was a history of domestic violence accusations against Johnson."
So Johnson may have been wrongfully imprisoned but his track record with women was really abyssmal.

A note about my transcriptions which are quite sloppy. A few pages of the first chunk of document that I found are a contract about a fight and that's as far as I got with that. The last pages of the second document linked above are repeating events already written about in previous pages. They seem like a rough draft but in different handwriting. I have only made a cursory read and analysis of these documents-- a closer read by someone more archaeological in their thinking might be able to build something bigger out of this. But I am also presuming that Jack Johnson's autobiography, Life in the Ring and Out, has these stories within. I think for Jack Johnson, writing his autobiography was an important way to remind himself, and others, that he was an important person, that he would have good times ahead, that he didn't belong in prison.

Appendix: National Archives Documents

For no apparent reason, this handwritten piece of history is contained in two separate digital files on the National Archives site that contains historic Federal prison records. There are two distinctly different sets of handwriting on these documents. One set of documents, sometimes marked as 'Old' may have been written by Johnson himself and seem to use courser language with more colloquialisms and grammatical errors. The other document seems to be a refined version of the older one. Both documents share similar stories of Johnson's career and tell us a lot about this famous black pugilist who obviously loved his job. This first part I transcribed may be found here, the second part may be found here.

Also, if you love to research and transcribe from original documents the National Archives has plenty of digitized items in their online collection that need to be transcribed. I spent about 16 hours transcribing these documents and then copied and pasted onto each record. That took about 45 minutes, no time at all. So if you have some free time and want to contribute to this cool collective, check out the National Archives.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Who Was Inmate Lester Ohmart and What Was the Drake Estate Conspiracy?

In my examination of the federal inmate files of Leavenworth, Kansas, I stumbled on the inmate record of Lester Ohmart (1888-?). He was received at Leavenworth prison on February 22, 1936 on the charge of "using mails to defraud" in Chicago, Illinois. In further digging through the records I found a small sentence that points to the context behind the mail fraud conviction-- Lester Ohmart was involved in a fraud, scheme, or con known as the Drake Estate. Never heard of it? Me neither. I had to keep reading and researching until I figured out and unraveled this interesting tale. Who was Lester Ohmart? What was the Drake Estate conspiracy?

Some Background on Ohmart

You can find Lester Ohmart in the 1900 US Census. He is living in South Otter Township Nilwood Village in Illinois with his mother and father and his four other siblings. (Bertha, August, Lovey, Ressie) It is fun to look at the original census document to see that there is an Everett Neff living just up the street-- I have to assume this is Lydia Neff Ohmart's father and the namesake of Lester's middle name.

Lester Everett Ohmart was born on October 2, 1888 in Girard, Illinois, the son of Lydia Neff and Marion Ohmart. At age 28, Ohmart is living in Hope, Kansas and fills out the obligatory World War I registration card below. (The card spells his middle name Evertt.)

What Was the Drake Estate Scheme?

By all records and accounts, in his outside personal life Lester Ohmart was a clerk and accountant. There is one summary document within his Leavenworth prison file that tells the story like it is:

"Indictment for the use of the mails to defraud was returned against forty-two persons who were principals and co-workers in the collection of donations to a fund for the settlement of the mythical estate of Sir Francis Drake, the navigator."

So there it is. A charlatan named Oscar Hartzell (see photo above) came up with the idea of the Drake Estate-- an unsettled pot of gold just waiting to be distributed to hundreds of heirs. If you think about it long enough, it's kind of brilliant. The Drake Estate con men preyed upon people with the common last name of Drake and took their money for their own profit. It is also conceivable that Lester Ohmart was just a low level clerk who truly believed in the mythical estate that never delivered the large and promised payout. There is a great article by Rupert Taylor that goes into more detail about the Drake Estate Fraud here.

Legal Summary of the Drake Estate Crimes of Ohmart

Another document within Lester Ohmart's Leavenworth inmate file provides a fascinating summary of the Drake Estate fraud that seems similar to a pyramid scheme or Ponzi scam. It's kind of long but it's worth a read for some context into this fascinating piece of American and British history.

