San Quentin Prisoner William “Kid” Thompson

By Brian K. Crawford

EDITOR’S NOTE: Historian Brian K. Crawford’s profile of William “Kid” Thompson is part of 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 witnessed the humanity of prisoners, even among a population which included very violent offenders. The photograph album of mugshots is part of the California Room’s Digital Archive.

William “Kid” Thompson. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

At 10:30 on the evening of Saturday, December 23, 1893, Southern Pacific Train #20, known as the Overland Express, left the Arcade Depot in Los Angeles, bound for San Francisco. In the cab were engineer “Rocky Bill” Stewart and his fireman. They reached Burbank on time at 11:00. After leaving Burbank, most of the first class passengers went to bed in the Pullman sleeper cars, while the others settled into their seats for the long night ahead.

At 11:30 the train approached the small town of Roscoe, four miles north of Burbank. Engineer Stewart heard several loud bangs over the roar of the engine. He didn’t know what they were until his fireman called out, “Who’s that climbing over the tender?” Looking back, Stewart saw two masked man with revolvers and a Winchester rifle. They had fired into the cab three times before the crew realized what was happening.

“Hands up and stop this train damned quick!” shouted one of the men. Stewart did so as fast as he could and the train screeched to a stop. Roscoe was what was known as a whistle stop. There was no station there, but passengers could wait on a bench until the train signaled its approach with a whistle, then signal the train to stop. There was a switch there leading to a siding to allow freight trains to pull off the main line to allow passenger trains to pass. It was what was known as a blind siding, ending in a stack of ties and a berm of sand. One gunman ordered Stewart to pull onto the siding, which he did. When the train came to a stop, the robbers ordered the engineer and fireman to accompany them to the express car. As they passed the mail car, one of the mail clerks stuck his head out the window to see what was happening. One of the robbers pointed a gun at him and said, “You had better keep still if you want to keep out of trouble.” He lit and tossed a small dynamite bomb at the car, which went off with a loud explosion. The head was quickly withdrawn. The robbers began firing down the sides of the passenger cars to keep anyone from getting off the train to interfere. Throughout the robbery they kept up a steady firing.

When the little party reached the express car containing the Wells-Fargo safe and any other treasure the train was carrying, the robbers made no attempt to negotiate with the messenger, or guard, of the car. They placed another bomb on the rail of the door and ordered the engineer to light its fuse. He did so, and the four men ran back to a safe distance. But the fuse went out. The engineer was ordered to go back and relight it, which he did with much trepidation. Again there was no explosion. He was told to go back and try again.

“Look here, fellows,” he said, “that thing is liable to go off.”

“That’s just what we want it to do,” responded one of the robbers, “so you march up there, old man, and stay there till she fizzes!”

On the third attempt, the fuse fizzed and the bomb went off with a dull roar, shattering the heavy door and breaking the glass in the car windows. The robbers shoved the trainmen up to the car and ordered them to climb in first. Stewart stuck his head in the door and yelled:

“Don’t you shoot, messenger; there’s 400 men out here with a howitzer.”

Messenger Fred Potts, dazed from the explosion, put up no resistance. He was forced to unlock the safe and the robbers emptied it. They then had the trainmen get out of the car. They ordered Stewart to run the train off the end of the siding to “ditch” or derail it to give them time to get away before news of the holdup reached the authorities. The train crew pleaded with them and convinced them not to wreck the train. Instead the robbers walked them up the track about a quarter mile. They found a small campfire beside the tracks. The robbers disappeared into the brush. After waiting for what they considered a safe interval, the crew returned to the train and proceeded to San Fernando to alert the authorities.

The county sheriff and his deputy turned out to be passengers on the train, and as soon as they got off they rode back to the site of the robbery, looking for signs of the robbers.

The Southern Pacific and Wells-Fargo companies had their own squads of detectives, and within two hours several posses were on the trail of the robbers. The companies sent telegrams to all the neighboring sheriffs’ and police departments with descriptions of the robbers and offering a reward of $1000 for information leading to their arrest. The robbers’ trail was followed for several miles, but it then doubled back and was lost. A number of reports of sightings of the two men were investigated, but they came to nothing. The robbers had gotten away cleanly, though their take was considerably less than $100 according to Wells-Fargo. The story was widely reported in the papers and was a source of much speculation, but when no further clues appeared, it gradually faded from the papers.

Then it happened again.

