Unlocking History: An inmate letter draws Houdini to San Quentin in 1915

Unlocking History: An inmate letter draws Houdini to San Quentin in 1915

An anonymous letter from a San Quentin inmate to a newspaper reporter led to the prison performances of a band and world-famous escape artist Harry Houdini. In 1915, eyes of the world were on San Francisco for the months-long Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. It was also a chance for the city to showcase its recovery following the devastating 1906 earthquake. The fair ran from Feb. 20 until Dec. 4, 1915.

Unlocking History: 1918 flu pandemic tests prison medical staff’s mettle

Unlocking History: 1918 flu pandemic tests prison medical staff’s mettle

As flu season approaches and people line up for vaccinations, many are unaware that 100 years ago an influenza pandemic swept across the globe, claiming more lives than all those lost in World War I. Hospitals were jammed with patients, overwhelming doctors and nurses. Still years away from discovering antibiotics and developing a flu vaccine, California’s prisons were left to deal with a crippling pandemic using whatever resources were available.

Unlocking History: From Sammy Davis Jr. to Eartha Kitt, artists help rehabilitate inmates

Unlocking History: From Sammy Davis Jr. to Eartha Kitt, artists help rehabilitate inmates

Singer Johnny Cash and Folsom State Prison have been linked ever since Cash’s 1968 performance and the hit record that emerged from the endeavor. While Cash may have gotten the headlines, he wasn’t the first major recording artist to perform at the prison. After becoming the first American singer to stage two command performances for British royalty, two days later Sammy Davis Jr. made the trek to Folsom State Prison to become the first major artist to perform at the institution. It was November 1961.

Unlocking History: Rattlesnake Dick’s fate pushed need for classification system

Unlocking History: Rattlesnake Dick’s fate pushed need for classification system

In the mid-1850s, San Quentin hadn’t enacted a classification system to keep younger first-time offenders away from hardened criminals. Early wardens called for just such a system but the relatively new prison didn’t have the resources or space, according to rebuttals at the time. The fate of one young first-time inmate who served a year in the state prison highlighted the need for a classification system. Such was the case of Richard Barter, son of a British military officer in Canada, who came to California with the hopes of supporting his sister after their parents died. While incarcerated, the 20-year-old Barter met outlaw gang leader Tom Bell. After his release, Barter threw his lot in with Bell’s gang.