Buried on Boot Hill : ...


Resting in a eucalyptus grove overlooking the chilly splendor of San Francisco Bay, the prison cemetery slumbers, undisturbed save for brisk sea breezes ruffling the long grasses.

Beneath the carpet of green turf lie some once-infamous convicts. There’s Bluebeard Watson, who hustled at least seven of his 20-plus wives off to unscheduled meetings with their maker. Or William Kogut, a gambler who wound up on a mortuary slab with the ace of diamonds embedded in his brain.

But despite their notorious lives, Watson, Kogut and the other 698 inmates buried in San Quentin’s Boot Hill Cemetery are virtually forgotten in death, their graves marked only by small wooden stakes.


Associate Warden Dick Nelson wants to change that.

“We need to preserve the history of our cemeteries,” said Nelson, who has been digging into the secrets of the old burial grounds for two decades.

“These guys may have been scoundrels during their life; certainly their families were not and they don’t need to be forgotten in history,” he said.

San Quentin State Prison, a collection of square yellow buildings squatting on the shore of the bay, is California’s oldest. It began in 1851 as a prison ship; the first buildings went up the next year.

These days the area, perched between the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco and the Richmond-San Rafael bridge leading to the east San Francisco Bay area, would be prime condo territory.

But back then, it was considered a benighted spot, cold, windy, barren--just the place for miscreants, Nelson said.

Over the years, when inmates died and relatives couldn’t or wouldn’t chip in for a funeral, they were buried quietly in graves marked only with their prison number.

Boot Hill is the prison cemetery’s third location. It was in use from the early 1920s to 1952, when the prison switched to its current system of sending unclaimed inmate bodies to a local mortuary for cremation.

After it fell into disuse, the cemetery became a haunt of flower children who descended on nearby San Francisco in the 1960s and the plain wooden boards that served as headstones began to disappear, Nelson said.

To ward off plunderers, Nelson had most of the markers put in storage while he worked on a more permanent solution.

First came the job of identifying the bodies.

A plan of the cemetery was prepared in 1968 by a convict-surveyor and state researchers helped match names to the numbers; 550 of the 700 have been identified.

Next, Nelson had inmates in the machinists’ program make new nameplates of vandal-resistant brass, using melted-down plumbing discarded during prison renovations.

The third step, installing the plates and writing a book giving as much history of the grave occupants as possible, has yet to begin.

Work progresses slowly, partly because Nelson, a veteran prison employee now in charge of Death Row, works in his spare time with a budget of zero. Another problem is that the cemetery is near a shooting range, so work can only go on when the range is not in use.

Nelson has drawn others into his preservation efforts, including local resident and history buff Jeff Craemer, who went along on a recent visit to the Scotch broom-covered hillside.

Craemer sees the prison as an integral part of the history of the Gold Rush and its explosive combination of prosperity and people.

Like Nelson, he is intrigued by the idea of revealing the cemetery’s secrets.

“You get into some of these characters and what they did and why they did it,” he said.

Many of the inmates buried on Boot Hill were felled by nothing more dramatic than tuberculosis or other plagues of the time. But some went out with a bang.

Take the case of William Kogut, sent to Death Row for a murder in a gambling-hall brawl.

Kogut decided to cheat the executioner. He fashioned a makeshift explosive device by stuffing a pack of cards--then made of a highly volatile material--into a container and heating it up, aiming the thing at his head.

It worked. The cards shot out at high speed, striking his head and killing him.

“They found the ace of diamonds at the autopsy embedded in his brain,” Nelson said.

And then there was Watson, he of the multiple marriages, who was sent to San Quentin in 1920 after many of his spouses--and their savings--mysteriously disappeared. He was convicted of killing seven of his 22 wives and for failing to account for the whereabouts of many more.

Despite his dubious past, Watson turned into a model prisoner. He was kept in isolation at the prison hospital for fear of retaliation from family-minded inmates. There he became an assistant to the chief medical officer.

Watson apparently had a sanctimonious streak.

When fellow inmate Edwin Booth, a successful Depression-era writer until he ran afoul of the law, tried to escape by knotting sheets together, Watson happened along and cut the makeshift rope. Booth fell a bruising one-and-a-half stories.

“Booth never figured out who did it,” Nelson said.

Nelson found out by going through Booth’s and the doctor’s journals and then reading between the lines.

Watson’s case was a puzzling one.

He had operated his own version of the “Personals,” placing newspaper advertisements for wives and counseling his correspondents to keep their replies confidential.

“We don’t know how many really disappeared, never to be seen again,” Nelson said.

But perhaps the oddest aspect of the case, at least to the doctor Watson worked with, was that, far from being a suave rakehell, the much-married man was a “gnome-like fellow,” Nelson said.

“Our chief medical officer for years wondered . . . what the attraction was,” Nelson said. “He never did find out.”