Prisoners In Petticoats At The Wyoming Territorial Prison

I’ve been in jail just once n my life . . . It was in San Francisco in 1976.  Before anyone gets too excited, I should tell you that I was taking a tour of Alcatraz Island, and my time in solitary confinement wasn’t very solitary. A tour guide locked ten of us in a cell that went pitch black. He opened the door in a minute later, but that experience is burned into my brain.

With a new proposal in the works, I’ve been digging for new ideas. Those few hours on Alcatraz came back with amazing vividness. I won’t be using “The Rock” as part of the story–it was a military prison until the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906–but I’ve been reading about the Wyoming Territorial Prison.  It’s an interesting place . . . but I wouldn’t want to live there. 

Back in 1869 things were a bit wild in the Wyoming Territory, and the area needed a facility to house convicted criminals. The Wyoming Territorial Prison was built in 1872 near the town of Laramie. Paid for with federal money, the prison had 42 cells when it opened under the direction of Deputy United States Marshall Nathaniel K. Boswell.  Talk about a challenging job!  Over the course of 30 years, the prison had some interesting guests. The most well known was Butch Cassidy (I can’t help but see Paul Newman and his blue eyes from the  movie). Joining him were over 1,000 men and 12 women convicted of crimes that ranged from thievery, illegal liquor sales and manslaughter.

Are you curious about the 12 women? I was. They were housed on the second floor of the south wing of the jail in two cells with a third cell serving as the bathroom.  They were also locked up 24/7 probably for their safety.  Let’s meet some of them…

Nettie Stewart Wright was the first female inmate.  She was suspected of stealing arms and ammunition from Fort McKinney. She was detained for two weeks before the charges were dropped.

Mollie Wrinsinger and Belle Jones were Prisoners No. 10 and 11. They had a lot in common. Both were abandoned by their husbands. To survive they turned to petty theft and prostitution. Belle had six kids, so you can imagine the need.  She and Mollie got caught doing something that today would get them on a “dumbest criminals” TV show. Belle wore a jacket she’d stolen to a large social gathering. The original owner recognized it, and Belle and Mollie ended up behind bars. They served 18 months for their capering.

Nineteen-year-old Florence Gains was Prisoner No. 80.  A prostitute, she got in a fight with a competitor and stabbed the woman six times. 

Stella F. Gatlin was Prisoner No. 150. She was convicted of stealing mail and was the first person to use kleptomania as a defense.

The woman to spend the most time in the Wyoming Territorial Prison was Minnie Snyder (No. 270). She was convicted of manslaughter for being with her husband when he killed a man. While incarcerated, she got in a terrible fight with inmate Lillie Todd. The two of them earned the dubious distinction of being the only two women to spend time in solitary confinement. The punishment must done something, because afterwards Minnie earned a shorter sentence for good behavior. She still spent 1,511 days behind bars, far longer than any other female prisoner.

Eliza Stewart, a known narcotics addict, went to prison for shooting her boyfriend in the neck at a Saturday night dance.  Why they were fighting has been lost to history, but her nickname was “Big Jack.” You’ve got wonder how that came to be.

Another addict was a nurse named Lillie Todd. She was discovered in the halls of the Vendome Hotel, well dressed with her namesake flower in her hat. She was scavenging for things she could steal to support her morphine habit. She stole diamond jewelry and spent eleven months in the Laramie prison before returning to her family.

The stories of women who spent time in the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie are both fascinating and sad.  Some were able to change their ways and went on to live long and typical lives. Others weren’t so fortunate. It’s an interesting mix of humanity, history and headlines that could be read even today.

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Victoria Bylin is under contract with Bethany House Publishers for two inspirational contemporary romances.Prior to jumping to the present day, she wrote westerns for Harlequin Historical and Love Inspired Historical. Her books have finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, the Rita Awards and RT Magazine’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards. She and her husband live in Lexington, Kentucky and have two grown sons. You can learn more about Vicki at www.victoriabylin.com

27 thoughts on “Prisoners In Petticoats At The Wyoming Territorial Prison”

  1. thanks victoria…it’s always interesting to hear about specific people…makes the times seem not so long ago in a lot of way

    i can’t imagine what solitary confinement would be like…or staying in prison at all

    thanks for doing the research and sharing!

  2. Great information and I would never want to be in prison I wouldn’t want to be any part of all that. Sounds like some of those ladies just did stuff to survive.
    I am sure if those walls could talk we would learn so much more.

  3. Interesting post. No separate facilities for women. I guess that was a positive sign that not many 19th century women turned to crime, but what a sad, lonely time for a woman if there were no other females incarcerated while she was behind bars. Hopefully that helped motivate them to change their ways.

  4. Victoria, the Territorial Prison sounds like an interesting but suitably scary place. The women you profiled really grab my imagination though. A woman suspected of stealing arms from a fort? I’d love to read a book about her!

  5. Hi Tabitha, Individual stories are what put flesh and blood on history. Some of those ladies had all sorts of misery before prison, even more afterwards.

    Hello Brenda, My two hours on Alcatraz with a tour were more than enough of prison life for me! Great tour, though. Did you know the food on Alcatraz was excelent? It kept up morale, which lessened the risk of fighting.

  6. Well, gee, Vicki, you can’t go wrong with a picture of Paul Newman on your blog. Everything else is just extra. 🙂

    I’ve tried to find information about prisons in Colorado during this time. So many historical facts are out there on the internet if you can just TRACK THEM DOWN!!!

