Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2019

Shenanigans at San Quentin Prison

By Robert L. Harrison · August 01, 2018

Prisoners lining up at San Quentin, 1871 <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span>

Prisoners lining up at San Quentin, 1871

Birdseye View of San Quentin, c.1910 <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span> Turn-of-the-Century San Quentin <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span>

Much of early California’s crime history centers on violence such as armed bank and train robberies.  This is a story about two men who were convicted of forgery, a non-violent crime.  James A. Shotwell and Moses Frank were found guilty of forgery in the mid-1860s and sent to San Quentin State Prison.  The trials of Shotwell and Frank were unusual in that, in 1860s California, there were few criminal trials for forgery and even fewer that resulted in a sentence to state prison.  As reported in the February 3, 1866 Marin Journal article “Moses Frank Again,” it was in prison that their lives intersected in a less than constructive way.

 James Shotwell arrived in San Francisco in October 1863.  He was known as a fast man about town, had plenty of money, fast horses, and a splendid wardrobe.  Shotwell claimed to be a major owner of the firm “Savage and Real del Monte.”  His only regret was a lack of education, most notably he could not write.  Despite this limitation he was able to create excellent forgeries.  By early 1864 there were at least four claims of forgery against him with checks ranging in value from $1,800 to $6,200.  He fled to Virginia City but was arrested there and brought back to San Francisco for trial.  Shotwell was convicted in August 1864 and sentenced to serve six years in state prison.

 In the early 1860s Moses Frank was a wealthy San Francisco merchant.  He first came to public notice when he filed a charge of perjury against Herman Levinson, a young man highly esteemed in commercial circles who later became well-known as senior proprietor of the California Jewelry Company.  Levinson had earlier testified in court that he was told by certain parties that you could not believe anything Frank said, even if he were under oath.  Levinson was arrested on January 24, 1863 and immediately released on bail.  He was tried on February 2nd and honorably acquitted.

 In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Frank was recognized as a member of a citizen group recommending candidates for the newly formed Independent Union Party, a conservative political party strongly in support of maintaining the Union.  A year later he was elected president of the Utah Mining Company of Esmeralda.  He and partner F. J. Baum, the mine superintendent, looted the company of $70,000.  After they were exposed, Baum escaped to Mazatlán on a sailing vessel.  Frank attempted to escape on a ship bound for China but was arrested and indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses.  By December 1864 Frank was facing eight indictments for forgery.

 The first trial of Moses Frank began on January 12, 1865.  The jury could not agree on a finding because, as it was proved later, his agent had bribed the jurors.  At his second trial in July 1865 he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in state prison.  Some observers found the trial procedures controversial.  This elicited an editorial from the San Francisco Daily Alta and a response from Mark Twain.  The Alta claimed the review of the trial by the Supreme Court reinforced the notion “any number of separate acts may be charged in the count, provided they all amount to the same crime” and that practice favors the prosecution over the defense.

 Mark Twain, writing for the San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle in November 1865, penned an article titled “Stand Back!”  He wrote “Let the Supreme Court stand back and give the Alta a chance.  The Alta knows more about these things than the Supreme Court does.  What does a man who is defeated by the Supreme Court stop there for? Why don’t he appeal his case to the Alta!....Let all hands take a fresh holt on the earth, now, and look out for blood, hair and the ground tore up – for the Alta has hung an evil on her safety valve, and is going to try the Moses Frank forgery case all over again.”   The added publicity did not alter Frank’s sentence.

 Frank first met Shotwell at San Quentin State Prison. Shotwell had been incarcerated about a year prior to Frank.  As a model non-violent prisoner he was given primarily clerical work and granted other privileges available to only a limited number of inmates.  Frank noted Shotwell had privileges that he was anxious to obtain for himself.   When Dora Marks, a new prisoner appeared, Frank crafted a plot to make use of her charms to cause trouble for Shotwell.  It is not clear how he enlisted her in his cause, but he managed to induce her to attempt mischief with Shotwell.  In turn, Shotwell saw an agreeable situation and made himself available.

 Unfortunately for Shotwell, his tryst with Dora had been spotted by the guards. According to the San Francisco Call as reported in the Journal, “The officers of the Prison were about to punish Shotwell, when they overheard Moses [Frank] congratulating Dora upon the manner in which she had played her part, and promising her larger liberties when he was placed in Shotwell’s position.  The dungeon which was yawning for Shotwell closed upon Moses, and he was sentenced to remain in darkness for thirty days.”

 In 1868, after serving about two-thirds of their sentences, both men were pardoned by Governor Haight.  The pardons were on condition that they leave the State within thirty days of their release, never to return. After Moses Frank’s pardon on April 9th, a story somehow emerged that the Governor sought the Jewish vote by promising to pardon him before an upcoming election.  The story was later determined to be false.  

 Shotwell was pardoned on June 2nd, about two months after Frank.   It is not known if the two men ever met again but they both apparently did leave the state never to return.

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