San Quentin Cemetery - Boot Hill

San Quentin Cemetery- Boot Hill

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Photo: Dorothy Cowan collection

Infamous Cons Lie in Peace
Excerpts from Independent Journal reporter - Teresa Allen

"He must have been a winning gent who had a fascinating way. But no, he had a feline face, a wolfish mouth, a furtive air; as shy of beauty as of grace - yet he won brides most everywhere." - 1920 press account of ‘Bluebeard.

Boot Hill, San Quentin's old cemetery, was the end of the line for James P. "Bluebeard" Watson, the smooth-talking bigamist who murdered nine of the 20 women he married.

Also known in news reports of the time as "The Enigma" and the "Monster of the Western Coast," Bluebeard was sentenced to San Quentin in 1915 and served a life sentence before taking a final horse-and-buggy ride to the prison's hilltop cemetery.

It was an era of striped prison uniforms, the "dungeon where inmates were held in solitary, and cons bearing flamboyant nicknames like Black Bart and Barking Willie - a name given a convict for the nervous bark he developed after being found in bed with a Hollywood starlet. Willie served time for rape.

The legal appeals were few, and the executions were speedy. The condemned were hung by the neck until dead, sometimes within a month, and seldom longer than a year after the day of sentencing.

Prison records indicate killers from all walks of life are buried in the cemetery.

Today only a handful of old redwood grave markers poke up through hip-high grass, foxtails, and poison oak - the stuff of nature that long ago reclaimed the abandoned graveyard. The only clue to a convict's identity is a prison number crudely burned into the wood.

The cemetery, in which the bodies of 696 condemned and unclaimed prisoners are buried, has a sweeping view of Mount Tamalpais, the prison complex and Richardson Bay. The winding dirt road that once was the scene of horse and buggy funeral processions now serves as a fire road and jogging trail.

Originally the convicts were buried near what is now the prison hospital. But when the prison population began to mushroom, the graves were moved out of the prison compound and across East Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Boot Hill.

Some of those unearthed bodies were placed in common graves with markers that simply read ‘‘10 men" or "30 men," according to Dave Langerman, a prison spokesman.

At one time hundreds of redwood markers dotted the hillside. Souvenir hunters took many. The few than remain have been vandalized. R.I.P. is scratched across one.

Prison officials recently reclaimed several of the historic markers after they were discovered at a flea market in the South Bay. The graveyard was abandoned in the early 1950s when the prison began cremating its unclaimed dead. The ashes of convicts now are scattered at sea.

Officials plan to remove the grave markers that remain on Boot Hill and store them for possible display in a prison museum.

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Last Revision March 2001