One afternoon, in the late 19th Century, the fifteen year old brother of Maria Moreno complained about the way she was dancing. She got angry. His response was to say: “So, shoot me.” Maria, who was sixteen went into her house and brought her father’s rifle. She shot and killed her brother. He should have let her dance anyway she wanted. Maria was convicted and sentenced to the Yuma Territorial Prison.
One evening, again the late 19th Century, Elera Estrada, found out that her lover was being unfaithful. She cut his heart out and threw it in his face. She claimed in court that he fell onto her knife. The jury didn’t buy her story. Elvira was sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison. Excuse the graphic description, I’m just writing about what I read.
[Not your everyday crime]
[An everyday crime]
On Saturday, February 13, I parked our red Ford Escape and Mariam and I paid a small fee to tour the few buildings that was all that remained of the infamous prison. I tried to imagine what a newly convicted person would feel like when we entered.
They would not have passed through a gift shop that carried hand lotions, lip balm, dream-catchers (made in China), post cards and books of the Wicked Women and Outlaws of the Old West.
They would not have entered a courtyard that was planted with blooming flowers and palm trees. Inside the museum, there were display cases exhibiting the stories of the more colorful and interesting inmates.
There was a photo and story of Pearl Hart, a misguided train robber who teamed up with a guy named Boot. They robbed one train and took away $421 in loot. Both were captured and sent to different prisons. Boot escaped and disappeared from the history books. Hart went on to try her hand at acting. She failed at that as well. Her revolver was on display behind glass.
[Pearl tried her hand on the New York stage.]
This must have been a dismal place to serve time. The cells, each holding six inmates must have been unbearably hot…Yuma is a very hot city.
There was the solitary confinement called the Dark Cell. One poor soul spent 120 days in this room without light. He emerged a “model prisoner” and never gave anyone any trouble after that. My guess is that he had lost much of his reason inside this hellish enclosure. That’s just my guess.
[The Dark Cell]
I tried to write down the names of the unfortunate souls who committed a crime, some hideous, like murder, and some that are not serious enough to require incarceration, like adultery. I tried to look into the eyes of these men and women who suffered for what they did. If you’re a religious person, consider that they paid twice for their sins, once in Yuma and again in Hell. The two were the same if you looked deep enough into the eyes…those dark, wet, frightening, scared and pitiful eyes. The eyes of people like Barney K. Riggs, Trinidad Verdugo, Henry Wilson, Donald Waters, Daniel Morin, R.L. McDonald, Jennie McCleary, Georgie Clifford, Pearl Hart and Frank Leslie. There were too many to write down…too many to remember.
[A woman wrote to him while he was in prison. They married.]
The prison was opened in 1876. The first inmate was William Hall. In 1889, Manuel Fimbres gave birth to a child while a prisoner. In 1899, Pearl Hart was behind bars.
The prison closed in 1909.
I stood in the court-yard and tried to imagine the conditions…but it just didn’t get inside me. Nearby, the truck traffic on I-8 drowned out any chance for quiet reflection. A lot of traffic was crossing the Colorado River (what’s left of it) in and out of California. On a nearby hill was a casino. A bike path wound its way alongside the river. The parking lot was half-filled with SUV’s…most with out-of-state plates. Ours was one of them, easy to spot because of the two bikes mounted on the roof.
We drove down a small road (perhaps a hundred yards) and walked to the Old Prison Cemetery. Here are 104 small mounds, most are covered with rocks. None are marked. These are the unfortunate souls who died up on the hill, inside the stone walls, of Tuberculosis, snake bites, murder, suicide and executions.
I stood and took a photo, noticing my shadow falling across the graves. I looked to my right and noticed my car with the bikes, sitting in the hot sun…alone. There were no visitors to this part of the prison exhibits. I wondered if anyone ever came here to visit a distant descendant, take a pebble as a souvenir, read the plaque, swat the flies, apply SPF or to mumble a prayer for these unfortunate souls whose bones mixed with the sand and dust beneath the baked rocks.
[The Prison Cemetery]
[In the distance: A Ford Escape. Irony?]
There certainly was death beneath my feet, but there was also death in the eyes of those in the haunting photographs. Those eyes. Look at those eyes.
For a moment, they were forced to look at a camera…and in a sense into a society they mostly rejected.
But, for whatever despicable deed they committed, it occurred to me that each of them was born of a woman who loved them, for however briefly, before they grew up and found out what terror life can hold.
For a short time, they were fortunate souls.