Collections for the settlement of this estate have been made since about 1920. Oscar M. Hartzell, who resided in London, England, for about ten years, but who is a native of Illinois, and was an American citizen alleged that he had discovered the living heir of a son of Sir Francis Drake, and that this living heir had assigned to him title to the estate. Hartzell represented that he was dealing through the Ecclesiastical Courts and the Secret Courts of England, and that the British government had accepted his right to the estate. He further represented, through these defendants and other agents, that settlement would be made within a few months, but this continued throughout the years, and each postponement was explained as being due to the fact that additional funds were necessary to pay the expenses of settlement.

Lester Ohmart was an agent for the Drake Estate a number of years ago in Texas and testified that for the operation of this so-called estate he was arrested twice by the state authorities and once by the United States. A fraud order was issued against him in 1933, after which, the case for which he was arrested by the Government was dismissed. He operated the offices of the Drake Estate swindle in Boone, Iowa, and later in Chicago, Illinois, and for his work received, according to the records of the concern, a small salary.

Psychological Evaluation

It is interesting to note that in the year of Ohmart's incarceration there is a psychological evaluation of every inmate. On the psychological report of Lester Ohmart the psychiatrist has this to say:

This was an office man in the Drake Estate scheme, who says he was employed there for a few years, and was receiving a salary for his work and had no other participation in this enterprise. He is a pleasant frank sincere appearing person, who apparently belives [sic] that the Drake Estate is not a myth.

For his crimes (inadvertent or not) Ohmart is sentenced to one year and a day in the Federal Leavenworth prison in Kansas. At age 46 and a first time offender, Ohmert must have been a somewhat unusual inmate in this environment. Someone at the prison writes to Mrs. Ida Ohmert in Spencer, Iowa, to ask very personal questions about the background of Lester. In answer there is a three-page handwritten letter that speaks well of her husband.

"My husband's attitude to me was always kind and loving and always provided well for his family. Yes he was always a compatible marital companion. No I have never had any cause to suspect him of being unfaithful. He is very reliable. We were acquainted four years before our marriage. We were married 25 years last Thanksgiving Day at hope, Kansas. No, neither of us was previously married. No he has never engaged in any illegal activity before I married him. Yes we have 3 children. His attentions toward his family responsibilities were good, he always supported us well. I have no income now. I am at the mercy of friends. I and the children are living alone. As to plans for our future I cannot say as it was such a shock and so unexpected. I feel the cause of our present difficulty was a victim of circumstance. He was employed as an auditor and book keeper. No I do not feel like anything in his previous life had a bearing in connection with his trouble.

This is an unusual look at the life of those left behind by the incarcerated. Sadly, the story of Ida Ohmart is all too common-- when a provider is locked up many families find themselves in financial dire straits. It would have been especially hard for Ida Ohmart to find a job as someone with no degree or employment experience, especially as a woman in a male-dominated world.

Lester Ohmart: Post Prison

The good news is that Lester Ohmart repays his debt to society by serving his prison sentence and returns to his wife and children. I found him in the 1940 census living in San Antonio, Texas with his wife Ida, his two daughters, and a granddaughter. It is interesting to note that Lester is now employed as a traveling salesman for a candy distributor. And that is where our story ends for Lester Ohmart and his family. As an afterthought: it is weird that I can find the story of Lester Ohmart and his mugshot but I am unable to find the mugshot and prison record for the true mastermind of the Drake Conspiracy, Oscar Hartzell. He certainly would have done time in a Federal prison-- I have to assume his record has not yet been digitized.

Appendix

"United States Census, 1940," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K4WD-GB7 : accessed 18 May 2018), Lester Ohmart, Area D, San Antonio, Justice Precinct 1, Bexar, Texas, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 259-150, sheet 11A, line 9, family 400, Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, NARA digital publication T627. Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790 - 2007, RG 29. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2012, roll 4206.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Who Was Inmate John Barney Prine? (b. abt. 1911-?)

