California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
Riots, Protests and Other Civil Disturbances
Folsom Prison Riot, 1927
 
 
 
Taking advantage of the Thanksgiving Holiday schedule, a small group of prisoners, frustrated in their attempts to break out of prison, incited a riot among the 1200 prisoners attending a motion picture being shown in the school building. The convicts took control over the interior of all but a small portion of the prison and also held five guards as hostages.
Warden Court Smith telephoned Governor C. C. Young requesting aid to subdue the rioters and prevent an outbreak.

The Governor contacted Colonel Wallace A. Mason, Commanding Officer, 184th Infantry, and ordered all Sacramento units of his regiment to proceed immediately to Folsom Prison to assist the civil authorities in quelling the riot.

General R. E. Mittelstaedt, The Adjutant General, spending Thanksgiving with his family in San Francisco, was notified by the Governor of this uprising and that Colonel Mason was
already at the prison with his local units. General Mittelstaedt immediately ordered units from Yuba City, Marysville, Stockton, Woodland and Lodi to assemble at their respective armories, and then proceed without delay to -Folsom. Two tanks were shipped by train from Salinas to bolster the security around the prison and for possible employment to break info the convict controlled portions of the prison.

Although some Guard units arrived during daylight hours on the 24th of November, most reported after dark. All units were positioned around the prison and were equipped with machine guns, some of which were mounted on trucks, and automatic rifles. At daybreak on the 25th, the prisoners were given an ultimatum to give up peaceably or suffer the consequences.
 
To lend weight to this ultimatum, Co E, 184th Infantry, entered the prison enclosure in a line of skirmishers, with bayonets fixed, and were in full view of the rioters. Shortly after this show of force, the convicts capitulated, released all hostages and, when they returned to their cells, control of the entire facility was restored to the prison authorities.This attempted prison break was one of the most desperate situations in penal history of the United States at that time.

Prison, local and State authorities were unanimous in their praise of the Guard's significant contribution to the rapid restoration of control to the proper authorities.
 
 
 
 
 
The following articles originally appeared in the December 1927 issue of The California Guardsman

National Guard Troops Called to Folsom Prison
Col. Wallace Mason and Sacramento Valley Troops Ordered Out by Governor Young on Thanksgiving Day to Repel Prison Outbreak
By Chaplain Bryant Wilson, 184th Infantry

Units of the 184th Infantry and 143rd Field Artillery have made his tory recently under the direction of Colonel Wallace Mason, Commanding the 184th Infantry. The regiment played a large part in bringing to an end the spectacular riot at Folsom Penitentiary on Thanksgiving Day.

When, shortly before eleven o'clock Thursday morning, November 29th, Governor Young was notified by telephone message from Warden Court Smith of the outbreak of 1,400 rioting convicts, he gave orders that the National Guard units of the nearby cities be called by telephone, "mobilized at their respective armories and with or without uniforms be transported to Folsom as rapidly as possible". Ten companies comprising 450 men were mobilized from five cities. Four Sacramento companies, three from Stock ton, one each from Woodland, Marysville and Yuba City were on the grounds ready and prepared to answer any order that might be issued by the "council of war" directed by Governor C. C. Young, commander-in chief of the California National Guard. Direct military command of all troops at the prison was given to Colonel Wallace Mason, commanding officer of the 184th Infantry.

The 184th Infantry units were: From Sacramento, Headquarters Company, Capt. Roy Green, commanding; Service Company, Capt. John Maloney, commanding; Howitzer Company, Capt. Robert E. Beauchamp, commanding. From Stockton came Company I, Capt. George M. Bisbee, commanding. From Woodland came Company E, Capt. Arthur C. Huston, Jr., commanding. From Marysville came Company F, Capt. Wesley C. Owen, commanding. From Yuba City came Company H, Capt. Irwin E. Farrington, commanding.

The 143rd Field Artillery units were: Battery D, Sacramento, Battery C, Stockton, Battery F, Lodi, Headquarters Battery and Combat Train, 2nd Battalion, Stockton.

Other Troops Held in Waiting

In addition, two airplanes of the 40th Division Air Service came from Los Angeles to "stand by" for any emergency. General R. E. Mittelstaedt, The Adjutant General, who was at the San Francisco Armory at the time, arrived by airplane from Crissy Field, San Francisco. Two tanks from the 40th Tank Company at Salinas, were sent to the Prison. The planes from Los Angeles as well as that carrying General Mittelstaedt, were equipped with machine guns.

Rapid Mobilization

The mobilization was rapid. Capt. Owens of Marysville, and Capt. Farrington of Yuba City, assembled their companies in record time and rushed to Folsom. Company H sent a touring car equipped with machine guns in advance of the rest of the company, and Company F was not far behind, having commandeered a motor bus from a local stage company.

