DUBBED “THE HELLHOLE OF THE WEST” YUMA TERRITORIAL PRISON – YUMA, AZ

“Insufferable heat… that made the place an inferno.”
“Impossible to endure, more impossible to escape.”

I’m not sure what the draw is about the Old West but I find it SO interesting!

And this is the place incarcerated the worst of ’em in Southern California/Arizona.

A QUICK HISTORY LESSON

In 1849, immigrants came from Yuma to California in search for gold. In 1858, a gold rush happened and Yuma experienced a boom. In 1871 Yuma incorporated and became the county seat of Yuma County. 

The prison was built shortly after in 1876 with a budget of $25,000. Some of the early inmates got the privilege to help build their own cells. The first 7 prisoners moved in on July 1, 1876.

A total of 3,069 inmates were housed here, only 29 of them were women. There were between 204 – 240 inmates here at a time – 6 prisoners to a cell.

This place was home to murders, thieves, bank robbers, adulterers, and polygamists! If you want to read about the 12 Mormons that were prosecuted for having a second wife click here. 9 of the 12 were sent to Yuma Territorial Prison. A very thought-provoking read.

WOMEN PRISONERS

Yuma Territorial Prison was not designed for female prisoners. So from my understanding, when those few women came to prison it caused quite the stir! There was “trouble in River City!”

In 1878, the first woman came to the prison- her name was Lizzie Gallagher and she was in the pen for man-slaughter. Since there weren’t any provisions for her they kept her in solitary confinement (also known as the “Dark Hole”). She stayed for 42 days before being pardoned and released.

One female inmate even gave birth while serving her sentence. Her name was Manela Fimbres and she was incarcerated for being an accessory to murder. Her and the baby spent the next 2 years in prison together but she was eventually was pardoned due to the concerns for the baby. Rumor has it she was a ‘troubled inmate’ so no one was disappointed to see her go, but they did like her baby.

In 1893, a separate women’s ward was finally completed. The women’s yard was constructed on the west end of the ward for recreation but was destroyed when the Southern Pacific Railroad built a new rail line in 1922. The prison had closed before the rail road was built. It would have been neat to see the women’s ward in all its glory!

ESCAPE ARTISTS

As with every prison ever built, inmates will try to get out. If you put someone or something in a cage some will inevitably try and escape!

The first inmate to escape was in 1878, just 2 years after the prison was built.

There were many escape attempts during the 33 years this place was an active prison. However, only two men ever escaped from the inside without being recaptured. They both broke out from their cells in the “New Yard.”

Their names are Richard Lorraine and A. A. Stewart. Both in their 20’s and both escaped in 1900.

Richard Lorraine had tried to escape several times before he succeeded. His first attempt landed him 20 days in solitary for his attempts to dig out of his cell. The second attempt landed him and a fellow inmate 6 days in solitary. During his second stay in solitary (also called the “Dark Cell”) he and his accomplice, a guy named John Gatlan, had attempted to break out. He was caught, again… The two were then placed in separate cells in the “New Yard” thinking they wouldn’t cause as much trouble when not together.

Well, that was so NOT the case. They succeeded in sawing-off the locks on the cell doors and made their escape over the prison wall.

Gatlan was captured the same afternoon as their escape but Lorraine was never found. To this day no one knows his whereabouts. He would be about 140 years old.

A few months after Lorraine escaped, Stewart escaped from the “New Yard” as well. No one knows how he managed to get out of his cell, but he too scaled the prison walls. Search parties were sent out, but Stewart was never captured & never seen again. He would be 147 years old today.

THE INFAMOUS ‘DARK CELL’

The “dark cell” was the prisons solitary confinement. Any prisoner who got in trouble was sent to this 10 x 10 room with very little light – the only light was from the ventilation pipe in the ceiling. They would be stripped down to their underwear and given 1 meal a day which consisted of bread and water. When the sun went down, they would be in total darkness. Many inmates went to an insane asylum located in Phoenix after spending time in solitary.

This article has some more weird and interesting information on the ‘Dark Cell.” There’s a story about a reporter that tried to last 48 hours in there. She didn’t make it, claiming she wasn’t alone in there. There are many stories about the prison being haunted, especially in the “Dark Cell.”

In 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded and there wasn’t room for expansion. In 1909, the prison closed due to the overcrowding. All prisoners were transferred to a new Arizona Territorial prison in Florence, AZ.

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