By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Historical photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Early in the state’s history, female inmates were handled by prison matrons but it wasn’t always the case. This is a look at some of those women working in a male-dominated environment that laid the foundation for women to follow a century later.
An early look at female inmates in 1868 reveals there were only three of them and they were not supervised by a female matron.
“There are but three females confined in the prison,” reported the Daily Alta California, Aug. 9, 1868. “They occupy apartments over the officers’ quarters in the yard, and are kept strictly secluded from all others. They are not allowed to leave the building during week days. On Sundays, while the male convicts are attending Divine service, the females are permitted a few hours, open air exercise in the rear of the offices. These grounds are improved to some extent, and afford a pleasant place for walking. The diet of this class of prisoners is of a superior kind … furnished from the table of the officers. One woman has an infant something over a year old. … There is no matron engaged at the prison.”
First matron post created
Seeing the need for more organization, the Board of State Prison Directors created the matron position at San Quentin.
“It has been decided … to create the position of Matron at San Quentin,” reported the Daily Alta California, Jan. 23, 1885. “The duties of the Matron, who is to be appointed by Warden Shirley, will be to assume the guardianship of the female prisoners, and her salary will be $50 a month and board. The females now confined in San Quentin number fifteen in all.”
In 1885, one of the Board of Prison Directors reports mentioned improvements at the Women’s Department run by the matron, Mrs. Lancaster.
Also, the prison planned “for the construction of a two-story brick building for the resident physician and for an extensive addition to the female department, at a cash outlay of $6,962.05. The latter improvement was very necessary, and has resulted most satisfactorily to the unfortunate women confined here. The female department, now one of the most complete in the United States, is in charge of a competent matron, under whose supervision the inmates are employed at labor, useful at once to the institution and themselves,” the report stated.
According to Captain of the Yard and Turnkey Charles Aull, a few years later there were 18 female inmates incarcerated at San Quentin.
In 1888, a new warden appointed a new matron.
“General McComb last week took full charge of the San Quentin Prison,” reported the Sausalito News, Jan. 5, 1888. “Warden McComb (appointed as) matron of the female prison, Mrs. Mary Kane.” He also appointed another female, Miss L.E. Spitman, as the prison’s telegraph operator.
While the matrons oversaw female inmates, the job was still dangerous as indicated by an attack on Kane by a convicted murderer known as the “Doctress.”
“Mary Von, the murderess, who is now serving a life sentence at San Quentin for the killing of J.W. Bishop, attempted to murder Mary Kane, the matron of the female department of the prison. Mary Von was secreted, sprang upon the matron and dealt her heavy blows with a piece of iron,” reported the Pacific Rural Press, July 21, 1888.
In 1891, Warden Hale appointed C.E. Dutcher to the post. The prison board of directors also “adopted a new series of rules for the government of the prison,” according to the Daily Alta California, March 28, 1891.
In 1895, Belle Van Doren was appointed to the post and held it for more than a dozen years.
“Mrs. Belle Van Doren was confirmed as matron and John D. Jones and John Savage were made guards,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, Dec. 16, 1895.
“After holding the responsible position of matron of San Quentin prison for the past 14 years and at the urgent request of her son, Mrs. Belle Van Doren has tenured her resignation and will retire to private life and live in Tiburon with her son, Wilbur Van Doren. Mrs. Van Doren has held the position longer than any other matron, retaining it through several administrations more on account of her ability rather than political influence,” reported the Sausalito News, Oct. 9, 1909.
Matron Genevieve Smith
Her replacement was Genevieve Smith who earned $840 per year as the matron. A guard earned $780 per year. Her husband, Richard, was also a guard at San Quentin, according to the 1913 report titled “Roster of State, County and City Officials.”
In 1912, Florence Roberts, a missionary, published “Fifteen Years with the Outcast.” Some of the book focused on San Quentin’s female inmates and their matron.
“How do I praise God that he put it into the heart and mind of the present matron, Mrs. Genevieve Gardner-Smith, to appeal to kindhearted Warden Hoyle and the board of prison directors for a special concession in behalf of all the well-behaved women prisoners. She asked for a monthly holiday, to consist of a two-and-a-half hours’ walk within the grounds … so that these poor women might briefly feast to the heart’s content on the lovely landscape and view of San Francisco’s unsurpassable bay. A motion being made and passed, one of the many new and excellent concessions is this one of a Sunday walk on the hills once a month in charge of the matron, after the male prisoners are locked in for the day,” she wrote.
The inmates were appreciative of Smith’s efforts. When she hit her first anniversary in her position, the women banded together to honor her.
