by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho
Trigger warning for suicide.
THUD. THUD. THUD.
Heavy footsteps shook the hot, dusty air, jolting us out of our downstairs vigil; all eyes shot up to the Bastille’s second-floor VIP section — what had once been the women and children’s ward of the former Kings County Jail.
“Is this another joke?” one of the guys yelled, his voice echoing in the cavernous dark. Earlier in the evening, a couple of the others had done the exact same thing, only to greet us with a thundering “BOO!” when we reached the landing.
Glancing sheepishly at one another, we proceeded to trudge up the stairs a second time. “We’re on to you guys!” the same fellow warned. But what met us at the top of the stairs was only more silence; the VIP room was completely empty.
Had we just encountered the legendary Bloody Mary of the Bastille?
Towering ominously over downtown Hanford’s Civic Park, the Bastille looms like a medieval castle straight out of a Gothic horror novel — like an edifice destined to be plagued by all manner of restless spirits.
From the granite arch of its entrance to the imposing brick tower, this formidable structure stands, quite literally, locked in time, haunted (at the very least) by the sins of its storied past.
Designed by the McDougall Brothers of San Francisco, the construction of the former Kings County Jail broke ground in May of 1897 to be hewn from 2-ton slabs of solid granite, faced with rust-red clinker brick.“The new Kings County jail is going to be a massive structure,” reported The Hanford Semi-Weekly Journal of Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1897, “but of neat architectural appearance… Work on the jail is moving ahead as rapidly as the handling of the heavy material therein will permit.”
By October, the new prison was open for business, but many of its first residents were guilty of nothing so grave as loitering and disturbing the peace.
“The idea that men confined in jail are always guilty criminals, who deserve poor food and rough accommodations, is quite common,” opined The Hanford Sentinel on Friday, Dec. 9, 1898. But “in Kings County, the jail frequently has men confined who are not real criminals, as ‘hobos’. The food furnished them is plain and sufficient, and it should be.”
Even women would occasionally find themselves behind bars, often for petty theft.
“Katie Legler was lodged in the Kings County jail last night by Constable Bernstein on a charge of burglary,” according to The Hanford Sentinel of Thursday, Aug. 3, 1899. “The woman, who was formerly a waitress at the Aborn hotel, entered the room of George H. McMaron in that hotel, and stole there from a valise and a valuable napkin ring…
“Judge Randall sentenced her to pay $25, or serve 25 days in the county jail. The girl paid the fine and left on the noon train today for a new field of operation.”
And sometimes even a so-called “respectable” woman would fall prey to vice, as did a Mrs. Reede in 1907, “having confessed to the crime of stealing a quantity of jewelry from the home of Mrs. L.J. Otis,” where she was a guest, The Fresno Morning Republican announced on Saturday, Dec. 28, 1907.
But after a night in the Kings County Jail, the self-confessed jewel thief promptly changed her tune, laying the blame elsewhere. “Mrs. Reede… is evidently cultured and well-educated, but her addiction to drink has caused her downfall,” continued the Republican. “She claims that when she left the home of Mrs. Otis, her husband packed her trunk, and thus she accounts for the stolen articles being in her possession.”
By 1917, the influx of female prisoners had become such that a jail matron was hired in November of that year in the form of Mrs. Louise Gerrebrands, wife of Kings County Deputy Sheriff and acting jailer Charles Gerrebrands.
“Sheriff Farmer explained that the services of the matron will be required only when there are women prisoners at the jail,” noted The Hanford Kings County Sentinel on Thursday, Nov. 15, 1917. She was “to serve when needed at a salary of 25 cents per hour when actually engaged in service.”
And Mrs. Gerrebrands didn’t have long to wait for her services to be needed; only a month had passed before the new jail matron was called down to Fresno to collect a Mrs. Tilly Logan of Lemoore, on charges of child desertion.
“Wanted for abandoning five children, [she] was taken to Hanford last evening,” proclaimed The Fresno Morning Republican of Saturday, Dec. 29, 1917. “Mrs. Logan was found at a rooming house with a man by the name of Joe Ramarez.”
Considered state-of-the-art at the time of its 1897 construction, the Kings County Jail spent over two decades as the darling of the Central Valley’s dreary stretch of county correctional facilities.
“If they would see what a well-kept county prison looks like, let them come to Hanford and take a look at the interior of the Kings County Jail,” The Hanford Kings County Sentinel opined on Thursday, Oct. 2, 1913. “This bastille is kept clean as wax, and the average prisoner confined there is in better quarters than he enjoyed out of confinement. There is no excuse for a dirty jail anywhere.”
But, by 1920, a turning point had been reached; with the resignation of Deputy Sheriff and acting jailer Charles Gerrebrands in August of that year, after decades of outstanding public service, the care and upkeep of the Kings County Jail and its inmates were to suffer immensely.
Within two years of Gerrebrands’ retirement from duty, Hanford’s premier prison was found to be overcrowded and insufficient at housing women and juvenile offenders, as reported by a special grand jury in January of 1922.
“Another story is to be added to the granite portion of the Kings County jail,” reported The Hanford Morning Journal on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 1922, “in response to recommendations of the grand jury at the request of the state board of corrections.”