In researching historic prisoner records, one of the factors I look for as a researcher is a meaty inmate record file and John Barney Prine of Florida has a very lengthy file of about 200 pages of material. In reading each and every document it became immediately apparent why this inmate file was so big-- John B. Prine was a high maintenance inmate and most of his file was made up of disciplinary records. John Prine was a bad boy, locked up at age 16 for a Violation of Postal Laws in Leavenworth Kansas in 1927.

Prine Prison Violations

With 44 disciplinary violations, John Barney Prine shows a clear disregard for the rules of prison. Now, to be fair, prison has a lot of rules and complete obedience is expected. Also, Prine is a teenager. Most 16 year old children are professional boundary pushers. The disciplinary violations of Prine include:


Went to a ball game while he was supposed to be in school
Talked in main hall while marching
Built fire in his cell
Left his place of work without permission
Fighting
Disobeyed orders of guard
Failed to line up for count
Made music after hours and insolence
Loafed on gallery

These are all low-level violations of prison rules but John B. Prine spent a lot of time in isolation and on a restricted diet due to his poor behavior. Prine also loses a lot of 'Good Time'-- these are days that are credited to prisoners who are well behaved. Because of Prine's numerous prison violations he spends his full three years in prison rather than getting out early for good behavior.

The Doctor's Report

By the 1920's Leavenworth has a physician examine each inmate upon arrival to determine their physical and mental fitness for their stay in prison. From this doctor's report we gain a little backstory from Prine himself.

"This 'kid' is only 16 years of age, and claims that he was arrested previous to his now incarceration at the age of fourteen (14) years for drunkenness and fighting. He states that his father was killed by lightning, and that he left school while in the (4th) grade at the age of ten (10) years because he had to go to work....Upon examination of this youngster, I find nothing wrong with him mentally with the exception that his mentality is of a low grade and type." Ouch, that last sentence is totally judgmental.

Letter to Mother

I am not sure why there is a letter written to his mother in John Prine's prison record but it is such a sweet little time capsule. Written in elementary cursive and in stilted language, the letter shows the personal side of this rebellious teenager. One wonders if a copy ever reached the Prine household, or has it languished in his prison file for 100 years?

"I am studying poultry from books here. I am also studying penmanship. I have been going for 10-1/2 days, 1-1/2 ours [sic] a day can you see any improvement in this and the last one. I wish you wood [sic] keep these letters from now one [sic] so I can see them when I come home and it won't be long now."

There are many misspellings and grammatical errors in this letter from John Prine to his mother but this is still pretty competent writing for a teenage plumber's helper with a fourth grade education.

Post Prison in 1930 Census in Florida

So what happens to John Barney Prine after he is released from prison? I found him living with his mother and his step family in Wauchula City, Florida in Hardy County. His occupation is listed as laborer and that he performs 'odd jobs.' We know that this is the correct John Prine because he gave his mother's name as Bessie McGahgan when he was admitted to prison. The fact that the census taker records the family name as 'McGahagin' shows the fluidity of spelling in the early 20th century. This is also the final historical record that I can find of young John Barney Prine, who had an unusually long prison file and the same name of a famous American singer-writer.

Appendix

1930 Census

"United States Census, 1930," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:SRT3-KPZ : accessed 9 May 2018), John B Prine in household of James Z Mcgahagin, Wauchula, Hardee, Florida, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 3, sheet 7B, line 73, family 180, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 317; FHL microfilm 2,340,052.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Who Was Inmate Floyd Clymer (1895-1970)?

It's not often that I run to an inmate who has their own Wikipedia page. Such is the case with Floyd Clymer, inventor, businessman, automobile innovator, and professional racer. I found Clymer's Federal Leavenworth, Kansas, prison record while perusing historic prison records available at the US National Archives. And I have never seen a mugshot with such a happy face! Clymer was convicted of Mail Fraud, no doubt an early conviction of using the mail in a nefarious manner. I was unable to find out the real issue here-- what lead to the arrest-- until I found a small ad in the back of the American Motorcycle Association Magazine:

I have to assume that this small magazine ad is what sent Clymer to prison: perhaps he had nothing to send the patent seeker or perhaps he provided false information. Either way, this successful businessman, inventor, and professional driver ended up at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas for about a year.

