1850s Warden Palmer And Guards Secrest Collection

Early San Quentin prison staff with prison director W.H. Palmer, far left, circa mid-1850s, according to the published caption from the collection of author William Secrest. According to 1855 documents, the prison directors took on various roles with William H. Palmer as secretary and John S. Love as warden. Director Snowden acted as president of the prison directors. 

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

In 1854, rumors surrounding the new State Prison, along with multiple escapes, sparked the governor to request specific details on the prison’s population figures. His letter reminded those inspectors of certain duties they were required to fulfill. That letter eventually led to more formal reports carrying on to the modern prison system and today’s Office of Research at CDCR. In his letter to prison inspectors, the Gov. John Bigler laid out expectations. The following year, a massive report on the conditions of the prison caused major changes and the eventual seizure of the prison from private contractors.

The former newspaper editor arrived in California in 1849. His wife was the first female settler in Sacramento, according to many accounts. Bigler ran for State Assembly and won. His next elected office was as governor, serving from 1852-56.

Bigler, John Gov From 1852 56 Csl Crop

Gov. John Bigler, 1852-56. California State Library.

“Executive Department, Sacramento, Oct. 20, 1854. Messrs. Miller, Carpenter, and Snowden, State Prison Inspectors: Gentlemen : Having learned from various reliable sources that quite a number of escapes have recently occurred from the State Prison, which, to some extent, is in your charge, I deem it my duty respectfully to invite your attention to the section of law regulating your duties, which reads as follows: Sec. 7. The Inspectors shall make all rules and regulations which they may deem proper for the discipline of the Prison, and not inconsistent with law, for the safe keeping, health and cleanliness of the prisoners; copies of which they shall cause to be posted up in conspicuous parts of the prison and prison grounds. On or before the first day of February of each year the said Inspectors shall make a report in writing to the Legislature, which report shall contain on account of the condition and management of the prison, and … the government and discipline thereof.

“It is true that under the above section of law you are required to report to the Legislature on or before the first day of February of each year, but the peculiar state of things now existing it is hoped will induce you at once to give the matter careful attention, and report the facts of the case to the Executive at as early a day as possible, and at the time named in the law, make another report to the Legislature. The escapes which have recently occurred render it necessary, in justice to all concerned, as well as to restore public confidence, that a rigid examination should at once be had as to the condition of the building and the conduct of those having charge of the prisoners. Until such an examination shall have been had, and the true state of the case made known, erroneous impressions, prejudicial to the character of the connected, either directly or indirectly, with the management of the prison, will gain currency and credence.

“These escapes, permit me here to remark, give great force to allegations, daily and publicly made, that the prison building is insecure, and that its management is not such as to fully accomplish the object of its erection in the prevention and punishment of crime.”

“The number and frequency of these escapes will greatly embolden the vicious, and unless carefully guarded hereafter, will have a tendency to increase crime. It is, therefore, deemed highly important that a thorough examination should be made, and all defects, whether in the building or the discipline of the prison, remedied immediately, so as to render escape hereafter impossible. As the lessee and those employed by him in guarding the prisoners are deeply interested in having the true state of the case made known, I desire you to obtain from them information in relation to the building, as well as to their management of the prisoners; while employed outside of the prison building. I also desire you to report fully the whole number received by the lessee, and their respective names; the number and names of those released by expiration of time; the number and names of those pardoned by the Executive ; and the number and names of those who have escaped ; the number and names of those retaken ; the number and names of those who have died ; and also the number and names of those now in prison, the date of sentence of each, and the date of expiration of time. If the lessee, or those in his employ, as keepers, desire to introduce testimony explanatory of the causes of the escape effected, I would suggest the propriety of affording them the opportunity, the great and only object being to ascertain the facts, and guard against the recurrence of similar escapes in the future.

“Section 6th of the 5th article in the Constitution authorizes the Governor at any time to require information in writing from public officers, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices. To this section, and also the 7th section of same article, which declares that he (the Governor); ‘shall see that the laws are faithfully executed,’ your attention is respectfully invited; not that I entertain doubts as to your willingness to respond to this communication ; but merely to satisfy yourselves and others that my action in the premises is fully authorized. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, John Bigler.”

Did you know?

  • In 1854 the Legislature honored the governor by naming a lake after him, Bigler Lake. Decades later, it was renamed Lake Tahoe.
  • During his tenure, the state’s capital was moved to Sacramento, three new counties were formed, and the U.S. opened a branch mint in San Francisco.
  • Bigler wasn’t without controversy, advocating for the exclusion of Chinese migrant miners. “They come to acquire a certain amount of the precious metals, and then return to their native country,” he said.
  • Bigler was appointed the U.S. Minister to Chile in 1857, and was a delegate to three Democratic National Conventions.
  • He died on Nov. 29, 1871, in Sacramento, and is buried at the City Cemetery.

Read the 1855 report and learn more about those who worked at SQ at the time: 1850s Capt. William Byrnes; Dr. Alfred Taliaferro; inmate Rattlesnake Dick and state seizure of San Quentin.