William Jordan Flake’s Experiences in Jail for Polygamy
Quoting from William J. Flake: Pioneer, Colonizer by his son Osmer Flake
(note: William Jordan Flake was imprisoned for 6 months in 1884 in the Yuma Territorial Prison for polygamy. This research and compiling was done by Marlene Richardson Ellingson)
“Flake’s experience at Yuma, if written would fill a book. We will just put a small part. Prisoners were all shaved clean and their hair clipped. The Warden took a pair of shears and clipped just a little off his long beard, and did the same to his hair, and said, ‘That will do.’ When he brought in the first letter he said, ‘We are supposed to open and read all letters either going in or out.’ Father said, ‘Read them, every word, and they will either save you or condemn you.’ Captain Ingalls opened the letter, and handed it to him; he did this with all of the letters that came.
“The prison was in constant turmoil, the snake den had been full for months. One man was loading and wheeling dirt, and had a big ball and chain on his ankle. He would haul it in the wheelbarrow when he moved places. He wanted to either escape or be killed. Father worked with the man, loading dirt a day or so. The guards cursed, and the men would not work, but were kept at it all day to get three cars of dirt out. William soon got the confidence of the men and wanted them to get the dirt out by contract. They were to agree to put out four cars a day and have the rest of the time to do as they pleased. He promised them, that if they would back him in four cars a day, he would assure them, they would have no more trouble. They said, that if they put out four cars, it would be increased to five. He promised them that it would not be increased.
“He went to the Captain, and asked him to take the guards away, and let them have the time to themselves, if they would put out four cars of dirt a day. ‘Sure,’ said the Captain. ‘I would be glad to do it.’ From then on, they had their work finished by ten each morning, and were able to be out of the hot Yuma sun; no more quarreling and cursing the guards.
“The Captain said, ’Flake, we have a Mormon in here from Nevada. He is our worst problem; he has tried to kill me and has tried to kill some of the other Guards. If one of us went near him and he had that shovel in his hand, he would try to kill us. He declares that he will fight us until either we kill him or he get away. He tries every time we give him the least liberty to get away, and has gotten out two or three times, but there is no chance to get away on this desert. Can you do anything with him?’ Father went out and tried to talk with him. He would not stop his work and said, ‘I have to keep going,’ but Father said, ‘Sit down, I assure you, you will not be punished for it. He asked where he was from, and if he had a family. He said his wife was dead, and that his people were fine people, and he did not want them to know anything about what became of him. For two hours he could not be touched. He had said he had two little girls. When William asked if he would not like to see those little girls, he broke down and said, ‘It would be the greatest joy life could bring me.’ Father said, ‘If you will promise to behave yourself and give no more trouble I will promise you that when I get out I will get you a pardon.’ He asked, ‘Can you do that?’ ‘Yes,’ was the answer, and the promise was soon given.
“William went back and told the Captain to cut off the chains and he would have no more trouble with Kerby. The Captain was delighted, and had Kerby come at once to the blacksmith shop and cut off the chain, and told him to take it easy until he got his strength back. However, he said, ‘I want to work or I will go crazy.’ Father suggested to the Captain that he put him in the bakery. He did, and Kerby did the best job, they had ever had and stayed with it until he was pardoned, which was done, as soon as Father got out and wrote a letter to the Governor. The Captain approved it and Kerby went back to the little girls. Several years later he brought them to our home for a visit.
“The big complaint with the men was that they were fed spoiled meat. In that hot country and no refrigeration meat spoiled quickly. Father said, ‘I don’t eat much meat, but when you get a piece that is spoiled just hold it up on your fork so I will see you and I will see that it is corrected. ‘ They told him if he complained he would be sent to the Snakes, but he did not fear that. They next day one of the men held up a piece of meat, and Father reached for a cut, smelled it and called a guard, and asked him to call the Captain. When the Captain came and asked him what was the matter, he said, ‘Captain, this meat is not fit to eat, it is spoiled.’ The Captain said, ‘Eat what is put before you and no complaints.’ William said, ‘Warden I am a citizen of this State and a heavy tax payer, I have broken no law of the State, you can punish me, but you can’t keep me here very long. I have a lot of friends, and when I get out of here, I will turn this place upside down. We pay for good fresh meat, and we are going to have it or know why.’ The Captain ordered the meat to be taken off, and other food supplied for the meal. Then he said to William, “If you ever find spoiled meat on the table again, let me know.’
“About two weeks later he called the Captain again, and he had another meal prepared, and they never had any more spoiled meat or other food.
“The Captain had two young boys and no other children to look after them; they wanted to go fishing but the Captain was afraid they would be drowned, and he worried about what to do with them. The prison was on the back of the Colorado River. He did not want to make they stay home all of the time. Father told him that Skousen liked boys, and to let them go out with him, and they would be safe as with the Captain himself. From then on until he was released, Brother Skousen spent every day out with those boys, often taking a lunch and staying away until dark. He was in charge of the small gate, and the boys would come there and call for Skousen any time they wanted, and he went.
“There was a tremendous waste of food from the table. Father asked Captain Ingles, the Warden, if it could not be stopped. Wheel-barrows full were dumped into the river after each meal. The Captain said that he had tried every way he knew, but was unable to stop it. President Robinson of Mesa had been sent to the Penitentiary for polygamy, a short time before. Flake said,’Give President Robinson charge of the kitchen; he has had experience, and he will stop it. It was done immediately. A month later the Captain told him the food bill had been cut in half.
“This is just a part of what he did at the prison. He had been sent to Hell and was turning it into a Heaven for all of them. The Captain’s work, and the duties of the guards were not half as hard, as they had been. When he went in, the Snake Den had not been empty for many months, and was usually filled to the brim; soon the den was empty, and not another man in it as long as he was there.
“Yes, Heaven can be, even in a place like that. He was called into the Captain’s office one day to meet a visitor. When he went in, a big broad shouldered man grabbed him in his arms. It was the friend of his youth, of his young manhood, and of his whole life, Francis M. Lyman. He, with more of the leaders were in Arizona, visiting the Saints, cheering them up and trying to help them bear their burdens. He had left the others and come to visit his friend in ‘Prison.’
“The Captain gave them the best room available, and gave them the entire day to themselves. The brethren gathered in the room, and enjoyed a real feast. They asked the Warden for a pitcher of water, a plate and a slice of bread, (for they were going to have the Sacrament). He came with the things asked for, and told them they could have anything at the prison. A fine meal was prepared especially for them at the conclusion. The Apostle of the Lord gave each of them a wonderful Blessing, and left with just time to catch his train.
“The prisoners all loved him; he had made life easier for them. They gave him some wonderful presents, one lady’s inlaid work box, made of twenty-four hundred pieces of native wood (he gave the box to Sister Lyman, the woman who raised him and his younger Sister and Brother).
“Before leaving, the Warden said to him, ‘I don’t want to keep you from your family, but I hate to see you go. You have done more for this prison, and the people in it than all the others combined. It is a better prison and the inmates are better men because of you and their association with you. I wish you the best of luck, but hope this prison will not be without a Mormon as long as I am in charge.’”
“His time was up, but because of slow mail service his money to pay the fine had not reached him. The prisoners had some money on deposit with the Secretary. They drew this and loaned it to pay the fine, so he would not be delayed. He started for home on June 5, 1885. The money came in the next mail.”