“To this day (the women) believe the affair to have been a complete surprise, though (the matron) was aware of their preparations from the beginning. The day broke warm and beautiful. Immediately after dinner, Matron Smith was escorted to a seat of honor in the yard and the program was opened by an excellent address of women by (an inmate),” Roberts wrote.
In 1914, she was replaced.
“San Quentin to have new matron,” claims the headline of the Sacramento Union, Feb. 20, 1914. “Mrs. Genevieve Smith, for the last (several) years matron of the women’s department at the state prison here, was (replaced) by Warden James A. Johnston (by appointing) Mrs. Jesse Whalen, former matron of the Southern California state hospital.”
Giggles get two inmates in trouble
In 1933, prior to the female inmates being transferred to the newly constructed California Institution for Women, prison matron Mrs. G. Black “said she found Louise Carter, 21, and Hazel Craig, 28, (reading) over notes from unidentified men prisoners. ‘The notes were pretty hectic,’ was the matron’s only comment.”
She heard giggles coming from a secluded corner of the recreation yard, where the matron found the two women in possession of the notes. The two women lost all privileges for a month.
Who was Mary Von?
“At a late hour Saturday night, … Bishop, who was shot aboard the steamer Alameda Friday afternoon, by Mrs. Mary Von, was removed by several friends to the lodging house. … At 3 o’clock yesterday morning he died, and his remains were removed to the morgue. Mrs. Von, when questioned last evening, expressed regret at the death of her victim. She claimed, however, that Bishop’s death was the result of his removal from the Receiving hospital. A charge of murder was placed against her,” reported the Daily Alta California, July 4, 1887.
Police Sgt. Kinsell testified the victim said, “Mrs. Von shot me.” According to Kinsell, Mrs. Von replied, “Yes, I shot him, and you will find out why.”
According to Von’s testimony, “after acquaintance was made, and on promise of marriage by Bishop, she lived with him, both occupying the same apartments. After a while he grew less ardent, and finally said he was going to Australia. Knowing he had secured a berth on the steamer Alameda, she went to the vessel, as a last resort, to ask him if he was going to desert her, and not fulfill his promise of marriage, leaving her in the lurch. When she approached him on the steamer, Bishop turned pale and put his hand into the left-hand pocket of his overcoat. He then brought out a pistol. Fearing he would shoot her, she grabbed it, and in the scuffle which ensued and while still in his hand, it was accidentally discharged, the ball entering Bishop’s body. … On cross examination, she gave an account of her previous conviction for shooting another man in 1885, for which she served a term in San Quentin,” reported the Daily Alta California, Sept. 21, 1887.
As it came out during the trial, Bishop was already married and had a family in New Zealand. He was headed back to them when he was killed.
During sentencing, Judge Toohy said Von claimed Bishop was her husband and “bound to her by some sort of Fijian marriage … not recognized .. by the laws of this state,” reported the Daily Alta California, Oct. 18, 1887. “You pursued him to the steamer Alameda on July 1st and after lying in wait for several hours, without notice of a feeling of mercy or pity in your heart, you murdered him.”
She was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder and was received by San Quentin in October 1887.
At first, she was not a model inmate. She attacked prison Matron Mary Kane in 1888. A few years later, a reporter visited the prison and was immediately subjected to Von’s anger.
“Mary is what is commonly known in the vernacular as ‘a holy terror,’ and if she thinks that any of the San Quentin people thrown in her society are in love with her, she makes a great mistake,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, Jan. 1, 1890. “She makes life miserable for the officials and everyone else within sight, or within sound of her voice. … Nor does she try by decent behavior to merit great liberties. … She heaps the vilest abuse upon anyone who comes near her. Even the innocent writer of these harmless lines had to take it.”
She served 25 years of her life sentence before she was paroled.
But, she quickly returned to San Quentin of her own choice.
A letter from a San Quentin inmate to the editor of the San Francisco Call, March 8, 1913, mentioned Von without naming her.
“An elderly woman, serving a life sentence, having been paroled several months ago, returned to San Quentin ill in May of 1912 and requested that she be taken care of until the end.”
Another newspaper published a notice regarding Von’s death.
“For the second time Mary Von was released from San Quentin prison today,” reported the Sacramento Union, Feb. 17, 1913. “She will not return. Twenty-five of her seventy-two years, which ended in death today, were spent within the prison walls. She called the place her home. She was paroled in 1911, and went to live with relatives in Los Angeles. She returned to prison May 14, 1912, ill and fatigued, and said: ‘I’ve come home to stay until the end.’ Mary Von was committed from San Francisco for murder.”
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