Harley Davidson & Meryle Clymer

Another thing that drew me to the inmate file of Floyd Clymer was the length of his file. There are almost 200 pages of documents and for a prisoner serving only a year that is a lot of paperwork. I concluded that there had to be an interesting story here. Most of the documents in Clymer's file represent telegrams to and from his wife and business partner Meryle Clymer. At the time of his arrest and incarceration, Floyd Clymer owned and ran a successful Harley Davidson shop in Colorado. Even though Meryle lives in Colorado, she travels to Leavenworth, Kansas about twice a month to visit her husband and to consult him about the business. And you can tell Floyd is a proactive businessman when he writes to the Warden of Leavenworth to ask questions about his impending incarceration-- Floyd is a planner and a bit of a name dropper. I think this is also Floyd's way of showing the Warden that he is not your run-of-the-mill criminal-- Floyd is an important businessman with his own letterhead, secretary, and important friends.

Another unique aspect of Floyd Clymer's inmate record is the love and affection expressed in the exchange of telegrams between Floyd and Meryle. Floyd usually signs each telegram with a very sweet and sincere, 'Worlds of Love.' The below telegram from Meryle to Floyd from January 1, 1931, reads in part: "This new year will bring us many good things. Thinking of you all day and loving you with all my heart." Clearly this is a couple that was not destroyed by a prison sentence. The back and forth of telegrams shows a couple united in their business and personal partnership.

Letters of Support

Floyd has a lot of important friends who write letters to the Warden on his behalf. One letter reads in part: "You recently acquired a new addition to your big house in the person of Floyd Clymer. He does not belong in your institution, and would not be there, in my opinion, except for technicalities of law." That fact that the letter is signed by lawyer Kenaz Huffman of the Colorado law firm of Yeaman, Gove and Huffman makes this particularly funny and ironic-- all people have been sent to prison on 'technicalities of law.' Perhaps what Huffman meant to say is that while Clymer broke the law he had no previous record and was not criminally minded.

Other letters in Clymer's file indicate that at one point the Warden of Leavenworth is seeking a personal driver. Clymer is keen to get the job and has several very important people send letters to the Warden on his behalf. One letter from Don Hogan of Fokker Aircraft of Chicago reads:

"Floyd Clymer is the man and I doubt if there is anyone in the United States of his age that has attained more worthy note when it comes to professional racing and supervision of such events, than this fellow. For seventeen years he has raced motorcycles and automobiles and successfully and for many years past has been the one person to make the final choice of the best lady driver in the Rocky Mountain region in contests that are sponsored by the Rocky Mountain News of Denver."

Floyd Clymer is definitely part Paul Newman. Sadly, regulations prohibit inmates from being personal drivers so Clymer is denied the position.

Special Privileges Denied

While Floyd definitely has some things going for him that separate him from other inmates the Warden of Leavenworth at one point grew weary of Meryle Clymer often asking for special visiting privileges to be able to visit her husband and to consult him regarding the business. In February 1931 the Warden hand writes on a request letter from Meryle, "Advise her to handle by letter. No visit permitted." Even special guests in the Big House have their limitations.

Additionally, on August 28, 1930, N. R. Timmons of the Warden's office sends letter to Floyd saying,

"I am approving requests for three special letters received from you today with the understanding that they are not to be used in carrying on outside business from this institution, as it appears that you are trying to do. It is permissible for you to write such letters in closing up your business or to have the same carried on by others through power of attorney, but no requests of this kind will be granted in the future if it appears in any way that you are carrying on a business by this method."

It is common practice even today to deny inmates the right to "do business" from prison. In researching Clymer's records, he was certainly afforded privileges in this area that others might not have been permitted.

Upon his release on parole on June 15, 1931, Floyd Clymer goes on to continue his work in the field of motorcycles, automobiles, and racing. Clymer designs and patents motorcycle helmets. Floyd Clymer was honored as an inductee in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998. It's nice to know that Clymer survives his incarceration and picks up where he left off. As a former felon, Clymer seemed to face few obstacles in achieving success however, it should be noted that Clymer had the infrastructure of his success already built before his stay in prison. Many prisoners are not so lucky nor successful post release.

