Burn in Yuma


The Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona accepted its first inmate in 1876.

For the next 33 years 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, served sentences there for crimes ranging from murder to polygamy. The prison was under continuous construction with labor provided by the prisoners.

The Yuma Territorial Prison figured in Three-Ten to Yuma, a 1953 Western short story written by Elmore Leonard and two film adaptations: the 1957 original 3:10 to Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin,  and the recent remake with the same title starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.  Yuma was also in the 1969 film The Wild Bunch: “You’ve got thirty days to get Pike, or thirty days back to Yuma.”

 In the 1961 western, The Comancheros, starring John Wayne, Yuma is also referenced. Yuma prison is referenced frequently in western radio and television shows such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza, where ex-cons were frequently described as having done time.

 A line I’ve heard before is something along the lines of, “If we get caught, we’ll burn in Yuma.”

As if that is a bad, bad thing. Right?

Well, you know, despite an infamous reputation, written evidence indicates that the prison was humanely administered, and was a model institution for its time. The only punishments were the dark cells for inmates who broke prison regulations, and the ball and chain for those who tried to escape. During their free time, prisoners hand-crafted many items. Those items were sold at public bazaars held at the prison on Sundays after church services. Prisoners also had regular medical attention, and access to a good hospital.

 A majority served only portions of their sentences due to the ease with which paroles and pardons were obtained. One hundred eleven persons died while serving their sentences, most from tuberculosis, which was common throughout the territory. No executions took place at the prison because capital punishment was administered by the county government.

Schooling was available for convicts, and many learned to read and write in prison. The prison housed one of the first “public” libraries in the territory, and the fee charged to visitors for a tour of the institution was used to purchase books. One of the early electrical generating plants in the West furnished power for lights and ran a ventilation system in the cellblock.

 Let’s not kid ourselves that this was a garden spot, though. It was hot, dry and above all else, remote. Yuma was (and still is) one of the hottest and driest places on earth. It was 170 miles of nothing to San Diego and 220 miles to Tucson in another direction, and that made Yuma one of most isolated places in Arizona-which made escape almost impossible, because it was too far to walk to find water or steal a horse. Of the many prisoners who attempted escape, only two got away from within the prison confines.  Eight where killed, shot, while trying to get away. That makes your chances four times higher to die escaping than to make it. Enough to make a person just stay put.

And that was Yuma’s true power. There was no escape. And that’s why it was feared and talked about with dread. Well that and maybe the 110 degree heat. Yikes.

The Territorial Prison was also known as “Hell Hole” and “Devil’s Island”. All over the country the prisoners were send to Yuma and placed in the cells 10 x 10 foot rooms where the temperature was often over 110ºF in the summer and were the prisoners was chained to the stone floors and walls in the dark cells.

The last prisoners left Yuma on September 15, 1909.

After a fire and years of neglect, everything is gone except the cells, main gate and guard tower, who provide today a glimpse of how was the life in the prison for a century ago. Across the prison is old prison cemetery, where the prisoners who died at Yuma were buried.

There are tales of ghosts in Yuma.

Particularly about the “dark cell”, the place of punishment for prisoners unable to follow the rules.

A ranger at the prison site, talks about an incident when she sensed a presence in the cell that frightened her. She also told him of a photo that she had in her files that was taken of a female tourist in the 1930’s. While the woman in the photo does not appear out of the ordinary, there is a clear image of a ghostly man behind her and just inside the opening of a cell. This cell, which has since been walled up, was where insane prisoners were housed before being moved to other facilities.

A writer from the magazine Arizona Highways came to write a story about the prison. The writer asked to spend two days and nights in the “dark cell”, chained by the foot and with nothing but bread and water to eat and drink. The staff provided her with these things and then placed a heavy blanket over the cell door to keep out all of the sunlight, just as it would have been when the prison was in operation. Within hours, the writer called for help, claiming that “someone” else was in the cell with her.

I suppose I’ll continue to do my research on prisons on the internet, rather than request to be locked up in a cell so I know what that feels like…..yikes!!!

And what about the women in Yuma? I found a couple of books dedicated to them. One has a list of several names, very interesting.

Here’s an excerpt that’s pretty horrifying.

 Prison officials left the first woman prisoner, Manuela Fimbres, to roam among the male guards and prisoners; consequently, she gave birth to two children. Later, she was enclosed in a wire cage which no one was allowed to come near. Though conditions for the women at the prison gradually improved, things were still rough. Men continued to have access to the women’s quarters, and the cramped quarters and unsanitary conditions led to sickness and disease. 

 Pearl Hart robbed a stagecoach. Alfrida Mercer was sent to prison for adultery. Bertha Trimble was convicted of rape. Three girls under 18 were sent there. You can read details here. It’s interesting.   


Do, you want to talk about prison conditions then and now? Or maybe, have you ever seen a ghost?  




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24 thoughts on “Burn in Yuma”

  1. Fabulous post, Mary. I enjoyed both 3:10 to Yuma movies. Elmore Leonard is one of my heroes; my daughter keeps reminding me he was rejected 88 times before publication. Me, I’m nowhere near 88. Yet LOL.

    I’ve visited Alcatras; the “solitary” cubicle was terrifying in its complete darkness. I need a night light! I’m also more than a tad claustrophobic (amongst a myriad of other quirks) so I will never be a felon!

    I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’m convinced I’ve had two guardian angel experiences.

  2. Hi Mary, My trip to Yuma took me to the Indian Colony on the hill south of town. They have their own version of the Yuma Prison. The history in that area is fascinating.
    I have also had two Guardian Angel episodes that made a believer out of me. I also had a weird happening one night. I woke up and saw a shimmering “Person-like” something in the corner of my bedroom. Have no idea what it was.
    I feel the presence of ghosts?? near me, at times.
    I get goose bumps like this occasionally.
    I guess I am strange?

