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.