It was the same train, the northbound Overland Express #20. On the evening of the 15th of February, the train was forty minutes late leaving Los Angeles due to a large crowd of passengers. Engineer David W. Thomas put on extra speed to make up the time. With him was his regular fireman, 27-year-old Englishman Arthur Masters. Also in the cab was fireman Ben La Grange, who was dead-heading back to his home in San Fernando.

It was well after midnight when they pulled out of Burbank. Thomas again gave the engine all the steam available and the train sped through the dark countryside. As he approached the little siding at Roscoe, no doubt he gave thought to the robbery there less than two months before. He sounded his whistle. As he got closer he could make out two men sitting on the bench. He was annoyed because he had a good speed going on the long uphill grade and didn’t want to lose time and momentum by stopping for only two passengers. But he shoved the throttle forward to slow down. The two men stood up. He saw that one was holding a ball of something that he set alight and waved it from side to side as a signal to stop. This was not normal behavior and Thomas was immediately suspicious that this was a robbery attempt. He decided to ignore the signal and increased his speed to rush past the men before they could board the train.

Engineer David Thomas. Engineer David Thomas. Los Angeles Herald 17 Feb 1894

Then he blanched as he saw that the switch was open, sending them onto the dead-end siding. He closed the throttle and jammed on the brakes as hard as he could. At the same time the men started firing at him. Several bullets smashed the windows of the cab and rang off the boiler. His fireman Masters was leaning out of the cab to see what was happening. “Boys, get down or you’ll get shot,” called Thomas. A masked man jumped up on the cab and thrust his Winchester through the broken window at the engineer’s face. A gruff voice shouted, “Stop! Stop her! Hold her up!”

At that moment the engine left the tracks and went through the barrier at the end of the siding, rocking violently as it jounced over the rough ground and dropped six feet into a ditch. The robber leaped free and the engineer jumped off the other side. Thomas twisted his wrist painfully when he landed, but he scrambled to his feet and ran into the bushes with bullets whistling around him. The two boxcars behind the tender derailed and smashed into the wreckage, spilling tons of oranges over everything. Fortunately the mail, express, and passenger cars remained on the tracks. A shrill scream pierced the night.

Fireman Masters had fallen into the gap between the firebox and the tender. As the front of the engine hit the sand, its nose rose up, crushing Masters’ legs between the tender and the red-hot firebox. He screamed in agony, crushed and scalded at the same time. Fireman Le Grange saw immediately that there was nothing he could do alone to help.

Brakeman Henry Foster gathered his courage and leaped from the train on the far side from where the robbers were. He raced off into the dark to get help. Pullman Conductor H. A. Graves and Brakeman D. S. Kelleran rushed out onto the rear platform as soon as the train came to a stop. The night was filled with the sound of gunfire, angry shouts, and a man screaming. As they stood there in confusion, two masked men ran around the rear of the train, firing their revolvers to keep anyone else from leaving the train. They were cursing the engineer for not stopping.

Los Angeles Herald 17 Feb 1894

Fireman Le Grange started to run for help, but a robber thrust a gun in his face. The man forced him to walk back to the express car. He placed a small canister with a fuse hanging out of it on the car’s door frame and ordered him to light it and run. He did so, and the door was shattered. Express Messenger Harry Edgar was lifted into the air by the explosion, then thrown to the floor. That was just as well, for all the window glass was blown inwards and filled the car with shattered glass. The robber thrust his rifle through one of the broken windows and told the messenger to open the door immediately or he would “blow him to hell.” Edgar opened the other door. The robber made Le Grange precede him into the car and ordered Edgar to open the safe. This time there was considerably more loot than in the last robbery. Several large bags of coins lay in the safe. The robber took one of the bags and ordered the trainmen to bring the others. The bags were heavy, around 70 pounds each, and the men strained to pass them down out of the car. The robbers made the trainmen carry the heavy bags some distance along the line until a buckboard and team appeared about 75 feet away. The robbers then told the trainmen to put down the sacks and return to the train. As they trudged back, they heard the buckboard turn and hurry away. It began to rain, which soon turned into a heavy downpour.

Los Angeles Herald, 17 Feb 1894

When they got back to the train, poor Fireman Masters was still in unbearable agony. A number of passengers had gotten out to help. With axes and saws they worked at the beam holding him in place. A man came up out of the bushes to help. He said his name was James Pacey, and he was a tramp who had been riding on the pilot of the locomotive when it derailed. He had leaped clear just in time, but he said there had been another man on the pilot with him. A few men searched around the wrecked locomotive and soon found a man crushed underneath it. From papers in his pocket, he was assumed to be Harry Dailey, 18, of San Francisco.

