Antone Vital: One of San Quentin’s Most Desperate & Dangerous Criminals
by Brian K. Crawford
EDITOR’S NOTE: Historian Brian Crawford’s profile of Antone Vital is the first in a series inspired by an album of San Quentin State Prison mug shots from the collection of Daniel Sullivan. This album and other materials documenting San Quentin State Prison from circa 1880–1919, were donated by Daniel Sullivan’s grandson Wolly Middleton through the good graces of local philanthropist Jeff Craemer. Daniel Sullivan served for 40 years at San Quentin State Prison in the capacity of Guard, Captain of the Night Watch, Lieutenant of the Yard and ultimately Turn-key. On Sullivan’s retirement in 1919, The Daily News (San Francisco) published a series of articles profiling his career. Sullivan was highly respected not only by fellow prison staff but also by the prisoners under his care. More than once, Sullivan diffused a volatile situation because he had the trust of the prisoners. Notably, Sullivan came to staunchly oppose the death penalty having wittnessed the humanity of prisoners, even among a population which included very violent offenders.
Antone Vital, or Vitali, was born around 1862 in Smyrna, Turkey, apparently of Italian or Greek heritage. There is no record of when he came to California. He became a petty thief in Southern California. He pulled a gun on a Chinese laundryman and stole $300 from him, worth more than $8,000 today. He used the money to go to San Francisco, where he spent the money as quickly as he could on debauchery. He decided he had found a lucrative trade. The Chinese were fairly universally despised in California and few would put much effort into chasing a thief who only robbed Chinese. Also, the Chinese didn’t trust banks and often carried their money with them or secreted it in their homes or businesses.
Vital went to Santa Barbara, where, on March 19, 1892, he met a fellow vagrant named A. W. Campbell. Campbell was eighteen, the son of a respected businessman in Eureka, Nevada. He had farmed with his grandfather for seven years, then left and came to California. He worked on the railroad at Santa Cruz and did odd jobs up and down the state. Vital told Campbell about his new business model, and Campbell agreed to join him. They started walking up the coast. On Tuesday the 22nd, after a walk of more than fifty miles, they reached Lompoc. As in most towns of the time, the commercial laundry was run by a Chinese, and they determined to rob it. The two tramps had dinner at the Arcade restaurant, but the price of fifty cents a dinner so incensed Vital that he caused a fracas. He stormed out and walked ten more miles before his anger cooled. When he returned, they slept in a barn down by the racetrack, waiting for the laundry to close. They got up at 1:30 AM and returned to the laundry, but the lights were still on and people were working inside. Vital and Campbell loitered on the church steps until the light finally went out around 3:00 AM.
At 3:30 they pulled masks over their faces and burst into the house, with Vital brandishing his pistol. They found the proprietor Ah Chung in his bed. He was terrified and offered no resistance. Vital asked Ah Chung to give him all his money. Ah Chung said he didn’t have any money in the house, and Vital said he would shoot him if he said another word. He searched Ah Chung’s trousers and found a key in his pocket. Vital used the key to unlock the till and took a ring, a pistol, and a small amount of cash. He gave Campbell the pistol and told him to keep an eye on Ah Chung while Vital searched the house. He went upstairs. A moment later Campbell heard a man shout in Chinese, “Man come to rob me!” This was followed by the sound of a shot. Vital ran down the steps, and he and Campbell raced out the back door. As they passed Ah Chung’s room, Vital fired two more shots into the room. The bullets narrowly missed the man, but went through his clothes hanging beside the bed. Vital and Campbell ran down to the beach. Ah Chung went upstairs and found Ah Lee dying from a gunshot wound. He sent for the police. The keeper of the Arcade restaurant realized the attackers must be the same men who had caused a ruckus in his restaurant and gave good descriptions of the two men.
The killers hid in the thick brush above the beach for some hours and divided up their take, worth about $25 (about $700 today). They decided to return to Santa Barbara. On two successive nights they stayed at dairy ranches. They had gotten as far as Gaviota before they were overtaken by Lompoc police constable J. M. Saunders and another policeman in a buggy. They were arrested, relieved of three heavy revolvers and a pocket knife, and taken back to Lompoc.
They were charged with murder and arraigned in Superior Court in Santa Barbara on May 24th . Campbell said he had nothing to do with the murder and agreed to turn state’s evidence. Vital said he would defend himself and didn’t need a lawyer, but Judge Cope assigned him one anyway.
Vital’s case was heard on May 11th . Campbell was called first and told of meeting Vital and agreeing to burgle the laundry with him. He described their actions of that night. He said he didn’t see Vital shoot Ah Lee but was sure that he fired the shot. Ah Chung testified about the events and told much the same story. He showed the jury his clothes with two bullet holes.
Vital cross-examined the witnesses, but he could not stay on the subject. He ranted about Theosophy and rainmaking and the judge repeatedly interrupted him to bring him back to the case. He screamed, “You can’t put your foot on my neck!” He became so excited he had to be restrained by the sheriff and a deputy. The judge called for a recess until the next day.
