Yuma Territorial Prison

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Description

There were more than three thousand of them ranging in age from eighty-eight to fourteen. Men. Women. Apache. Mexican. American ... a cross section of who ever came to or through the territory. They were different in many ways and similar in one … they were all inmates at the Yuma Territorial Prison.

Transcript

There were more than 3,000 of them, ranging in age from 88 to 14. Men, women. There were Apache, Mexican, American. A cross-section of whoever came to or through the Arizona territory. They were different in many ways and similar in one:
they were all inmates at the Yuma Territorial Prison.

Jesse Torres:
The Yuma Territorial Prison operated for 33 years from 1876 to 1909. It was established mainly because all the county jails in the territory were very...very unsafe. It was easy for people to break out.

Narrator:
The prison opened its doors on July 1, 1876. Its first inmates were the prisoners who built it. Built on and into a hard rock cliff at the conjunction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers , the budding town of Yuma lay to the west and miles of barren, harsh desert to the south.

Jesse Torres:
The Yuma Territorial Prison was known by the local people in town as the country club on the Colorado River , and yet the convicts referred to it as a hellhole. And depending, I guess, on which side of the wall you were standing on, for most of the townspeople, they looked up at the hill, they saw the territorial prison. By 1885, it had electricity, it had blowers that blew air into the east cellblock area. They had a hospital.

Kimberly Kreger:
And their hospital was quite modern for its time. These guys even had dental help.

Jesse Torres:
It offered a prison library.

Kimberly Kreger:
The prisoners were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, Spanish language, German language, and music. And they formed a little band, too.

Jesse Torres:
But once they were locked up in the evenings, there were six men to a cell, one bucket that was used as a bathroom. They had those large sewer roaches running all over the place, and basically it stank, it was dirty. Men took a bath only once a week. There was also lice and other conditions, bed bugs. So depending on which side of the wall you were on, it could be either a country club or it could be the hellhole.

Narrator:
Reasons for being sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison were as varied as the prisoners' backgrounds.


Jesse Torres:
Crimes varied anywhere from murder, theft...


Kimberly Kreger:
Embezzlement, forgeries.

Jesse Torres:
We had one man sent to prison for seduction under the promise of marriage.

Kimberly Kreger:
They were in here for polygamy, but they were also in here for adultery.

Jesse Torres:
And some of these men did not learn their lesson, because we had a number of repeat offenders here.

Narrator:
Behind every prisoner was a story; some humorous, some bloody. There was R.L. McDonald:
sent to prison for embezzlement, he became a bookkeeper of the prisoners' accounts and stole $130. "Buckskin Frank" Leslie had a habit of shooting at his girlfriends, was sent to Yuma , and became a model prisoner.

Jesse Torres:
And I think one of our local newspapers, they did an article on him. Some lady in California , San Francisco , read it and fell in love with him, and eventually he wound up marrying her.


Narrator:
There were 29 women sentenced to Yuma , including 16-year-old Maria Moreno, who shot her brother after he complained about the way she was dancing. By far the most famous was Pearl Hart.

Jesse Torres:
She and her partner, Joe Boot, committed the last stagecoach robbery in Arizona . They robbed the Globe stage, and they were very inept as robbers; they were caught very quickly.

Narrator:
Joe Boot, sentenced to 30 years, would escape. Pearl Hart, after being tried twice, was given five. She was made famous by embellished newspaper stories, and following her release, tried her hand at acting. Evidently she was as bad an actor as a thief and quickly faded from history. The prison had strict rules:
making weapons, gambling, and fighting were prohibited, as was littering and failing to bathe. Those who broke the rules could be forced to wear the ball and chain. More serious offenders would be sent to the dark cell.

Jesse Torres:
Now, the dark cell basically is an excavation in the hillside. It's about 15' by 15', and in the center of the room, there's a cage.

Kimberly Kreger:
And they didn't care how many guys got in trouble, they'd keep pushing them in there until they were too crowded.

Jesse Torres:
There was iron rings on two corners; they'd run them inside the cage around your ankles while you were in the dark cell. Complete dark other than a light that comes in from a vent.


Kimberly Kreger:
They were given bread and water. No toilet to go in. no bedding to sleep on. And usually in their underwear. And even two women got put in there for fighting. But of course the guys weren't in there when they were. They had it all to themselves.

Jesse Torres:
Normally length of stay in the dark cell was anywhere from 1 to 12 days, though this one man, John Clay, spent a total of 104 days straight in the dark cell. When he was released, he was a model prisoner, never gave anyone any more trouble after that.

Narrator:
There were 140 escape attempts at Yuma ; 26 of them succeeded. Most convicts served their time and left the prison. Many received pardons or reduced sentences, according to the practice of the day. Some would never leave the prison...alive.

Jesse Torres:
We had 111 deaths; 104 of them are buried in the prison cemetery. The main cause of death here was consumption, which is another word for tuberculosis. Eight were shot while trying to escape, two were killed by falling rocks, a couple bitten by rattlesnakes.

Kimberly Kreger:
There were a couple suicides, a couple murders. In fact, one of the guys that murdered his cellmate was handed over to the Yuma County , tried and convicted, and actually hung in the county courthouse yard.

Narrator:
By 1909, overcrowding at the prison forced its closure. On September 15th of that year, the last convict left Yuma for the new territorial prison in Florence . The institution was closed, but its history was far from over. Over the decades, it would serve as the local high school, shelter for homeless during the depression, and even a movie location. Floods, theft, railroad expansion, and the building of the ocean-to-ocean highway destroyed sections of the prison. In 1939, some townspeople took notice.

Kimberly Kreger:
Yuma saw that they had something here to save, so they started working on it, and by 1941, the museum was put up.

Jesse Torres:
And operated for a museum for about 20 years until 1961, when the Yuma Territorial Prison became the third Arizona State Park .

Kimberly Kreger:
And we've been trying to tell the history and save it ever since.


Narrator:
For 33 years, the walls of the Yuma Territorial Prison restrained those who broke the law. Today, they welcome those who seek to walk in their footsteps.