Masters was begging someone to shoot him to put him out of his misery or to give him a gun so he could do it himself. Pacey and the passengers worked frantically and finally cut through the beam that held him pinned. As they lifted him free after an hour of agony, Masters died.

In the meantime, Brakeman Foster reached a ranch house and woke up the residents. He borrowed a team and rode through the rain back to Burbank, where he sent a telegram to the Southern Pacific Company. By two o’clock, a wrecking train was on its way to the site with a company doctor, several detectives, and a reporter from the Los Angeles Herald. Sheriff Cline and three deputies raced to Roscoe through the rainstorm.

The bodies of Masters and Dailey were placed in the baggage car and the remains of the train were towed to Los Angeles. A new train was made up and started again for San Francisco, some six hours late.

The officers set off in pursuit of the robbers as soon as they arrived on the scene. The tracks of the horses and buckboard were easy to make out in the dirt. They headed west toward Cahuenga Canyon. The officers hurried after them before the tracks were washed away by the rain or traffic. They started seeing bits of paper on the road. These proved to be Wells-Fargo tags from coin bags, so they knew they were still on the right track. They suspected the robbers were headed for the coast near Ventura. The detectives in charge said that they were confident they would have the perpetrators in hand within 24 hours. But they eventually lost the trail. Then someone found a buckboard abandoned in a canyon near Burbank and it was suspected that the robbers had left the wagon and escaped on the horses. An extensive manhunt was organized and posses combed all the area around Roscoe, but no further clues were found. Wells-Fargo and the Southern Pacific offered a reward of $1,600 for the capture of the robbers. At the urging of the all-powerful railroads, the legislature had recently made train robbing and train wrecking capital offenses punishable by hanging. And in this case they had caused two deaths. But again, every lead turned out to be false. The mysterious train robbers had gotten away with it again.

Los Angeles Herald, 31 Mar 1894

The first break in the case came when the manager of the Wells-Fargo office received an anonymous note saying that the robbers could be found three and a half miles north of Monte Vista. This would be near the mouth of Big Tujunga Canyon. Officers investigated and talked to several residents of the remote canyon. The most prominent was Alva Johnson, who owned a beautiful house near the mouth of the canyon. He was 34 years old, with blond hair and beard. He had worked on the ranch for the previous owner, a German immigrant named Phillippi. When Phillippi died in 1890, Johnson had married his widow Mary Ann, described as young and pretty, and quite wealthy from her husband’s estate. They had two daughters by her first marriage and were well-respected and well-liked in the community. They were Dunkards, members of a German religious sect similar to the Amish. Mary Ann said her husband had been to Los Angeles the day of the robbery but had come home before ten o’clock, long before the robbery. The officers found no reason to suspect Johnson and moved on to other ranches.

But then in late March, Alva’s brother Cornelius contacted the authorities. He said that on the morning after the robbery he had driven past his brother’s place and saw the tracks of a buckboard going into Alva’s ranch, and that the tracks had been made after the rain of the previous night. The brothers’ father confirmed the report. Both signed affidavits saying they believed Alva had committed the robbery along with two of his hired men, George Smith and William Thompson. The officers returned to the Tujunga ranch. They arrested Johnson and Smith, but Thompson had left the area.

News of the arrest caused dismay and disbelief among Johnson’s friends and neighbors. They said that there had been bad blood for some years between Alva and Cornelius and their father over water rights. Mary Ann Johnson claimed a certain amount of water from the river in the canyon from her first husband’s homestead claim. The father and brother lived on another ranch downstream and said they didn’t have enough water to make the ranch profitable. There had been lawsuits and angry words. The courts had sided with Alva and Mary Ann and Cornelius was enjoined from taking more than his share of the water. Most people thought Cornelius had reported his brother purely out of spiteful revenge. No one thought Alva Johnson was capable of being a train robber.

The detectives searched the ranch. Under a horse stall they found an old buried felt hat full of holes. They thought it might be the mask one of the robbers wore. Then a neighbor discovered a bomb similar to the one used in the robbery under some shrubbery a mile or two from the Johnson place. Also, H. R. Dodd, a well-known man at Glendale, wrote to the police that he had found two persons who saw Smith on the train the night of the first robbery at Roscoe, last December. They know him personally and say that he carried some tools. Dodd says there is no mistake in his information.