Appendix

The Clymer Manuals are still in use today. Floyd Clymer also authored many books about automobiles including this one on the Porsche 912:

And finally, I have to include the only photo I could find of Meryle Clymer, faithful wife and partner of Floyd Clymer.

And just for the record, there is no proof in Leavenworth prison records that Clymer was granted leave to ride motorcycle in races. You can view Floyd Clymer's complete prison records at the National Archives here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Who Is Inmate Dan Tso-Se (b. abt. 1896-?)

At age 13, Dan Tso-Se was probably one of the youngest inmates in prison during this time period in the United States. Dan arrived at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas on June 21, 1909, found guilty of manslaughter for killing four people. Dan’s intake record shows that he is 5-feet, ¾-inches tall and weighs 98-pounds. He cannot speak or understand English and his ears are pierced. He is also listed, probably mistakenly, as age seven. He lists his parents as dead, making Dan Tso-se an orphan.

A poignant statement is found on Dan’s 1913 Trusty Prisoner’s Agreement that reads:

“It was alleged that in November 1908 in New Mexico I killed four men whose names I do not remember. I was only 13 years old at the time and these men were continually mistreating and whipping me. I had no one to look after me, being an orphan. I plead guilty.”

It is noted on Dan’s intake record that he “cannot speak or understand English” so this Trusty Prisoner Agreement must have been made a few years after his arrival in Federal prison.

A Murder Mystery

At some point in this young man’s incarceration he must have asked about the whereabouts of his sister and family. A letter from W. T. Shelton, Superintendent of the San Juan School of Shiprock, New Mexico to United States Marshall J. H. Anderson of Salt Lake City, Utah from 1910 reads:

“I am in receipt of your letter dated Dec. 28, 1909, asking for the whereabouts of Dan-Tso-se’s sister and other kinsfolk. In reply I have to say that unfortunately Dan killed his sister and two or three of his kinsfolk. He has a brother in this school by the name of Tony Tso-se. I will make further inquiry of his kinfolk.”

This letter is forwarded to Warden R. W. McLaughrey who, in turn, was asked to give the letter to young Dan.

So, did Dan Tso-se kill his sister and other members of his family? Or did he kill “four men whose names I do not remember?” There is a big discrepancy here. It is also interesting to note that Dan writes to Mr. Shelton at least twice during his incarceration. (We don’t know what the correspondence content was but there is a log of all letters in and out of the prison to Dan.)

Youthful Offender

An examination of Dan’s disciplinary record while in prison show the antics of someone who is still quite child-like. For example:

Nov. 15, 1909: Breaking dishes. This prisoner broke a number of bowls by carelessly running the truck which he was pushing against the table. (Dan broke a lot of dishes and has several disciplinary notes regarding this subject.)

Dec. 27, 1901: Vulgarity. This prisoner was kicking up his heels and blowing with his mouth imitating breaking wind in a loud, boisterous, vulgar way…

Oct. 9, 1911: Skylarking with [inmate] #7656. This prisoner was wrestling and also laughing with [inmate] #7556 around the dining room, taking advantage of the guards absence…

Oct. 29, 1912: Failing to obey orders. This man has been instructed time again not to put any dirty rags under the dining room tables, but is still keeping them there.

It is interesting to note that Dan receives no disciplinary write-ups from October 30, 1912 until his release on March 7, 1916. Perhaps Dan matures a bit in these four years.

Feral Child Myth

Contrary to articles written about Dan Tso-Se, he was not raised in the wild and he was able to speak. However, he was unable to speak English when he was sent to Leavenworth. A memo shows that Dan sent a letter to his brother in New Mexico in Navajo.

At Dan’s trial in Salt Lake City there is a brief report from the June 18, 1909, The Standard of Ogden Utah that reads in part: “The boy came into the courtroom dressed in an old pair of overalls, and an old khaki colored canvas coat. His long straight hair fell around his ears and well into his neck, and as he took his seat in the courtroom and looked toward the judge he seemed to be absolutely free from any realization of the heinousness of his crime.”

