Vermin, beatings & typhoid: Highlights of life in an early Seattle jail

Life on the chain gang was no picnic, but as one member put it, he'd rather be on the chain gang than in the city jail.
Life on the chain gang was no picnic, but as one member put it, he'd rather be on the chain gang than in the city jail.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a four-part series about life on Seattle's chain gangs. Read part one, Life on a Seattle chain gang, here.

Crosscut archive image.Bad as it was, as time went on, the chain gang seemed a better option to some than time in the jail itself, which the Seattle Times called "Our Awful Bastile." After the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed the old police headquarters and city hall, they were moved to the former King County courthouse, which was modified to accommodate city government and a basement jail.

The rambling structure was added on to and improvised so much that it is said to have resembled the chaotic architecture in the popular comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids — thus its nickname, "Katzenjammer Castle."

In his annual report to the city council in 1900, police chief William Meredith pleaded for improved conditions. "I…most earnestly and emphatically impress upon the attention of your Honorable Body the deplorable condition of the city jail. Bad sewerage, mould, rot, dampness, poor ventilation coupled with the fact that from its inception it was never intended as a receiving jail, makes it totally unfit for occupancy."

Underground cells referred to as The Tank, or Black Hole, were awash in sewage, poorly ventilated, vermin-filled and dark.

Over the next decade though, things only got worse. Disease could turn a jail sentence into a death sentence. Typhoid swept the jail in 1901. During a feared bubonic plague outbreak, the jail was highlighted as a potential source of the pestilence. Jailers as well as prisoners were at risk. The P-I called it a "hotbed of disease."

In 1902, chain gang prisoners were said to be on the brink of mutiny over their jail conditions. “Cockroaches, myriads of them, are in every crevice, nook and corner of the so-called working cell,” the Seattle Star reported, calling the jail a “chamber of horrors.” A chain gang member told a reporter that "he would rather be in hell than on the chain gang, but he would rather be on the chain gang than in the city jail."

Life on the gang was no picnic either. Food was often terrible — prisoners complained of only enough burned soup and hard bread to sustain hunger, not a work crew working all day six days a week. The large cell that gang members shared had no beds. Prisoners slept on the concrete floor with no blankets and were often required to work when sick. "Luxuries" included a single bathtub that sometimes worked (jail plumbing was spotty), a table and some broken chairs, stools and boxes for sitting.

The adjacent receiving cell was often overcrowded with men detained for the gang. A physician who had spent a terrible, suffocating night there estimated that the space per man would be the "equivalent to a space enclosed in two large coffins."

The chain gang guards were hard on their charges and newspaper accounts record some of the brutality, especially if chain gang members rebelled. There were frequent escapes from the rickety jail — bars could be bent or easily removed. Some chain gangers managed to slip their bonds through trickery. One man stuffed his pant legs with rags and newspapers so that the shackles were secured around an artificially fat leg. Once outside, he was able to shed his leg irons and run off.

Those caught were severely beaten, often with "loaded clubs" — lead-weighted batons. Chain gang members went on frequent, short-lived strikes — refusing to work and protesting conditions such as bad food and cold coffee. They were put in solitary, "ornamented" in the street with a ball and chain hanging from their necks, or fed bread-and-water diets until they broke.

"Bread and water has a tendency to cool the heyday in the blood," Chief Mitchell had observed.

A few brave souls went public about the gang's harsh conditions, though some were threatened with re-arrest or even death if they talked.

One was a black man named Clifton Pollard who went to a Seattle Times reporter in 1908, hoping to expose the brutality he faced. Pollard, who spent nine weeks on the gang, said he and his fellow black chain gang prisoners had to "submit to abuse of guards who knock them down with a blackjack, a billy, their fists, or anything that comes handy." He listed the names and abuse received by fellow chain gang members. Complaints, he said, were not tolerated by the guards. "I was brutally assaulted Oct. 20th, because I said 'niggers' were treated too bad in jail," Pollard reported.

The gang was a multi-racial affair. News accounts indicate chain gang members included whites, blacks, Indians and Asians, but there's no question that the concept of chain gangs themselves, so prevalent in the post-Civil War South, were a racially charged punishment.

In 1910, when a member of the black 25th Infantry Regiment stationed at Ft. Lawton in Magnolia was accused of attacking a white woman, a vigilance committee was formed. Citizens of Ballard and Interbay demanded that the regiment be pulled out of town and police cracked down on the black community.

Mayor Hiram Gill promised "the removal of every negro woman in the district at homes of which the negro soldiers have resorted, and the arrest and prosecution… with chain gang trimmings, for every negro soldier who is found guilty of the violation of any city ordinance."

One can infer two things from Gill's statement. One, that there was an especially low bar for putting blacks on the chain gang, and two, that language about the gangs put an almost humorous spin on the shameful behavior being discussed. "Trimmings" — as if the prisoners were turkeys being readied for a holiday feast.

Still, Seattle's notorious jail brutality wasn't confined to one race. If the city wanted to use the chain gang as a warning to tramps and criminals, its miserable jail conditions and brutal guards also sent the word forth that Seattle justice was no picnic.

In his memoir of his turn-of-the-century wanderings as a criminal hobo, "You Can't Win," the pseudonymous Jack Black wrote about his stint in the Seattle jail at the time of the chain gang. Arrested on suspicion of theft, Black and a compatriot refused to confess and were turned over to the department's legendary long-time jailer John Corbett in the expectation that maybe Corbett could get something out of them.

Crosscut archive image.Locally regarded as a law and order hero, Corbett himself had endured attacks from criminals and inmates, including one that left him with 14 knife wounds. He was a rough-and-tumble Irish cop in a rough-and-tumble age.

But Black's view of him was much darker: "John Corbett…. was feared and hated from one end of the country to the other because of his brutality to prisoners. I doubt if a more brutal, bloodthirsty jailer ever flourished anywhere. He did not limit his beatings to underworld people. He beat up rich men, poor men, beggarmen, and thieves impartially. Anybody that did not crawl for Corbett got a good 'tamping.'"

Black was no exception. Corbett, he claimed, picked him up by his neck and threw him across the tank. A veteran of many jails — he'd even been flogged British Navy-style in a British Columbia prison — Black's criticism of Seattle brutality had the credibility of first-hand experience. His crime partner was so traumatized by the beating he received from Corbett that, Black wrote, he turned into a cop killer and was later put to death in San Quentin.

His only regret on his day of execution? That he hadn't gotten Corbett too.

One British subject, G.P. Johnson, who attempted escape from the Seattle gang, was captured — and pistol-whipped into submission — by gang guard Owen Roberts. After having his pulverized head stitched up at the city hospital, he was thrown into the prison's "black hole" cell for a night, where he claimed that he could hear fierce beatings taking place. Two of his fellow prisoners, he reported, died that night.

In a letter to the newspaper he informed readers, "Such are the cowards you have to protect Seattle and enforce the law."

Photo of John Corbett: Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum/James Ritter Collection.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.