  3. Hi Mary, Back again. The Quechan Tribe of Yuma sits on the hill south of town where the old Fort Yuma sits. That was their prison.
    Just an aside.

  4. Mary, this is fascinating stuff. I like reading about the early day prison system. There were sure a lot less people incarcerated back then. Guess the horrible primitive conditions was a deterent. I for one would not like to have been locked up in one of those prisons. That’s awful that the men prisons and the guards had access to the women. That must’ve been a hell on earth.

    As for ghosts….I try to avoid them at all costs. They give me the willies. I definitely believe they exist because I’ve seen some. You just can’t explain the feeling you get when they’re near.

  5. Well, there are actually a couple of mentions of ghosts in the Bible so I’m not going to dis-believe in them, though I’ve had no personal experience.

    I have felt like God talked to me about three times in my life. And not strange, drawn out ‘voices’ telling me to do weird things, so stop it!!!!

    Just a very definite voice saying, “No.” or “I did.” The second was a reminder that He’d answered a heartfelt prayer.
    And the way the voice came, just not out of the direction of my thoughts and not aloud, but very much aloud in my head, well, it was absolutely real. Experiences I cherish.

  6. Mary J, if you check back in, what exactly do you mean by, That was their prison. Did the Quechan Tribe of Yuma have a prison for their own people? I’ve never heard of that before.

  7. Perhaps if there was no cable TV and less of a hotel atmosphere in our jails today, people would think twice before doing the crimes. Put ’em in 110 degree cells and they’d be screaming that their rights were being violated. You don’t want me to get started on today’s detention methods.

  8. Oh, Mary. There’s something about prisons that draw me. I smell a story brewing here . . . ghost and all!

    In HANNAH’S VOW, I researched a prison in Massachusetts and plunked my hero in one just like it in New Mexico Territory. That book garnered the most fan mail I’ve ever gotten.

  9. Very interesting post, Mary! I feel for those poor women, no matter what their crime was it doesn’t seem right they had to fend on their own with male prisoners. I volunteered in a prison once to see what it was like–taught an art class. I’ll never forget it! The prisoners treated me really well (there was some kind of honor code between them not to lay a hand on volunteers, because they knew their privileges would be immediately revoked for everyone). I did it for about a year, away at college, and never told my mom or dad! 🙂

  10. I love in a creepy way, that DARK CELL picture. How evocative. Shivery, goosebumpy.

    It was said on one sight I read that the people in that dark cell were usually wildly out of control, which is why they got put in there, often out and out insane. So it’s not just haunted by ghosts. It’s haunted my INSANE ghosts.

  11. Hi Mary,
    After reading your post, as a female I would NEVER want to be confined in a prison. I had no idea women were “let loose” among the men. Whatever happened to those babies that were born of immates? Wow, I’d heard Yuma was about the roughest prison of the time. Now, I really believe it. Great info!

  12. My daughter, Wendy, worked for a year at the drunk tank in Lincoln, NE. Mostly homeless people and frat boys.

    Not all that much code of honor. she mainly did breath tests to see if they could go, paperwork, phoned for rides home and hosed vomit off the floors of empty cells.

    A very charming job. Paid well, though. I think it was hard to keep employees.

  13. They eventually constructed a women’s section to keep the woman apart……you THINK?????

    And early on, the started putting the women in wire cages to keep the men away from them. Women didn’t have to do hard labor, though.

    That was listed under an, “I wasn’t all bad for women” category, but you know what? I think it was all bad for woman.

  14. When I was a kid and making one of our four-times-year drives with my family to Tucson from San Diego to visit relatives, we would drive right though Yuma on Interstate 8. One time, though, when I was about 10 or 11, my mom insisted that we stop at the Yuma Prison for the tour.

    I was utterly horrified.

    To this day, I can remember the nightmares the place gave me — the “dark cell” in particular. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, it was so cruel. My folks tried to explain that you pay a price for breaking the law, but all I could think of — as if on an endless video loop inside my head — was the “dark cell” where certain prisoners were shoved for days. Nobody deserved such treatment, I thought. It was a long time before I could shake off the sadness of seeing and “feeling” the “dark cell.”

    To this day, the “dark cell” seems a little too close to torture. And to this day, I still remember how sick I felt having seen it…

  15. Wow, WandaSue. There was some interesting stuff about that cell being haunted. Do you think it was just so horrifying and your imagination could so complete see how it would have been that you were frightened? Can you see how people would feel like they were in the presence of a ghost.

    Thanks for sharing that. Very fascinating and I’m sorry you were so scared. Surprising what will bother one person and not another.

  16. Wonderfuly interesting information. I am inclined to agree with Cheryl, in that perhaps prisons today are too much like rewards?

  17. Only that Fort Yuma was built like a prison and many times arrested some members of the Quechan tribe and held them in a couple of the rooms. They were never treated with any respect. It is made of adobe, but still very hot. I am not aware if any of the women were treated badly.
    The Yuma Prison is one scary place. Just the thought of those poor women in that place makes me ill. And the thought that no body cared.

  18. One of the sites I read, Mary J, talked about how diverse the population was racially. And how impossible it was to avoid prejudice and sexism back then.
    For example, women could literally get away with murder a lot of the time. Juries just would not convict. Judges just wouldn’t send the ‘sweet little things’ to prison.

    But, flip side, sometimes a jury would convict for some idiot thing like adultery, send a woman to prison for that and let the involved man walk free.

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