And… “He was to all intents and purposes a wild boy of the hills, and as such he excited sympathy from all present. The boy stated to the district attorney that he had never received any kindness from anyone excepting a brother and a sister. The hand of everyone else, he intimated, had been against him. If he did not do as he was told he was beaten and ill-treated. As he told his story he shed tears, which showed some susceptibility.

The myth of Dan Tso-Se as a feral, nature boy seems to come in part from a sensationalized article from the Deseret Evening News, December 28, 1909 that is deemed important enough to be tucked into his prison records online. In part the article reads,

“Under the influence of discipline and surroundings at Leavenworth prison, to which he was sent last summer for shooting four relatives in the extreme southeastern part of Utah, an Indian boy, Dan Tsose, has undergone a remarkable change. When he was in Salt Lake City, and appeared before the United States district court for sentence he was clad in worn and old overalls, and a shirt that appeared as if it had never been washed, and his long and unkempt hair and apparent nonchalance of the seriousness of the crime, evoked feelings of sympathy for the child of nature, whose angry passion lead him, childlike, to take summary vengeance on those whom he thought unkind to him.”

The End of Dan

Dan is released in 1916 and seems to disappear. A letter from the warden to a Charles E. Dagenett in February says that Dan wants to go to the Arapahoe Indian Agency in Wyoming. A letter to the Warden of Leavenworth from C. H. Asbury, Special Agent in Charge, in Fort Washakie, Wyoming, says that Dan went to New Mexico after prison but was not welcomed there. Does this add credence to the notion that Dan had committed a horrible crime? Searches in subsequent census reports from 1920 and 1930 reveal no more mentions of young Dan Tso-se, perhaps one of the youngest people ever sent to Leavenworth Federal Prison.

You may read the inmate file of Dan Tso-Se at the US National Archives here.

Who Is Prisoner Hyman Polski (1885-1939)?

“The war on alcohol in the 1920s and the war on drugs of the ’70s and ’80s are symbiotic campaigns. The initial edifice of the war on drugs was built with similar logic, the same cast of characters, and some of the initial infrastructure that came out of the war on alcohol.”

~ Lisa McGirr

This is the story of Hyman Polski, merchant, husband, and father and resident of Minnesota, USA. Mr. Polski was born Chaim Krasnopolski about 1885, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States around 1905. In 1927, Mr. Polski is sentenced to two years at the Federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, for Conspiracy to Violate the Prohibition Act-- Mr. Polski is a moonshiner who was caught with storage tanks of alcohol and a still operation in a barn in Minnesota. According to the record in the district court:

“...did feloniously have in their possession and under their control a certain still and distilling apparatus set up, used and intended for use in the manufacture of distilled spirits, to-wit, whiskey, which said still and distilling apparatus was not and had not been registered with the Collector of Internal Revenue for the district of Minnesota…”

The Appeal

While Hyman Polski was sentenced on December 30, 1927 he does not begin his sentence until almost two years later. A letter from 1928 in his inmate file shows that a judge granted Polski and his co-defendants more time to appeal their conviction. Polski’s co-defendants include Charles Geller, Harry Skar, Maurice Ruben, Jacob M. Fredgant, Louis B. Wiggins, Charles J. Stock, Lawrence Jenson, William Ledgerding, Henry Lotfog (aka Isaac L. Rabinovitz), Louis Wittles, and Clarence F. Bradfield.

Ultimately, Mr. Polski’s appeal is denied and he is received in Leavenworth Prison on December 29, 1929. Hyman Polski appeals his conviction, but loses. An order from May 1929 directs Polski and his co-defendants to surrender themselves to prison within 30 days. Instead, Mr. Polski et al file a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. The writ asks for an appeal or review of the case that lead to the conviction of Polski and others. On October 21, 1929, the US Supreme Court denies the petition of certiorari and Hyman Polski et al must surrender themselves to the proper authorities to serve their sentences in prison. (This same court case from 1929, Polski v. United States, is sometimes cited in other legal cases due to the nature of Mr. Polski’s arrest.) On January 3, just five days later, Polski sends a worried telegraph to his wife Tillie in St. Paul, Minnesota, concerned that he has not heard back from her. Three days later on January 6, Ms. Polski telegraphs back to say that all is well and that she had sent a letter out just recently.

