Above is the a ghostly photo of Boot Hill cemetary, the final resting place for many convicts living at San Quentin. In the background you can see the ghostly apparition of Mt. Tamalpais and Marin County below it. Today Marin county is one touted as one of the most beautiful–and most expensive places to live. It is ironic the prisoners buried here have been rewarded such a view.
I was born and raised in Marin County. I passed this hill many times, I was always aware of San Quentin, yet it was not until I was looking into the history surrounding the William Desmond Taylor case and my book The Lost Angels that I learned about Boot Hill. The protagonist of my non-fiction book Thomas Lee Woolwine is an Los Angeles district attorney turned investigator who defies odds to investigate and solve the William Desmond Taylor case.
In his notes concerning the investigation Woolwine who got death convictions for the men here reflects upon a visit to Boot Hill and walking upon the graves of the men he has convicted. Despite being an incorruptible prosecutor, despite being a hard-nosed sometimes cold, I think there was a part of him that felt compassion for the men on whose graves he walked even though it was not him, but a judge and jury who had decided their fate.
There was a part of Tom that felt strange about capital punishment, even though a swift hanging was the excepted punishment for a murderer in those days. The 1910’s and 1920’s in California was just a step up from the wild old west days of a few decades earlier. Back then, justice was swift. If you killed someone and were convicted if you were a man chances are you might be heading to the gallows ( the ones at San Quentin were ironically robins egg blue and were located in the carpentry shop).
And don’t think you could appeal as they did today. No one appealed. It just wasn’t done. You excepted your fate like a man and you walked the 13 steps.
Tom Woolwine was not a religious man, but there seemed to be some semblance of something that kept him fully from accepting his role as prosecutor without any shame or guilt. I think in some ways, he might have felt it was no ones place but Gods, or what he thought of as God to take a man’s life. His prime satisfaction in life came from catching the bad guys and putting them away, but when it came to execution he was uneasy. I don’t know the exact reason for this, but perhaps he identified with the criminal before they had become a criminal, perhaps he could not fully comprehend what would make a person do such horrific things as take another’s life or multiple lives.
When he left office in ’23, he reveled the stress that ha come from prosecution to a newspaper. Saying ” I am glad I never have to prosecute another man again.”