Evidence was heard the two following days, during which Vital repeatedly disrupted the court with irrational ravings. On the 14th the attorneys made their closing arguments. The case was submitted to the jury at 3:15, and they retired to deliberate. A choice of several verdicts was given them, including murder in the first degree (which necessitates the sentence of death); murder in the first degree with the penalty fixed at life imprisonment; murder in the second degree, and acquittal.
At five o’clock they returned to the court room, having agreed on a verdict:
“In the Superior Court of the County of Santa Barbara, State of California: The People, etc. vs. Anton Vital-We, the jury in the above entitled cause, find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree. [Signed]: Alexander Shives, Dated May 14, 1891 [sic]. Foreman.”
Vital showed very little sign of emotion when the verdict was read. He asked permission to speak, but was denied the privilege, being told that it was too late to say anything.
In Los Angeles, fruit seller J. Chronis said he was well acquainted with Anton Vital, who worked in Los Angeles for a number of years. Mr. Chronis stated that about two and a half years ago earlier, “Tony” as he was called, was arrested and examined on the charge of insanity, but he was discharged, as he was thought to be harmless. “Tony” came to America from Smyrna, Asiatic Turkey, and once wanted to hire Hazard’s 4,000-seat auditorium to deliver a lecture on philosophy. He also indulged in many other strange antics. Mr. Chronis was certain that Vital was of unsound mind, and had been for a number of years.
On May 19th , the district attorney dropped the charge of murder against Campbell, saying there was not enough evidence against him. He was charged with burglary, to which he pleaded guilty.
Vital and Campbell were returned to court on May 20th for sentencing. Vital was requested to rise, which he did. He still seemed to be indifferent to his surroundings, and took the proceedings very calmly. When asked by the judge if he had any legal cause why sentence should not be passed upon him, Vital commenced one of his discourses on reason and the intelligence of the human race. He was told by the judge that his reasons given were not legal causes why the sentence should not be pronounced against him, and was asked if that was all he could state. He replied that he could state a great deal more, and then proceeded to talk about the relation of the elements to mankind. His remarks having no bearing on the case, he was interrupted by the judge, who stated that as no legal cause had been shown why the sentence should not be passed, it became his duty to pronounce the judgment of death. The execution was to take place August 5th at the State prison at San Quentin.
As Vital was taken from the court room he said angrily: “Well, you folks will have to do something else for water. I have made it rain for 18 years, now you’ll have to get someone else.”
W. P. Butcher, Campbell’s attorney, pleaded for leniency for his client. In passing sentence Judge Cope stated that if his duty could be regulated by sympathy, he would be inclined to be lenient, but under such circumstances it would be hard to follow any sympathetic inclination. He then sentenced Campbell to thirteen years in San Quentin.
Vital was given a new cell and searched. The searching made him very indignant. Throwing his shoes across the cell he yelled: “I’ll get even with you for this! I’ll cause a drought and kill all the buffaloes and wild animals. I’m but following the trade of my father.” When the jailors left his cell he said: “Hereafter I’m above you ordinary people, and I do not want you common trash to talk with me.” With these words he became mum and it was impossible to make him speak.
Vital and Campbell were taken north that same night on the steamer Corona in charge of Deputy Sheriff W. J. Wheelis and Manuel Den. They were transported to San Quentin.
There was great indignation, especially among the Latin community in San Francisco that a white man should be hanged merely for killing a Chinaman. This had never happened before. Under strong community pressure, his attorneys appealed the verdict and the execution was delayed while the case went up the courts. When it reached the Supreme Court in June 1894, the justices declined to intervene. His attorneys then called for a retrial, again delaying execution. Vital was sent back to Santa Barbara for the retrial, but again the court found no reason to change the decision.
In August 1894, the sentence was confirmed and he was scheduled to hang at San Quentin on October 12th . He was placed aboard the steamer Mexico and sent to San Francisco in custody of Sheriff Broughton and Deputy Smith of Santa Barbara. For the entire voyage he created trouble. Twice on the trip up he tried to jump overboard and once he attempted to end his life by cutting an artery in his arm with a piece of rusty iron. When they landed in San Francisco, he was handcuffed firmly to the arm of Sheriff Broughton (who had only one arm), and an Oregon boot (a particularly inhumane heavy iron boot) was clamped onto one foot. Broughton and Smith then led Vital along the Embarcadero (then called East Street) toward the Tiburon ferry. The ferry terminal was crowded with passengers, and the little entourage must have made quite a sensation. Two policemen stood guard by the doors to the terminal.