One interesting historic aspect of Hyman Polski’s file is a memo from J. Edgar Hoover (dated January 24, 1930) addressed to the Superintendent of Prisons at the Department of Justice in Washington DC, with a copy going to Leavenworth, Kansas, that states that Mr. Hyman’s fingerprints reveal that he has no federal record of previous convictions. The translation: Mr. Polski has no prior convictions.

J. Edgar Hoover & the FBI

There is another memo from April 10, 1937 that is personally signed from J. Edgar Hoover at the Federal Bureau of Investigation that shows Mr. Polski’s criminal record and felony registration. Presumably, the detail-oriented J. Edgar Hoover has created a felony registry with Hyman Polski having registered on March 6, 1937.

A sad aspect of imprisonment during the Great Depression is that Mr. Polski’s wife and three children lost their house due to foreclosure. Mr. Louis Hertz writes, “Mr. Polski until convicted and imprisoned had a good reputation, and had never been involved in any trouble before that time.”

With no breadwinner in the household, Mrs. Polski was unable to pay the mortgage. Where did they go? What did they do? Only history knows. Friends of Mr. Polski, a Mr. Hertz and a Mr. Gordon write poignant letters to the parole board on behalf of Mr. Polski and family. There is also a letter in support of Mr. Polski from J. Clair Stone, the president of the Elk Laundry Company in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Polski Released

The good news is that Mr. Polski is released on parole after a little over a year in Leavenworth, Kansas. Presumably, Hyman Polski leads a law-abiding and productive life after prison.

Luckily for Mr. Polski, there is a job waiting for him with the Milton Rosen Tire Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota when he is finally released in December 1930.

It is somewhat sad that Polski only has less than a decade on the outside before he dies in 1939, but his wife Tillie (1889-1989) lives to be 100 years old. They are both buried at the Sons of Jacob Cemetery in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

A book by Lisa McGirr, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (2015), talks about how the penal system in the United States grew and developed during Prohibition at both state and federal levels. This dry, dark time in American history also lead to the rise of organized crime and the Ku Klux Klan. From 1920-1933, the National Prohibition Act made illegal the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Can we call this the War on Alcohol? Yes, we can. Many who tried to illegally provide this demanded product ended up in state or Federal prison. During the years of the Great Depression, it only seems natural that many would try to supplement their income by the illegal manufacturing and distribution of alcohol. Many who were locked up were first time offenders, minorities, or recent immigrants, just like Hyman Polski.

You can read the inmate file of Hyman Polski at the National Archives online catalog here.

Who Was William Holly Griffith (1892-1971) of West Virginia?

Who was William Holly Griffith (1892-1971), a convicted murderer and prisoner from Wirt County, West Virginia? Sometimes called the Bestial Murderer (because of the heinous nature of his crimes), Griffith was probably responsible for the deaths of four men including Constable Jeff Goff, police officer G. Ord Thompson, boat owner Ira Roush, and inmate Henry Lewis. This cop killer, murderer, and chronic prison escapee is probably one of the most dangerous criminals in recorded West Virginia history.

Griffith in the Census

In the 1900 US Census, there is a William Griffith (born in July 1892) living in the Burning Springs district of Wirt County, West Virginia. William’s parents are listed as James (age 33) and Eva (age 24) Griffith. James’ occupation is listed as farming. At the time of the 1900 Census, James and Eva had been married for 8 years. Also listed are additional children of James and Eva including Elizabeth, age 7, and George D., age 2. William is listed as attending school. The birthplace of all parents and children is listed as West Virginia, and the parents of James and Eva are listed as being born in West Virginia.

