An article July 21, 1903 San Francisco Call describe James Donohue, age 21, as working as a Prison Guard at Folsom Prison which he had begun in the spring. He worked for Warden Wilkinson.
On Saturday the 18th of July he had mysteriously disappeared after a dance in town and failed to report for his work shift at midnight. Three days later he was found dead. His body was located in a canal under the Railroad Bridge, between the rock quarry and the Prison. This would be the short-cut path from town to his job at the prison. It’s possible he accidentally fell from the bridge to his death, but the Sheriff believed he was murdered for his money. More details would later emerge and his money was found on him when his body was recovered.
A comprehensive newspaper article on 30 July transports him into one of the biggest stories of 1903. There was a major prison riot and escape that happened a week or so after his disappearance. Folsom history remembers it as the “Big Break” of 1903. Warden Wilkinson and some of his staff were taken hostage by 13 hardened criminals who escaped into the El Dorado hills. Two guards were killed in the melee. Many historians believe that this riot and escape was the beginning of the prison reform movement. Folsom prison built in 1880 was a very harsh place for hardened criminals. It was constructed of on-site rock and granite by the inmate’s hands. The stereotypical image of an inmate breaking rocks surely began here at the prison granite quarry. The actual penitentiary was considered state of the art but with no perimeter walls that exist today. It was comprised of only a cellblock and a courtyard. Outside it was manned with guard towers and a Gatling gun readied for those who dared getaway. The will to escape was strong and constant.
The July 31, 1903 article reported that prison authorities speculate that James was killed as he walked to work from the dance. His shortcut late at night was along the wooded Railroad tracks to the prison. He intended to start his midnight shift after leaving the dance about ten PM. Some speculated that he was followed by criminals who knew he had money on him. His robbery and murder would be an easy opportunity.
It may also be a classic case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He likely stumbled upon the group of ex-cons who were hiding and lying in wait to facilitate the pending prison getaway. They had stockpiled weapons and even dynamite for the escapees. The plan was set for the morning of July 27th. If they let him go all their strategies and planning would be lost. It seems they chose to kill him by throwing him off the Railroad bridge to the canal below. He was fatally injured and drowned. When the “big break” occurred, it was colossal news. The inside ring leader named “red shirt” Gordon and 12 others killed two guards and made it to freedom while holding the Warden and his staff hostage. The Warden and his group were eventually released. The subsequent man hunts even included the military. Seven of the group were either killed or captured (two were later hanged). Amazingly five of the inmates, including Gordon were never found. It is an amazing story, and because it was so visible, the Warden was fired. It seems the follow-up investigation into the death of James got lost in the background. I never found any more family information about James, so I assume it was not talked about because it was too painful. His parent Martin and Johanna Donohue must have been beyond sad at the loss of their rising star James J. Donohue. I understand why no one in the family knew the specifics of this unfortunate death as it was just easier to say he drowned at Lake Folsom than revisit the horror of his demise. There is a movie made in 1951 called “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” It depicts prison life in the early 1920’s during the struggle to implement prison reform. It is an interesting view into both the prison and the times of my Great Uncle James J. Donohue (1882-1903) lived.
Rod: This prison was immortalised by Johnny Cash in his Folsom Prison Blues in 1955