Wartimes Recalled

The graveled area in the plaza before the home of Warden Court Smith was a hodge-podge of sketches - the roads of France during the World War, rookie camps, sheriffs' posses, riot squads of policemen and refugees wrapped in blankets (the boys who had forgotten their overcoats).

As stages loaded with National Guardsmen would arrive, they would be greeted: "Where yuh from?" When the answer was given, those on the ground would retort: "You look it" - the old army game was on!

Machine gun squads were unloading guns and sand bags from trucks. Men milled back and forth in the crowd, trying to keep their rifles from poking others in the ribs. A company of Guardsmen with rifles slung over their shoulders and kits strapped to their backs marched by. Electricians uncurled coils of wire and carried searchlights away. There was a constant babble of talk.

Immediately following the arrival of the National Guardsmen, which made a splendid record by presenting themselves at the gates of Folsom Prison a few minutes before 2 o'clock, a conference was held between Captain of the Guard Larkin, Colonel Mason, Major Murray and two members of the Prison Board, Judge McLaughlin and B. B. Meek, and it was decided to "attack at once", without awaiting for arrival of additional machine guns from the field artillery batteries.

Led by some police officers and deputy sheriffs, the Guardsmen entered the prison yard across whose sun kissed lawn lay 1400 desperadoes in the library building. Two other companies of Guardsmen had been previously deployed around the outside of the prison. Tear gas bombs were hurled through the windows of the building where the mutinying convicts were crowded together. Came next billows of pungent curling smoke from the windows and cries of "Oh my God!", "Let us out!", "We quit!", and similar expressions as the desperadoes, choking and crying despite themselves, fled across the Bridge of Sighs, into the main cell house.

No sooner had the smoke raised a trifle, however, than the more daring of the horde opened fire from one of the long barred windows to the south.

Then followed some parleying between the attacking force and prisoners without definite result.

Throughout the night the Guardsmen maintained strict guard as there was a general feeling that the battle might not wait till dawn.. But with the coming of morning; the convicts agreed to terms laid down by the prison warden and were locked up in their cells.

The Guardsmen were summoned to the gate shortly after 8 o'clock in the morning preparatory to their discharge as guards.

Major Charles R. Blood and Major Edward M. Murray of the 184th Infantry assisted Col. Mason in the emergency. Gen. R. E. Mittelstaedt, the Adjutant General and Maj. Gen. David P. Barrows, 40th Division Commanding General, were on the ground during the trouble.

Governor Young, in reporting on the events, said:

"I gave order that the National Guard be called by phone, mobilized at their respective armories, and with or without uniforms, be transported to Folsom as rapidly as possible. The rapidity of this mobilization and the order and splendid spirit of the Guardsmen was one of the outstanding features of the day."

The following official order confirming the call of Governor Young, gives in detail the units participating in the emergency:

 

4. The action of the Governor of California of November 24, 1927, authorized in Section 1909, Political Code of California, in ordering to active service of the following named organizations and detachments of the California National Guard, for the purpose of assisting the State Prison authorities at Folsom Prison, in quelling riotous prisoners, at the above institution, is confirmed and made of record:

Detachment, Headquarters, 40th Division.
Headquarters, 184th Infantry.
Headquarters Company, 184th Infantry.
Service Company, 184th Infantry.
Howitzer Company, 184th Infantry.
Medical Department Detachment, 184th Infantry.
Company E, 184th Infantry.
Company F, 184th Infantry.
Company H, 184th Infantry,
Company I, 184th Infantry.
Detachment, Headquarters, 143rd Field Artillery.
Headquarters Battery & Combat Train, 2nd Battalion., 143rd Field Artillery
Battery C, 143rd Field Artillery.
Battery D, 143rd Field Artillery.
Battery F, 143d Field Artillery.
Medical Department Detachment, 143rd Field Artillery.
Detachment, 115th Observation Squadron.
Detachment, 40th Tank Company.
State Staff Corps and Department.
State Detachment.

The travel and other expenses in connection therewith was necessary in the military service.

By order of the Governor:

    R. E. MITTELSTAEDT,
    The Adjutant General

OFFICIAL:

Echoes from the Folsom Prison Riot

The Guardsmen were told not to fire until they got orders to do so and it is a remarkable tribute to their good discipline that not a shot was fired by a guardsman, although the peace officers beside them poured two thousand or more shots into the library where the convicts were barricaded.

Major Chas. Blood says that the most vivid memory of the affair in his mind was the grim look on the faces of the men when, with fixed bayonets, in the cold gray dawn, they entered the walls, not knowing whether a volley of death might greet them at any moment. All behaved themselves splendidly. The discipline was of the highest order.

Capt. Bert Thomas was given four rooms in one wing of the warden's home as an emergency hospital, and with the aid of Lieut. Arthur Clements and prison officials' wives, soon had everything "set" to receive "blighties" from a real war.

