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History of San Quentin

Updated on September 20, 2011

Circa 1890

Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, established around 1773, is considered to be the first prison built in the United States. But, it was demolished about 1835. Such was the fate of many American Penal facilities. The history of these institutions reveals much about social and political issues of their day. Let’s look at one of the most famous in the country…San Quentin Prison built on the outskirts of San Francisco.

The history of this prison actually begins with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. With the hordes of prospector’s and hangers on there was also bound to be an unsavory criminal element. And there would eventually be a need for a place to incarcerate such individuals.

However, before San Quentin was built, criminals were held on “prison ships.” That was nothing new. For example, the British held many prisoners of war on such ships during the American Revolution. Construction on San Quentin began in 1852, making it California’s oldest. Originally, a 20 acre lot was purchased upon which one main cell building was authrized. Using bricks made by convict labor a two story prison building, known then as "The Stones," was constructed. The complex is now 432 acres with the prison portion occupying over half of that.

Many may assume by the prison’s name it was named after a saint. Not so. San Quentin came from the name of a Lucatuit or Miwok Indian leader from the Petaluma area. He had gained notoriety in the early 1820s for resisting the establishment of a Spanish mission at San Rafael. He fought against Mexican Troops before being captured in 1824. The location of the conflict was named "Punta de Quinton." The warrior was given the name Quentin.

Settlers later added the "San.” Despite opposition by settlers, the first cell block was completed in 1854 and in 1893 executions began taking place at San Quentin. They had previously been done on the gallows of the Marin County Courthouse.

Although the facility did house female prisoners at one time in the 1920s and 30s, only male inmates reside there now. Condemned women are now held at the Women’s facility in Chowchilla, California.

San Quentin is also California's only death row for male convicts. In fact, it boasts the nation’s largest. It is interesting to note, since 1937 it has been the only prison in California with a gas chamber. Also not widely known is prison labor was used to support the war effort by building metal submarine nets and weaving cargo netting.

In its’ earlier days, between1893 and 1937, there were 215 condemned prisoners executed by hanging. Later, another 196 were put to death in the gas chamber. Today, all executions are done by lethal injection, as in 1995 the use of gas was determined to be "cruel and unusual punishment."

The cemetery at San Quentin has more than a few notorious convicts, such as Bluebeard Watson, who killed a number of his 20- plus wives. And then there was William Kogut, who was sentenced to death for murder in a gambling hall brawl. He decided to cheat the executioner by stuffing a pack of cards with explosive material. He aimed it at his head and died with the ace of diamonds embedded in his brain.

About 700 inmates are buried in San Quentin's Boot Hill Cemetery, the prison's third. It was used from the early 1920s to 1952. The graves are marked only by small wooden stakes. The prison itself has also had its share of villainous inmates such as stagecoach robber Black Bart and mass murderer Charles Manson.


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    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 6 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      JY...I lived in the Bay Area for about 8-years and (steadfastly) avoided the prison...that said...I am glad I was able to tour it from a historical distance today through your talented writing. Voted all the Ups.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Femme, I doubt it.

    • profile image

      femmeflashpoint 6 years ago

      Interesting hub! Most of the information I didn't know. I don't have intentions of visiting it, so appreciated that you provided pictures. Boot Hill cemetery rings a bell, and I found it interesting that the graves are marked with simple stakes. I'm wondering if the decedent's name is put on the stake as well.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thanks to all of you for commenting

    • WesternHistory profile image

      WesternHistory 6 years ago from California

      Very interesting hub. I've driven by the prison countless number of times. I knew it had been there since the 1800's but didn't know how it received it's name. Thanks.

    • profile image

      Joan Whetzel 6 years ago

      I love this. The little known history really adds to this story.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Very interesting and previously unknown facts on San Quentin. Especially intrigued by the cemetery...ace of diamonds, oh man. Votes up!

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image

      PETER LUMETTA 6 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      Interesting HUB, I've seen it many times and knew nothing about it, now I know.