Friday, January 11, 2008

Life in Prison

In May, 1901, 19-year-old Ira Vermillion (left, click on photo to enlarge) walked into the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, where he had been sentenced to spend the rest of “his natural life at hard labor.” That was too bad for him, obviously, but in a way it was good news for a family historian. As far as I know, my ancestors weren’t avid diarists or record-keepers, and so information about them and their daily lives is pretty thin. But for 13 years, prison authorities kept track of all kinds of things about Ira: when he was sick, what work he did, when he misbehaved, with whom he corresponded. The prison file I requested from the National Archives turned out to be a treasure trove not just about Ira’s life in prison, but also about his family in general. Through correspondence records I can see where various family members lived at different times and narrow down death dates for some of them. And in a couple of cases the correspondence confirmed some family relationships I was unsure about. So before I get back to Ira, here is some general advice for family historians: find your black sheep and check his prison record.

If you’ve read the last two posts, you know that Ira was convicted of the murder of Joseph Nemecek. He was sent to Leavenworth because he was tried in federal court—Indian Territory did not have territorial courts. Leavenworth started out as a military prison and was converted to civilian use in 1895. Starting in 1897 and over the next 20 years, a new prison was being constructed with convict labor. Ira was there during much of the time the new prison was being built, and records show that he worked in the stone sawmill, on a construction crew, and briefly—apparently as a punishment—in the brickyard.

When he was received at the prison on May 11, he was examined by doctors who took a very detailed inventory of his appearance, any distinguishing marks, and his health. We learn from the forms they filled out that he was 5 foot-5, 132 pounds, had medium chestnut hair, violet blue eyes, and a medium fair complexion. He could read and write, identified himself as a Baptist, and acknowledged that he chewed tobacco, drank, and smoked.

(At left: a prison dorm at Leavenworth around 1910. Click on photo to enlarge.) His smoking would be the cause of the little trouble that he got into in prison. The first violation for which he was written up—in October 1901, was for “having a box of matches and cigarettes in his possession.” A more serious offense—making cigarettes—actually caused him to lose nine days “good time.” (Although he was serving a life sentence at the time, the prison still kept track of behavior in terms of days that could be reduced from his sentence. Typically, an inmate could be released after serving two-thirds of his term plus any days he had “lost” for misbehavior.) But mostly, Ira was written up for small offenses: “talking in ranks,” “foolishness on stairway,” “refusing bread crusts and holding hand up for more bread,” “skylarking and talking so that they could be heard from one end of the cellhouse to the other while count was being taken.”

(At left: Prisoners marching to dinner at Leavenworth in 1910. If Ira’s in that picture, he’s probably talking. Or maybe skylarking. Click photo to enlarge.)

The records also tell us something about Ira's health during this time, most notably that he had tuberculosis in 1908 and 1909 and was frequently put on "special mess" because of his condition. I don't know a lot about TB and its treatment at the time, but the fact that he survived seems somewhat remarkable, and a bit ironic. His brother Walter, a father of two living in Indian Territory, had died of the disease in 1907--is it possible that Ira survived because of the superior medical care he received in prison?

The list of letters sent and received shows that Ira did not ever go more than a month without news from home, most often from his father, Wash, who wrote to him nearly 200 times. His sister Cora also wrote frequently. Other letters came from his brother John, his aunt Jane Moore (his late mother's sister) in Aurora, Missouri, and his aunt Mary Burns (his father's sister) in Wyoming.

It's kind of touching to me that after Ira's brother Walter died in 1907, his widow, Mollie, wrote to him about twice a year. Mollie, you'll remember from the first post, was related to Joseph Nemecek, the victim of Ira's crime. But I imagine she felt a sense of familial duty to keep in touch with Ira on her late husband's behalf (though Walter himself had been none too good about writing).

The return addresses on letters from his father reveal approximately when Wash returned to Oklahoma from the state of Washington (1906), when he married again (1911), and when he moved to Oklahoma City, where Blanche Branch said he owned a furniture store (1912). Wash's second wife, whom he had married in 1894, must have died some time around 1903, as that is the last time there was a letter to or from her. [UPDATE, 3/24/09: Turns out I was wrong about this. Despite the lack of correspondence, Susan was still alive--and still married to Wash, as of the 1910 census. I had assumed that their marriage ended when she died, but I've seen online sources that say she didn't die until 1917. More on that in a later post.] Once Wash married Carey in 1911, she wrote to Ira at least once a month. She also wrote at least once on Ira's behalf. On November 30, 1912, she wrote to the warden to ask if, as Ira's pardon attorney had told her, Ira was due to be released right away. "You will pardon us for jumping at the idea—as a drowning man would cling to a straw," she wrote. (It turned out that the attorney was mistaken. He still had nearly two years to go.)

The prison file doesn’t include an account of how and why, but in 1909, President William Howard Taft commuted Ira’s sentence from life to 20 years. (At left: the commutation certificate with Taft’s signature.) I read up and discovered that Taft was unusually generous with pardons and commutations. Ira’s commutation came just a few months after Taft became president—I wonder if his attorney had tried the previous president, Teddy Roosevelt?

Once the sentence was commuted, Ira had every incentive to keep his nose clean, and except for ticking off a guard now and then, he seems to have done so. After working in all sorts of jobs, in 1912 he finally settled into a job at the corral which seems to have suited him, as he kept it for the rest of his term. (The Vermillions may have run a farm, but they seem to have had a lot of cowboy in them. And Ira's brother Walter was a horse trader.)

Near the end of his term, those nine days good time he had lost back in 1905 for making cigarettes must have been haunting him, for in July 1914, the month before he was to be released, the warden wrote to the U.S. attorney general on Ira's behalf. "Vermillion has a splendid record. He has not been reported for any offense whatsoever for more than nine years and his influence upon other prisoners is decidedly good. I respectfully recommend that the nine days lost commutation be restored to him in order that he may be released August 31, 1914."

The request was granted, and Ira was released after more than 13 years in jail.

Next post: what little I know of Ira's last fifty years.

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