As they entered the packed waiting room, Vital suddenly swung his fist at Broughton’s face, landing a terrific blow that knocked the sheriff to the ground and stunned him. Vital began to beat the fallen man viciously. Deputy Smith rushed to his superior’s aid and tried to control the now thoroughly enraged Vital. The three struggled all over the waiting-room, the murderer showing a vast degree of strength and ability to kick and gouge, though he was only five-foot-four and weighed 155 pounds. Officer Fitzgibbon and Sergeant Tom Mahoney came forward to help the Sheriff and in a few seconds Vital was subdued by a number of vigorous cracks over the head with a club. He was then double handcuffed and hurried on board the ferry, where he was chained to a stanchion. Both Smith and Broughton were badly bruised in the struggle.
Captain Hall of the Mexico stated that Vital was a very desperate man. “He told me that he had committed eight murders and was going to kill someone else before he got to prison,” said the captain. “He is determined to die by his own hands.”
The battered but still violent Vital was finally turned over to the authorities at San Quentin. He was immediately placed in solitary confinement, and was watched day and night.
Warden Hale heard all the stories about Vital’s behavior and his bizarre speeches. After observing him for some weeks, he suspected the man’s sanity. He called in Dr. Asa Clark, formerly superintendent of the Stockton insane asylum, who expressed his opinion that Vital was insane. The next morning, Dr. A. M. Gardner, superintendent of the Napa insane asylum, visited the prison and examined the prisoner. He pronounced Vital unquestionably insane and said the man would probably continue insane as long as he lived. In his report to Warden Hale, Dr. Gardner declared that should the officials carry the execution into effect it would be nothing less than a judicial murder. On October 9th , Governor Markham, in accordance with the declarations of the warden and doctors, commuted Vital’s sentence to life imprisonment and he was sent immediately to the Insane Asylum of California at Stockton (now the campus of CSU Stanislaus). He was considered violent and a suicide risk, so he was kept constantly manacled and was put in a room on the top floor of the asylum, its only window heavily barred.
Only two months later, on January 9th , 1895, he cut the sash weights out of the window frame. Wrapping them in the bedclothes to muffle the sound, he used the lead weights to smash out enough of the bars to allow him to squeeze his body through. He make a rope out of the sash strings and torn strips of the bed clothes and climbed down fifty feet to the ground. His escape was not discovered until the following morning, when an attendant made his usual round of inspection.
The police were notified, and the trains and ferries were searched in case he tried to return to San Francisco. His description and picture were widely published in the newspapers, but somehow he escaped notice, got his manacles off, and fled the area.
In February, a sheriff in Mountain View thought he spotted Vital and arrested him. An official was sent down from San Quentin, but required only a quick glance to determine that the man was not Vital, nor even bore much resemblance to him.
Later that year, he was arrested for burglary in New Mexico and spent 18 months in the penitentiary in Santa Fe, but no one connected him with the escaped convict. After his release he went to Arizona, where he was arrested for breaking into a house in Tucson on February 20, 1897. While he was in prison there, he was identified as Antone Vital and the prison notified California authorities. At that time he told the Arizona authorities that he had never been insane, but had only pretended in order to escape hanging.
He was sent back to the Stockton asylum in May. The asylum authorities had always thought him too dangerous to be kept in such a place, and they lost no time in declaring him sane enough to be sent back to San Quentin. He was transported back to San Quentin and placed in the cell for incorrigibles.
Two years later he was released into the general population and put to work in the jute mill where he had been scheduled to hang. The other prisoners feared him. He frequently imitated the death screams of his victim Ah Lee. At times he would suddenly cease combing jute in the mill and shriek aloud: “Oh, take them away, with their bloody heads! Take them away! Take them away!” He attacked and injured a guard and was returned to the incorrigible cells.
On Tuesday, March 5, 1901, Guard J. M. Jones checked on him and found he had torn off his clothes and was crouching naked in a corner of his cell. Jones entered the cell and locked the door behind him. He gathered up Vital’s prison clothes and approached to dress him. Vital attacked him wildly, clawing at his face with his nails and attempting to gouge out Jones’ eyes. He ripped off the guard’s coat and sank his teeth into his shoulder. Vital was screaming in rage and Jones was shouting for help as they rolled over and over on the floor in their struggle. More guards arrived, but Jones had the key to the cell on him and couldn’t admit them. Finally Jones’ greater strength allowed him to grasp Vital’s head and slam it against the door, stunning him. Only then could Jones unlock the door and admit other guards. The convict was placed in irons and examined by physicians. It was evident to them that Vital would never regain his reason and accordingly he was shipped to the Ukiah asylum to inhabit a cell for the violently insane.
He proved too violent even for that institution and was sent to the Napa Asylum. There he frequently attacked the attendants and bit them like a dog. Finally, in their own defense, they were forced to remove his front teeth.
On August 17, 1901, word was received at San Quentin that Antone Vital had died of a heart attack at the Napa Insane Asylum. He was 39 years old. He was widely regarded as the most desperate and dangerous prisoner ever confined at San Quentin.
Originally published at https://annetkent.kontribune.com.