Housing women inmates was complication for Yuma prison
Editor’s Note: The Yuma Sun is reprinting articles from past newspapers throughout the year as part of the Yuma Sun’s 150th anniversary, honoring Yuma’s unique history. This column is one in a series written by local historian Frank Love that appeared periodically in the newspaper.
When the Yuma Territorial Prison was constructed in 1876, it wasn’t intended as a place to incarcerate females. Nevertheless, its superintendent soon faced the problem of what to do with Lizzie Gallagher after she was convicted of murdering Private James Moriarity in Yuma. When the soldier insulted her in 1878, she shot him.
There being no quarters planned for women inmates, Prison Superintendent Thurlow wasn’t certain what to do with Lizzie. He turned her over to the Yuma County Jail on Nov. 16, 1878. It appears that the county lockup wasn’t eager to be responsible for Lizzie. They returned her to the prison on Oct. 1, 1879. Seven weeks later, she was pardoned by Governor Fremont.
Four years passed before the female problem came back to haunt prison authorities. Tombstone provided the next female inmate in the person of murderess May Woodman. After reading accounts of May’s trial, one wonders if her victim didn’t have it coming. She had been living with Billy Kinsman, a character a newspaper described as a “sporting man.”
Accounts of the killing suggest that May believed Billy was going to marry her after she became pregnant with his child. It infuriated her when she found out that he told a Tombstone Epitaph newspaper reporter that he had no intention of becoming her husband. Angry over the public rejection, May got a gun and shot Billy in front of the Oriental Saloon on Feb. 23, 1883.
Charged with first-degree murder, May’s trial in Tombstone left the city in an uproar. The local newspaper reported that while some favored her conviction, some others believed Kinsman simply got what he deserved. A local jury was unable to convict May on the first-degree murder charge. They compromised by finding her guilty of manslaughter.
May attempted suicide twice before Tombstone officers could deliver her to the Territorial Prison in June. As the only woman in the institution, she was provided with her own cell. Before long, the prison discovered a problem.
Male inmates were manufacturing cigars for later sale and hiding them in Woodman’s cell because it was seldom searched. After someone tipped off the warden, guards entered May’s cell and found almost 7,000 cigars.
Tucson’s Star newspaper joked, “The Territorial Prison is the only cigar factory in Arizona. It should be encouraged.” To no one’s surprise, May was pardoned within a few months having served only 9½ months of her five-year sentence. The prison’s female problem was temporarily solved.
Two years passed before another woman occupied a cell in the prison. In 1886, Allegracia de Otero was caught selling whiskey to Indians in Cochise County. Given a light sentence of 60 days, she was soon out.
Almost three years would pass before another woman occupied a cell in Yuma Prison. Manuela Fimbres arrived on March 30, 1889. She was to serve a 15-year sentence for being an accomplice in the murder of a Tucson man.
Despite being segregated from male prisoners, officers soon discovered they had a problem with Manuela. She was about to become a mother. It appears from the records that Manuela became pregnant while awaiting trial in the Tombstone Jail rather than at the prison. Delivered to Yuma on March 30, 1889, she had a baby son on Oct. 26, 1889.
Like the women prisoners who had preceded her, Manuela was kept in a segregated separate cell with her small son, Luis. It was a situation which concerned the owner of Yuma’s Sentinel newspaper, John Dorrington. He wrote an editorial about the child living at the prison.
“The boy was born in prison and is about two years old,” Dorrington noted on Aug. 15, 1891,
“and just the age when he should be put in a different school from that which he is now attending...to keep this child in prison, to educate him in the air of prison life, and subject him to the influences which pervade every avenue he circulates is unkind, unjust, a blot upon our boasted civilization, and a disgrace to the times in which we live.”
Less than three months later, Manuela was pardoned by Governor Wolfley after serving only two years and six months of her 15-year sentence. It was granted with the understanding that she would leave Arizona Territory.
Before the Territorial Prison would be closed in 1909, a total of 29 women would serve sentences there. Probably the most famous (or infamous) was Pearl Hart, the woman who helped Joe Boot rob a stagecoach. After serving a term of nearly three years, she was released and went into a vaudeville theater acting in a play about the robbery.
Three women were still serving time when Yuma Prison was closed. They were transported to the new prison at Florence to finish their sentences.