Johnson and Smith were arraigned on a $20,000 bond. A preliminary investigation opened on March 31st. The train crew were all interviewed and their accounts of the robbery generally agreed, though several thought there had been four, five, or more robbers. Most said they had only seen two. None of them could positively identify Johnson or Smith as the robbers, but their general builds were similar. Many people testified to the good character and reputation of Alva Johnson. When all the evidence had been heard, the prosecutor said that he did not feel the state had enough evidence to move ahead with a trial and asked the judge to release the defendants. The crowd greeted this news joyfully. Mary Ann threw her arms around her husband’s neck and hugged him.

Los Angeles Herald, 7 June 1894

The officials were back to having no suspects. Two weeks later, acting on evidence gathered by a private detective, officers arrested John Comstock, Walter Thorne and Patrick Fitzsimmons, all residents of Tujunga Canyon and neighbors of Alva Johnson. The evidence against them was circumstantial, but one of the trainmen identified Thorne as one of the men who had robbed the train. After weeks of investigation, questioning, and hearings, all three were released for lack of evidence.

At the time of the arrest of Johnson and Smith, Cornelius Johnson had implicated a third suspect, William Thompson, known as “Kid.” Thompson had been another employee of Alva Johnson and had left town around the time of the arrests. W. M. Breckenridge, one of the Southern Pacific detectives, had been sent on his trail. When the case collapsed, most officials lost interest in Thompson, but Breckenridge persevered. He tracked Thompson to Phoenix and interviewed several of his associates. Then one these men, Charles Etzler, unexpectedly told Breckenridge he had been an accessory to the robbery. He was willing to turn state’s evidence and tell the whole story if he were treated leniently and got a share of the reward. Breckenridge arrested him and brought him to Los Angeles.

Etzler said that the robberies had been committed by Alva Johnson and Kid Thompson and provided enough detailed information to convince the authorities. Deputy Sheriff Frank Dowler was sent to the Tujunga ranch to re-arrest Johnson. Johnson was not at home, but Dowler tracked him to Newhall. He rented a buggy, waited till after dark, and headed up San Francisquito Canyon, where he believed Johnson was hiding. He passed a wagon going the other way with two heavily-armed men. Dowler recognized one as Alva Johnson and drew his revolver on the men. Johnson tried to run away, but Dowler made the arrest and brought Johnson to Los Angeles on the morning train.

Detective Will Smith of the Southern Pacific Company went to Arizona and spent two weeks searching for Kid Thompson in the roughest country. He did not find him, but he was so confident he returned to Los Angeles and secured extradition papers for Thompson, then returned to the desert to continue the search.

A preliminary examination of Johnson began November 1st. Etzler said that Johnson and Thompson had told him all about the hold-ups.

Kid Thompson was well known to local officials as a bad man. He affected cowboy clothes and attitude and was looked up to by other young toughs. Most of the officials who knew him thought it unlikely that he would take on something as big as train robbing. The wanted posters described him thus:

Los Angeles Herald, 9 May, 1895

”The fugitive is 23 years of age; 5 feet 10 inches in height; light complexion; long features; Roman nose turned down at the point; light hair; sometimes wears moustache and small imperial dyed black; large ‘pop’ eyes; weight about 160 pounds; wears №6 shoe; has India ink marks of heart and anchor on right forearm; letters “B. B.” on left arm; bullet scar on left side of forehead.”

Etzler testified to meeting Kid Thompson in Mojave while “riding the blind baggage”, or riding under freight cars. They became friends. They were thrown off the train near San Fernando, and Thompson said he had friends in the area and they walked to Alva Johnson’s ranch. Johnson was angry with the kid for bringing a stranger to the ranch, but Thompson said Etzler was all right and eventually he heard the story of the robbery. Johnson told him the whole story of the second robbery. Etzler was able to relate many details only the robbers would know, including an account that Johnson and Thompson had been stopped by officials the morning after the robbery. They had the loot inside a chicken coop covered in a tarpaulin, and the officers assumed they were delivering milk and let them go.

Los Angeles Herald, 21 July 1897

Etzler had then gone to Tempe and met Thompson there. They picked up the crate full of Mexican silver dollars and sold most of it to some Chinese for forty cents on the dollar. They planned to use the money to commit another train robbery, but Etzler said he wanted out. Thompson gave him $19 for his trouble. Etzler, apparently dissatisfied with his share, decided to turn Thompson in and collect the reward money, worth more than $50,000 in today’s money. He went to the local sheriff but was not taken seriously. Somehow Thompson became suspicious. He hooked up with another young hoodlum named Thomas Tupper, known as “the Colonel.” Tupper was a teenager, 19 years old and fresh off a Kansas farm, but had gone west to become a Western desperado like his heroes in the dime novels popular at the time. He hooked up with Thompson and they headed out into the remote desert to hide. Several posses went out in search, but could not find them.