Capt. Joe Plato, subsistence officer, is receiving congratulations on the "grub" provided, for not even the second battalion kicked! This, so the wise ones say, indicates 100% efficiency. No "pigs heads" were issued. Jimmy Clausen, war-time comrade of Col. Mason and at present manager of Hart's Restaurant, Sacramento, established a world's record in getting out 1,200 sandwiches in thirty minutes for the outfit. The men established another record by.consuming the whole lot in five minutes.

Other than the casualties resulting from lack of shut-eye, there was one real casualty, a Howitzer Company man received a flesh wound in the cheek.

There were over 500 Guardsmen on duty at the prison, 400 of them from the 184th Infantry.



Governor Young and Press Praise Guard Performance at Folsom Riot


The recent attempted break at Folsom State Prison, twenty miles east of Sacramento, brought about the greatest general mobilization test which the California National Guard has experienced in several years.

And it was met with such promptness and efficiency as to draw commendation not only from Governor C. C. Young, our commander-in-chief, but also the press in general.

The governor was quick to sense the tremendous proportions of the riot, which involved no less than 1200 men. He immediately called out the guard companies in the capital city, and later summoned other companies from nearby communities, as well as obtaining machine guns from San Francisco and Los Angeles and two armored tanks from Salinas.

"The rapidity with which the companies of the California National Guard mobilized, and the order and splendid spirit of the guardsmen, was one of the outstanding features of the day," said the Governor, in his official report upon the outbreak.

"The National Guard, the peace officers of this and other counties and cities, the traffic officers of the motor vehicle department, the civilians who offered their services, the highway department, and others who furnished automobiles, members of the prison board who arrived early at the scene, and others, all worked together splendidly," he remarks in another place. "It is entirely probable that the show of force they demonstrated was one of the elements which finally convinced the cooler heads among the prisoners that further resistance was useless."

Adjutant General R. E. Mittelstaedt has only words of commendation for the fine showing which the guard made in the emergency. He reports that out of a total personnel of 625 officers and men in the companies which received the muster call, a total of 532 responded.

And this in the face of the fact that the riot occurred on a holiday, when many of the guardsmen were out of town, or inaccessible for several hours.The turnout was 85 percent perfect.

Sacramento units contributed the bulk of the men, of course, with 254 officers and enlisted men. Eighty-six reported from Stockton, forty-five from Woodland, forty-three from Marysville, forty-four from Yuba City, ten from Salinas, thirty-five from Lodi, and seven from Los Angeles. The Salinas and Los Angeles contingents represented those who came in the war tank and in airplanes, respectively.

Adjutant General Mittelstaedt, in calling the guard together, used the modern communications, including radio. Splendid co-operation was received from the telephone companies. The rosters were turned over to them, and the telephone girls, with great persistency, kept trying to locate those who could not be reached at the first call.

The Sacramento Bee, which is one of the papers nearest the scene of the attempted break, was so moved by the splendid showing of the guard that it urges the legislature to increase the guard appropriation so that the work of organization might be increased.

Editorially, this paper remarks:

"The attempted break proved the mettle and the worth of the National Guard so much that the legislature should pass appropriations sufficient to keep it in a state of efficiency and preparation."

A staff correspondent of the San Francisco Bulletin, who was on the ground shortly after the riot broke out, writes as follows of the part the National Guard played in this huge drama:

"The mobilization of the National Guard was carried out speedily and efficiently by Col. Wallace Mason, acting until the arrival of Adjutant General R. E. Mittelstaedt. The Guardsmen were stationed about the walls of the prison during the afternoon and throughout the night. In addition, picked men manned machine guns along the railroad tracks between the prison and the American River. All the Guardsmen carried side arms, and those not equipped with automatic rifles carried Springfields. An unlimited supply of ammunition was available. Blankets and heavy overcoats were drawn from the Sacramento armory and issued to all men on guard. The Guardsmen's appearance with their steel helmets presented a picturesque scene, reminiscent of war days."

William J. Rogers, who is a staff writer for the Stockton Record, as well as a Lieutenant in Battery C, of the 143rd Field Artillery, was on the ground and describes the guard's share, in part, as follows:

"It was a beautiful test of discipline and the Guardsmen met it finely. There were bullets in many directions; it was hard to tell whether or not the convicts were returning the fire, so loud were the reports of the guns. But the guardsmen maintained their silence, with their officers slowly strolling up and down behind them and cautioning them not to fire without the command."

Not a shot was fired by a National Guardsman during the disturbance. Vox Publico columns of newspapers also received contributions which be spoke praise for the Guardsmen. One of these letters was that of George Dudley Bogert to the San Francisco Daily News. He writes, in part:

"California efficiency again was demonstrated by the rapid quelling of the riot at the Folsom Penitentiary. It was a remarkable illustration of executive action, and clearly shows the necessity for an army to maintain peace at all times. Five hundred California National Guardsmen, fully equipped were at the prison within a few hours, coming from widely separated localities . . . A grand exhibition to the nation that Califorprnia, can be relied upon in any emergency."



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