In the spring of 1935, reporter Aggie Underwood wrote a three-part series of articles for the Herald about women incarcerated in Tehachapi. Aggie maintained a relationship with the prison’s administration. They kept her informed about prisoner releases, and anything of interest to the Herald’s readers. Bad girls are undeniably fascinating.
The number of women committing violent felonies has risen since Aggie covered the crime beat. For many decades, women committing such crimes were an anomaly. Alienists (psychiatrists) and penologists offered various theories to explain their behavior.
In 1924, Sigmund Freud suggested menstruation reminded women of their inferiority and inflamed them toward revenge. Let that nonsense sink in for a moment. His theory is absurd and offensive, but we still accept variations of it today. We may characterize an ambitious woman as unfeminine or vicious. We may praise a man exhibiting identical traits for his business acumen and strength. Make no mistake, even in the 21st Century women are still competing on an uneven playing field.
There is an ongoing debate about the punishment of women, regardless of whether they were driven by homicidal PMS rage or something else. Throughout history, women have avoided the death penalty more often than their male counterparts.
In his 1931 criminology course, Dr. Paul E. Bowers said, “We hate to send a woman to the penitentiary, we hate to electrocute or hang women. We think it’s the wrong thing to do. Many women have been convicted of murder, but it is only rarely that women are hung or electrocuted for committing murder.”
One of the most notorious executions of a woman was the electrocution of Ruth Snyder in New York in 1928. She and her lover, Judd Gray, received death sentences for the murder of her husband. Tom Howard, a clever newspaperman for the Daily News, smuggled a small camera, strapped to his ankle, into the death chamber. At the crucial moment, he snapped a photo of Ruth in her death throes. The photo made front page news around the world. Snyder and Gray inspired James M. Cain’s novel, Double Indemnity, which became the eponymous film noir in 1944.
Perhaps because her own upbringing was as tough as many of the women she interviewed behind bars, the lives of female convicts intrigued Aggie. She didn’t romanticize their crimes, nor did she condone their actions. She empathized.
Below is the first part of Aggie Underwood’s series on the lives of the forgotten women of Tehachapi, as it appeared in newspapers in 1935.
Tehachapi, Cal., Apr. 30 —
Nestled in a range of snow-covered mountains, eight and one-half miles from the nearest town, is California’s home for forgotten women.
Here is Clara Phillips, the celebrated “Hammer Murderer”; Louise Peete, Nellie Madison, Josephine Valenti, Anna De Ritas, Burmah White and 140 others who ignored man-made laws and are spending long, long years in a miniature city of their own.
Ruler of this city surrounded by a high wire fence is Miss Josephine Jackson, deputy warden, who works under orders from the head of the state prison at San Quentin, James B. Holohan.
For 18 years she has been employed in California prisons, and for 18 years she has been caring for women whom the state has tagged “bad” and sent away to do penance behind prison walls.
Miss Jackson moved the first group of girls from San Quentin into Tehachapi in August 1933, and by November of the same year, they had transferred all the inmates of the state prison.
Life runs smoothly, and quietly, as the days go by with the only break in a monotonous existence being an occasional visit by some unexpected outsider.
The buildings which comprise the prison group are in an administration building, detention building, and two cottages.
All work in the prison is volunteer—none compulsory, and each inmate is given an opportunity to do the work she likes best.
Many of them prefer garden work, many laundry, many cooking, and table serving, many secretarial and some even beauty work.
There is no official chef at the state institution and the inmates have proven themselves splendid cooks, even to the extent of making all the bread that is used by the inmates.”
Six a.m. is regulation “get-up” time; 9 p.m. lights out.
Work on the various necessary duties is started immediately after breakfast and groups may be seen leaving the various buildings in which they are housed for the rabbitry, the chicken yard, the barn yard where there are several cows to be milked.
And, as groups gather around electric washing machines, or in the yard planting trees, or in the chicken yard tending the fowls, loud shouts of laughter may be heard ringing through the echoing mountainous section.
No supervisor stands over these 145 women to drive them to their tasks. No one waits around to scold or correct them. They are on an honor system to do their best work in their best manner, and according to Miss Jackson, this system succeeds remarkably.
Each building has a nicely furnished recreation room where the girls gather when their daily tasks are completed to play cards, checkers, sew or play the piano. But, because the architects failed to provide for an auditorium, there are no picture shows because there is no room large enough to seat all the inmates.
Just as Sing-Sing, an Eastern prison, has an outstanding men’s football team, so does Tehachapi have its baseball team.
In fact, two teams have been organized. Josephine Valenti, who gained prominence in Los Angeles when she was convicted of burning her small baby to death, is captain of one team and Pauline Walker, a colored girl, is captain of the second team.
They play every Sunday with all the inmates gathering on the sidelines to do the rooting.
At present, the field isn’t much good, but the girls are gradually doing their own work and making a real diamond.
They have made their own uniforms—white blouses and black bloomers with red stripes down the sides, and, according to Miss Jackson, they welcome the opportunity to don these costumes and break the monotony of everyday life.
Each goes on in the same fashion, light tasks, few laughs—a drab life, for the 145 women who must pay for their transgressions of the law. yet Tehachapi represents notable changes in the American penal system and is being studied as a model.”
NEXT TIME: Agness Underwood’s series on the “city of forgotten women” continues.
NOTE: This is an updated version of a post from 2013.