  7. Howdy, Karen! I had the same thought. Only 12 women and over a thousand men . . . And the crimes weren’t as heated as I might have supposed. No murder, just one manslaughter. Lots of smaller crimes that seemed to be born (at least initially) out of desperation.

    Hi Judy, The women grabbed my attention, too. The female arms stealer could be an interesting . . . I wonder why she did it?

  8. Hi Mary, The original title of the post was “Butch Cassidy Slept Here.” Then I discovered the 12 woman, and then I had all sorts of ideas for stories…

  9. Love the post. At least the women had separate quarters but hearing their stories,if I was a man, I might be afraid to be locked up with some of THEM.

    But you reminded me that The Rock is one of my favorite movies. Several guys I know do not understand this at all. To which I always reply, “Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage and Ed Harris, what’s not to like?”

    Peace, Julie

  10. Vicki, that prison must’ve been a wild place. I’d hate to have been incarcerated there. Very interesting about the women prisoners. Conditions must’ve been horrible. But it evidently made a big impression on them because they seem to have walked the straight and narrow upon their release. You always find the most interesting subjects!

  11. Too funny, Julie! I hadn’t thought of that. The woman called “Big Jack” was reported to be huge. She scared even the guards. I like “The Rock” too. Sean Connery is great. My favorite movie of his is “Hunt for Red October.”

  12. Hi Linda, I think the loneliness would have been profound. Some of the them were locked up together (like the two who tried to kill each other!) but others were all alone. I was hoping to find a woman I could use as a heroine. I got some ideas, but if I do an outlaw heroine, she’ll be quite a bit different.

  13. Another place to visit. We were in Wyoming 2 or 3 years ago, but not in Laramie. There were a lot of places in that neck of the woods I wanted to visit, but we didn’t have time. When we finally get a chance to hit the road, we may never get back : )

  14. hi Vicki, I love thie post and learning about these women. Their stories are tragic, crazy, scary. I can’t imagine being a woman in those days where so much (many?) of your “rights” depended on having a husband. I hope some gals like these end up in your books so they can have happy endings!

    I loved visiting Alcatraz, too…that beautiful San Francisco skyline so close…yet so impossibly far with that mile of treacherous ocean. The solitary confinement cell scared me to death. I do not like the dark.

    Paul Newman, sigh. We caught a bit of Butch and Sundance on a movie channel a few days ago. Sigh again. What a good one!

    Have a good day and weekend! oxoxox

  15. Hi Patricia, Driving through Wyoming / Colorado / New Mexico is my dream trip. I would love to do that, epecially with family in Denver. Like you said, I might not come back!

    Howdy Tanya! What a perfect description of Alcatraz and San Francisco. It’s a beautiful city, isn’t it? And Paul Newman definitely livens up today’s pictures 🙂

  16. What a cool article. The plight of the last prisoner caught my eye especially, Victoria. There’s a morphine addict up my family tree a few steps, and like Lillie, he stole to support his habit.

    I’ve been to San Francisco, but never toured Alcatraz. It sounds both creepy & fascinating.

  17. Hello Ann! Lillie’s story struck me, too. Maybe it’s her name and the way she wore a flower in hat, or the fact that she managed to kick her habit. I can imagine her getting out of jail and being desperate for a new life.

  18. Oh, those baby blue eyes! I think I like the Newman
    blues better than the Sinatra ones! Is that heresy
    or what? It’s so interesting to read about the
    trials & tribulations of women of the past. Like
    previous commenters, I am curious about the “minor”
    charges which got some of these women incarcerated
    in this prison!

    Pat Cochran

  19. Hi Pat, With every woman, it seemed like there was a story behind the story. The woman who was with her husband when he committed manslaughter . . . I wonder if she tried to talk him out of it. And the drug addicts… that’s a modern day happening as well as something from the past. I felt sorry for the woman with six kids. I can only imagine what her life was like.

  20. I love The Rock, too. I like Nicolas Cage in anything. I even watched Ghost Rider. lol

    I enjoyed your post a lot. Did you find anything that you’re going to use in a story?

  21. Hi Cheryl! Such a fun question…I’m intrigued with the idea of a woman going to prison and then being set free. It’s an interesting angle for an inspy-themed book, but I’d probably go all fictional. The woman closest to making it to “heroine” status was Lillie the morphine addict. I wonder how she stayed away from her addiction? A story about a woman who’s been falsely accused would be interesting too.

  22. Excellent post, Vicki. I never knew any of that.

    I spent a night in jail a few times myself – but as a matron guarding the female prisoners when the local Mounties didn’t have a female cop in the area. Never stood inside the cell. And after listening to them shout obscenities at me for keeping them locked up, it’s not something I missed. The thing I remember most is that they had no privacy whatsoever.

    Anita.

  23. Hi Victoria, I just came across this a little after the dialog in July. It was sent to me by a relative as he knows Stella, the klepto, is my great grandmother. She led an interesting life before and after her prison days and I still have some of her journals from post prison days. There’s no mention of her time and I’m pretty sure my mom never knew this little fact.

  24. Hi Sarah! What an amazing connection… Every once in a while history stops being history and walks right into the here-and-now. Thank you for posting!

    Hello Tina, I wish I could answer your question. Maybe someone else will know?

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