“The addition to the jail will contain six cells,” the Journal continued. “Three are designed to take care of youthful prisoners, and three to be used in cases where the present quarters are crowded… It will contain, also, a padded room where violent insane patients may be cared for…”
But nothing ever became of all of the reports and recommendations; by the very next year, a second grand jury once again “reported that Kings County Jail was in bad condition,” according to The Fresno Bee of Friday, Feb. 16, 1923. “…the sanitary conditions should be improved at once, by the repair of toilets, installation of baths, and a fumigation room. The cells are said to be damp and uncomfortable.”
And beneath all the recommendations for extra cells and padded rooms, ran a very real undercurrent of brutality and despair—often manifesting in horrific and heartbreaking acts of self-inflicted violence.
“John Brown…who made an attempt on his life night before last at the Kings County Jail, attempted suicide again this morning by dashing his head against the steel bars of the call in which he was confined,” read The Fresno Morning Republican on Thursday, Sept. 27, 1906.
As Sheriff William Buckner “unlocked the door of Brown’s call,” the suicidal prisoner “made a most frantic dash, landing head foremost against an iron obstruction, with such force that he was rendered insensible… County Physician W.B. Charles dressed the fellow’s injuries, which consisted chiefly of a scalp wound, the top of the skull being completely exposed.”
After regaining consciousness, Brown was strapped to a cot to avoid further injuring himself. “He is very weak from loss of blood, refuses nourishment, and it is a question as to just what will be done with him,” the Republican continued. “Since his first attempt to kill himself, Jailer Morse has kept a close watch over him, and he will have no further chance to suicide.”
Other inmates, however, managed to out-maneuver the jailer’s life-saving efforts. Only a little over a month after John Brown’s self-inflicted scalping, prisoner Frank McMurtry hung himself in his cell, despite having almost completed his six-month sentence for petit larceny.
“The jailer rushed into the cell… and cut the body down,” The Fresno Morning Republican reported on Sunday, Nov. 4, 1906. “All efforts were made to rekindle the spark of life that was almost quenched. Medical skill was without avail, however, and at 12:20, McMurtry was pronounced dead… His persistent efforts slowly strangled him to death.”
The ever-present threat of suicide remained a constant at the Kings County Jail throughout the ensuing decades, with inmates resorting to ever-more creative means.“James E. McLuare, 19, a recent arrival from Graham, Texas, attempted suicide today by eating broken glass in the Kings County Jail,” noted The Fresno Bee of Tuesday, Aug. 24, 1937. “McLuare, according to fellow prisoners, had been eating the broken glass, which he got by breaking a bottle, for about half an hour before they discovered what he was doing and gave the alarm to the jail authorities.”
Hanging, though, remained among the most tried-and-true methods for ending one’s life behind bars.
“Ben Halermann, 36, proprietor of the Brunswick Barber Shop in Corcoran, hanged himself early this evening in his cell in the Kings County Jail,” detailed the Sunday, Dec. 15, 1940, edition of The Fresno Bee. “Haldermann, who was booked for drunkenness… used twine which he wrapped around a bar above his head in the cell.”
The despondent barber left behind a wife and three small children.
“Jail Contract Awarded.” The Hanford Semi-Weekly Journal, Tuesday, April 6, 1897, p. 4.
“Kings County Jail.” The Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, Friday, May 28, 1897, p. 3.
“Hanford Jail.” The Los Angeles Evening Post-Record, Friday, May 28, 1897, p. 3.
“The new Kings County jail…” The Hanford Semi-Weekly Journal, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1897, p.1
“The idea that men…” The Hanford Sentinel, Friday, Dec. 9, 1898, p. 3.
“Woman Fined.” The Hanford Sentinel, Thursday, Aug. 3, 1899, p. 1.
“Indian Again Tries Suicide.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Thursday, Sept. 27, 1906, p. 3.
“Prisoner Suicides.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Sunday, Nov. 4, 1906, p. 16.
“The above illustration…” The Hanford Sentinel, Thursday, Dec. 5, 1907, p. 2.
“Mrs. Reede…” The Fresno Morning Republican, Saturday, Dec. 28, 1907, p. 3.
“The sensation in Kern…” The Hanford Kings County Sentinel, Thursday, Oct. 2, 1913, p. 4.
“Appoint Matron for County Jail.” The Hanford Kings County Sentinel, Thursday, Nov. 15, 1917, p. 7.
“Hanford Mother Leaves Children.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Saturday, Dec. 29, 1917, p. 18.
“County Jailer Gerrebrands Has Resigned Place.” The Hanford Morning Journal, Sunday, Aug. 8, 1920, p. 8.
“Kings Co. Jail to Be Enlarged, Will Add Story.” The Hanford Morning Journal, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 1922, p. 4.
“Report on Jail.” The Fresno Bee, Friday, Feb. 16, 1923, p. 11.
“Kings Prisoner Attempts Suicide by Eating Glass.” The Fresno Bee, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 1937, p. 14.
“Corcoran Barber Hangs Himself.” The Fresno Bee, Sunday, Dec. 15, 1940, p. 18.