Everything Librarian: Who Is Inmate Dan Tso-Se

Monday, May 7, 2018

Who Is Inmate Dan Tso-Se

At age 13, Dan Tso-Se (b. abt. 1896-?) 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.

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