William H. Griffith (age 17) and his parents, James (age 44) and Evaline (age 36) are also found in the 1910 US Census. They are living in Nicholas County, West Virginia, in Kentucky District Precinct 3. What we can conclude from looking at the census is that the Griffiths had a very large family that included:
Minnie S. (age 15),
George D. (age 11),
Albert F. (age 8),
Lona (age 6),
Bessie (age 2),
Atha (age 0, indicating infant).

Including parents and children, that is nine people in one household. James Griffith’s occupation is listed as a carpenter who works on his own account and builds or works on houses. The future murderer William is listed as working as a laborer in a coal mine. An article in Goldenseal Magazine by Herbert R. Cogar in 2010 lists Griffith’s wife’s name as Lulu. Allegedly, William Holly Griffith also had a daughter.

The Crimes of Holly Griffith

So, what are the crimes of Holly Griffith? It all started over a car that Griffith purchased using a bad check. Mr. Griffith had been arrested in Athens, Ohio. The arresting party, with Griffith, stopped to spend the night in Cairo and Griffith was able to escape and return to his home in Groundhog, West Virginia.

Special Constable Jeff Goff went to Griffith’s house in Groundhog (near Creston) in Wirt County, WV, to arrest Mr. Griffith. Griffith shot Goff rather than submit to the arrest. For reasons unknown, William Griffith was never charged in the shooting of Constable Jeff Goff on April 1, 1915 that resulted in Goff’s death on April 8. (Sadly, Thomas Jefferson Goff lingered for a week before he died from the gunshot wound.) After this shooting and escape, Griffith was chased with bloodhounds and a group of deputies lead by the Sheriff of Wirt County.

Griffith was able to escape arrest and was on the run when he murdered again.

Griffith was convicted for the murder of G. Ord Thompson, the Chief of Police of the town of Gassaway, WV. Thompson was murdered by Griffith on May 1, 1915, while Griffith was on the run from the first murder. It is interesting to note that the wanted poster from 1915 lists Griffith alias as F. S. Rose, the name he used to write the bad check.

So while there is no census information that gives us William Griffith’s middle name, there is evidence that the man known to many as “Holly” really had a similar, but different, middle name of “Howlie.” One strong piece of evidence as to the identity of William Griffith is his World War I draft card from December 1918, easily found on the Church of the Latter Day Saints site Family Search. Is this an error? One possibility is that the card was filled out by someone else who misheard the middle name of the Bestial Murderer.

This record clearly lists Griffith’s name was William Howlie Griffith, born in Sanoma on July 31, 1892 in Wirt County, West Virginia. Griffith lists his occupation as electrician and claims to be married with a child. He also gives his address as Clarksburg.

Griffiths' death certificate lists his first name as Holly, one must assume, because that is his nickname. He died July 11, 1971 at Moundsville Penitentiary of a cerebral vascular accident due to hypertension. Griffith died of a stroke.

You may read and view the entire death certificate of William Griffith here. The cause of death of the Bestial Murderer is listed as cerebral vascular accident and hypertension-- William Holly died of a stroke at age 79.

Speculation About Griffith/p>

So, did one bad check begin the criminal career of this notorious West Virginia felon? The details of Griffith’s life and crimes are a bit murky. It is known that Griffith’s lawyer, the highly respected J. Howard Holt came to Griffith’s defense and argued that his client was not guilty of the three murders he was ultimately convicted. (Holt also was a passionate opponent of the death penalty.) William Holly Griffith is an interesting character from West Virginia history. Descriptions of Griffith are contradictory as he has been described as a model prisoner who was entrepreneurial in prison and yet he also escaped from Moundsville Penitentiary. Do model prisoners escape? I think not. But you can look at the mugshots of William Holly Griffith and tell that he was in prison for most of his life. Holly was incarcerated for over 55 years, one of the longest serving inmates in US history. He is so much a convict that he was allowed to have his own dog when incarcerated at Moundsville Prison in Moundsville, WV (see pic below).

By some accounts, Griffith was a wealthy man and had built up a bank account of several tens of thousands of dollars but this is hearsay. Sadly, there is just not a lot of historic information about William Holly Griffith. If he was indeed a vicious, or bestial, murderer, perhaps a lack of details about his life and death is a suitable epitaph.