YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Museum Visit That Will Seem Like a Trip to Prison


SAN QUENTIN — Behind the towering gates of California's most-feared prison, in the basement of an abandoned building, rest a century's worth of artifacts from a largely unknown and at times mysterious world.

Ignored or misinterpreted by outsiders, this penitentiary harbors a history as rich and diverse as any city's, said assistant warden Richard A. Nelson. So, after decades of collecting memorabilia from California prisons, he is set to help open a museum at the San Quentin State Prison that he says will present life behind bars "as honestly as possible."

Old uniforms, photographs, antique handcuffs, a scale model of a gas chamber, and a 30-pound ball and chain will be among the relics shown to visitors when the San Quentin Museum opens here in September.

Nelson has spent three decades traveling to antique shops and rare-book dealers around the country, searching for old uniforms, homemade weapons and photographs of inmates. Already an avid collector of prison artifacts, the 33-year veteran warden turned professional in 1984 and began tracking down material from Colorado, Washington and Montana for the museum.

"We thought we ought to do something to preserve the history of convicted felons," said Nelson, who is also president of the nonprofit San Quentin Museum Assn. and a Death Row supervisor at the penitentiary.

While the warden's efforts are not limited to San Quentin, it is clear that the museum's unofficial focus will be on this, California's oldest prison. Built in 1852 on 20 acres of bayside property, San Quentin evolved from a prison ship docked near the cliffs to a teeming colony of captives. Prisoners helped fill in part of the bay and construct the massive Marin County landmark perched on the edge of the water.

The San Quentin museum will be funded by private donations. Volunteers such as Dick Glumac, a San Francisco architect, have supplied the renovation blueprints for an old post office that will house the new museum.

"Many of us don't know much about life in prison," Glumac said. "There's a lot of humanity here that people don't know of. Prisoners are all human beings, and sometimes we're ignorant of that."

Nancy Nichols, who directs the San Quentin Museum Assn., was recruited for the project by Nelson to help develop a nationally accredited museum. Now, as a coordinator, she is helping catalogue thousands of books, manuscripts, artifacts and photographs in the basement of an abandoned schoolhouse on the prison grounds.

One such picture tells the story of an almost unbelievable jail escape--back when prison breaks resembled "something out of a bad Clint Eastwood movie," Nichols said. In January, 1936, four prisoners escaped from their cells, invaded Warden James Holohan's home, kidnaped five members of the parole board and drove off with the warden's car. The escapees fled to a barn in Corte Madera, trailed closely by sheriff's deputies. During a bloody shoot-out, one inmate died. Two were later executed, and another served a life sentence.

The black-and-white photo, taken in the aftermath of the battle, shows the triumphant deputies with the apprehended criminals. "Today's escapes aren't nearly as exotic as they used to be," Nichols said.

Other pictures show a part of prison life few have seen. One rare snapshot depicts inmates, clad in stripes, building a snowman. Stripes were phased out in 1913 and replaced with blue jeans. Officials have tried, in vain, to find an intact uniform. Snow, of course, is almost as rare as the striped suits.

The exhibits will also feature documents that have gathered dust in San Quentin's archives for more than a century. Among them will be the personal diary of Dr. Leo Stanley, who officiated at more than 100 executions.

Museum officials are also working to bring patrons face to face with "interactive" models of every prison's most feared devices: the instruments of execution. Plans are under way to reproduce a gas chamber and the gallows--complete with 13 steps leading up to three menacing, but non-functional, nooses.

Organizers expect strong reactions from museum-goers.

"One group might like the museum," Nichols said. "Another might loathe it. But I think people need to know what their tax dollar is paying for, and this will help them see it."

Diary of an Execution

\o7 Dr. Leo Stanley presided over more than 100 executions at the San Quentin State Prison from 1913 to 1950. These entries recount the Sept. 23, 1927, execution of one condemned man, Earl Jack Clark of Harbor City, who was convicted of stabbing a merchant sailor in 1925 and sentenced to death.

Stanley's account of Clark's hanging will be included in a book published by the San Quentin Museum Assn.

Here are some excerpts:

Los Angeles Times Articles