Arizona / Chronological / Destinations / United States

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park Offers a View of the Old West

Prisons have always had a fascination for people. The concept of captivity is so repelling that people’s curiosity and dread are aroused. The Arizona Territorial Prison State Historical Park incites special interest since it has a strong association with the Old Wild West, enhanced worldwide through its portrayal by Hollywood. The prison has been a location for cinema several times, with 3:10 to Yuma as just one example.

The prison opened in 1876 and the inmates were put to work building its massive granite walls, lined with cells each holding six men. The original cell block still remains and shows how the inmates were quartered.

Our guide was Anna-Jannette Mosqueda, Assistant Director of the Park, who had some wonderful stories about both the prisoners and those who guarded them. While grim, the prison did add facilities like a hospital, library and recreational facilities before it closed in 1909.

The prison is open daily from October through May except on holidays. For more information call 928-783-4771.

The prison is open daily from October through May except on holidays. For more information call 928-783-4771.

The cells are still frightening to see: two tiers of three bunks in a six-foot by nine-foot room of granite walls with a bucket for personal needs. The “Dark” cell can still be entered, situated deep in the cliff, with only a sliver of light. It was the punishment cell. Nothing today of Wind in the Willows faced in the “deepest, darkest dungeon in all of Merry England” could compare with the Dark Cell.

We first visited the Park forty years ago and much has been added since then. For us the Prison Museum was of so much interest that we spent the good part of an afternoon there on a second visit. Here one learns about some of the individual prisoners, their photos, who they were, the nature of their crime and the length of sentence. There is also a theater with a video describing the prison from opening to closing. And a second video shows scenes from an early movie that used the prison for location.

Sometimes the name of a prisoner jumps right out of a history book. “Buckskin” Frank Leslie was one of the men who fought beside Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday in the legendary gun battle at the O.K. Corral. Buckskin had been a bartender in Wyatt’s brother’s bar. He is believed to have killed Bill Clairborne in the shootout and is said to have been as fast with a pistol as Doc Holliday. He was in prison for killing his girl friend and pardoned sometime later

Some prisoners never could change their original character. A. L. McDolnald was Superintendent of Phoenix Schools until he was sentenced to prison for forgery. In prison he became bookkeeper and kept the accounts of prisoners earnings. After he was released it was discovered he had left with $130 of their money.

The original cell block shown above, with solid granite walls, was built by the prisoners.

The original cell block shown above, with solid granite walls, was built by the prisoners.

Violence appeared to follow some inmates their entire lives. Barney Riggs served time for murder, was credited with saving the life of the prison warden during a riot and pardoned. After his release he was shot dead in Texas in 1902.

Women were also sent to the Territorial prison, twenty nine in all. A few achieved fame of sort for their crimes Pearl Hait was a partner in a stage holdup. She served three years but later was once again in trouble with the law.

The museum also has photos of the prison wardens as well as accounts of prison riots and escapes. A. A. Stewart was serving fifteen years for assault but escaped successfully in 1900. Harry Fergusion, serving time for burglary, failed in his first escape attempt in 1985, but his second in 1896 was successful. In all there were 138 escape attempts. Ninety six failed, forty nine prisoners were wounded trying to escape and eight were killed. Forty two made successful escapes, but only two of these were attempted from inside the prison.

Heroine of the Prison is the Warden’s wife, Madora Ingalls. When her husband was taken hostage and a prison riot occurred, she replaced the guard who was killed manning the Gatling machine gun in the Tower. She used the gun and held off the prisoners until help arrived. Later she founded the Prison Library.

On Saturdays the De Guello Gunslingers stage amusing old west skits for visitors at the prison

On Saturdays the De Guello Gunslingers stage amusing old west skits for visitors at the prison

On our second visit we were able to watch a skit that is performed by a group of four men and three women, all dressed in the fashion of the early west, on the lawn of the prison. The men had guns and faced off in gunfight positions ending in comic results. It was all great fun and the audience most appreciative. This takes place Saturday afternoon in front of the Visitor Center which is open daily for visitors.

Published in the Fall edition of Vittles Vintages & Voyages.

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