They had me at homemade shiv wall. “Shiv” is a slang term for an improvised weapon. I heard the San Quentin Museum has enough shivs to make an entire display and I want to see them all.
I go through a checkpoint and sign-in, but it's easy to forget that I'm on a prison campus, because there are manicured trees and fluffy bushes. The guard at the gate smiles and jokes as he asks for my ID and points me in the right direction.
The museum building itself is a Tudor-style house done in olive drab stucco. A sign hanging from the awning reads simply "museum open". This is where I meet my two tour guides for the day, Jeff Craemer, curator of the San Quentin Museum and Lieutenant Sam Robinson, public information officer for San Quentin State Prison.
Robinson points at the photos of all the past wardens lining the wall and asks me to guess which guy died at his desk. It’s like a macabre game of “Where’s Waldo?”
“We took a photo and then wheeled him out of the office,” he says. “So I just want you to look around at these photos and see if you can pick out who that individual is.”
Just off the tile floor lobby there’s a huge display. It’s a timeline of the prison from 1852 up until the 1980’s. There are photos, drawings and lots of text. Words are fine, but the best way to view this prison’s history is by looking at the objects here.
Wanna learn about the death penalty and the gas chamber? Robinson has you covered. He shows me a bright green metal scale model. It’s an octagon with a door, windows and a pointed roof. There are two seats inside.
“The first execution here at this facility was actually a double execution. Two people, who murdered the warden at Folsom State Prison back in 1937, were the first two people to be executed here one year later in 1938,” Robinson says. “And so the facility was designed to accommodate two and over the course of its history, 22 times we've utilized it for multiple people at once.”
Craemer shows me the item he says draws the most curious stares from patrons.
“This was the noose that hung Rattlesnake James, the man that killed six wives with a rattlesnake,” he says. “ I got this noose from the hangman's daughter.”
That same hangman’s daughter also gave the museum a wooden cigar box filled with tiny nooses. Her father made one for each person he executed and tagged it with the prisoners number.
Craemer points out more scale models.
“That's what the gallows looked like in the prison and then it was torn down and replaced by the gas chamber,” he says.
There is no shortage of dark humor in this place. Craemer and I look at the hanging record for Rattlesnake James and notice that in addition to a description of James’ height, weight, his drop, and how long it took him to die, there is a line of remarks. Craemer reads it to me.
“It says ‘very successful' .”
We leave the death wing and go up three steps to a large carpeted room filled with lit display cases. In those cases are straight jackets, guns and an actual ball and chain. Craemer has got a story for every object. He points out a little steam engine made by an inmate named William Wells in the 1950’s.
“He was a nice man in San Rafael and he made things, but he got fingered with something, something like an assault on a child or something like that and he was so taken by it and shocked , he couldn’t speak,” Craemer says. “Poor Willie, all he could do was bark so he got the name of ‘Barking Willie’ and so he wandered around here and he made this little steam engine and it actually works.”
My eyes get wide looking inside the contraband case. There are homemade shovels and a zip gun from the 1960’s.
“This is a piece of toilet paper that has a piece cut out to hide some narcotics or something like that in there and then the shaft the toilet paper spindle is on, is a stabbing weapon,” he says. “You kinda use everything you can.”
Speaking of stabbing, I spy what really drew me to this museum, the shiv wall. Robinson has a story for one particular item on display.
“This weapon here kinda mirrors a weapon that was utilized to murder the last employee here at San Quentin. The inmate was actually inside of his cell, he got some news paper, he rolled it up let it dry out and when it dries, it dries like a broomstick or a handle and what he did is, tied a little weapon onto the end of that handle,” he says. “From inside of his cell, as the employee walked by, he thrust it out through the cell bars and stabbed him in his heart.”
Robinson’s story shows just how much harm can be caused when a innocuous item is weaponized. He acknowledges that special precautions must be taken here.
“Its just kind of one of those things that in society you don't think about, you don't even have to worry about,” he says. “But in prison everything we have to be accountable for. “
Murder aside, these shivs are a showcase of ingenuity. There are sharpened screwdrivers, nails hidden inside of pen cases, filed down paint rollers, just loads of pointy things that someone put a handle on. But the museum isn’t all about weapons. There’s info on the short-lived women's wing, a display of military supplies the prisoners made during World War II and photos showing some of the inmate’s recreational activities.
To get a sense of what it’s like to live here, I step inside the model cell at the museum. It’s the same size of the ones inside the prison. It’s long and narrow, with a toilet at the back. When I stretch my arms out, I can touch both sides of the wall at the same time. It’s easy to imagine how being confined to such a small space would make you dream of busting out.
Craemer points out the wall of escapes. “In the early days people would braid bed sheets together and there's a grappling hook that was made, [they’d throw it] over the wall and climb over and go.”
Craemer has a twinkle in his eyes as he tells the adventure of a posse car chase and eventual capture of the escapees. It’s like he’s reliving memories. In a way he is. He grew up nearby and remembers what a company town this area was when he was a boy. He’s a storehouse of fascinating tales and definitely a must-see when you visit. Just be glad this is one trip to prison, where you get to come and go voluntarily.