Then a party of five cowboys, attracted by the sizeable reward offer, went out on their own search. They managed to track the kid and the colonel to the mouth of a canyon. They confronted them and a gunfight ensued. The fugitives retreated up into the canyon as night fell. The cowboys camped at the mouth of the canyon. In the morning they fired into the canyon, and Thompson and Tupper came out and surrendered. They were taken into the city and turned over to the detectives. Thompson waived extradition proceedings and agreed to accompany the officials to Los Angeles. He appeared before the inquiry investigating the Roscoe train robberies and on November 17, both he and Johnson were indicted. Johnson was assigned bail of $5000 and Thompson, considered a flight risk, was held without bail. Later, bail for each was set at $15,000 (about three million dollars today). Neither would be getting out of jail.

The officials mounted a daily campaign against Johnson’s family and friends to get him to confess. They said they had Etzler’s confession and other evidence that would send Alva to the gallows. His only chance was to confess and turn state’s evidence against Thompson. After weeks of steadily resisting, on December 12 he agreed to make a full confession. As the Los Angeles Herald reported that same day:

Forced to make the awful admission of guilt, he left no detail untold. He went over the whole crime, embracing both train robberies at Roscoe, and as he slowly and brokenly uttered his words and sentences his whole body shook as if by fear. He glanced aimlessly around the room, and anon casting his expressionless eyes upon the stenographer’s book as one by one the words of guilt fell from his lips.

Johnson has not been cheerful for weeks on account of the strain which he was undergoing. He became more nervous than ever when he was called from his cell in the county jail yesterday, preparatory to giving his version of the robberies. His long straggling hair, reddish beard and languid eyes betokened a prisoner of years’ confinement, and it was easily seen that worry over his fate has changed his whole appearance in so short a time.

Johnson told the officials where his half of the loot was buried, and they went to his ranch and dug up $581 in Mexican dollars. He said Thompson planned both robberies and made the bombs they used to get into the express cars.

Three days later, a plot to break out of jail was discovered and Johnson and Thompson were named the instigators. They were searched and Thompson was found to have a long knife and $700 in cash hidden on his person. They were separated and the watch on them was increased. They appeared in court that day to plead, but both refused to plead and a continuance was granted. As the Herald said on the 15th:

Thompson is certainly shrewd and courageous. He announces publicly that he will not tell what he knows unless immunity from hanging is promised. He would expect a life sentence in case he confessed guilt, but says that he will not run the risk of being hung without trial unless some mercy is given him. His demeanor is certainly plucky, to say the least.

Johnson, the confessed robber, is growing very weary, and is worried nearly to death over his fate. He would rather know at once whether he is to be hanged or to go to the penitentiary for life. He says that if he only knew which of the two he would get, it would ease his mind.

The following day, Johnson entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. Thompson was urged to confess, but he steadfastly refused, telling the law officers to go to thunder; he didn’t propose putting the noose around his own neck. On December 22nd, he pleaded not guilty.

Based on Alva Johnson’s confession, officers went out to his ranch and arrested George Smith, “an old gray-haired man” (he was sixty). He was the man who had earlier been arrested with Johnson but they were released for lack of evidence. He was charged with being an accomplice, since Johnson had said he had helped Thompson make the bombs.

On Christmas day, a Los Angeles Herald reporter interviewed Kid Thompson. He asked if Thompson would describe the first Christmas he could remember.

Los Angeles Herald, 31 March 1897

“Impressions of Christmas, eh?” he repeated. “Oh, yes; I remember. The first Christmas of which I have any recollection was spent in the Black Hills, in South Dakota. My impressions of that night will linger with me as long as I live.

“It was in what was called Scooptown, now known as Sturges, three miles from Fort Mead. On Christmas night a large number of soldiers came into the place, which was inhabited by only miners, cowboys and tough characters. In a drunken brawl five soldiers and several cowboys were killed.

“My first Christmas was wildly eventful, and it was only a forecast of every other Christmas for me since that time. I was but 9 years old, yet the impression it left upon me was lasting. I have seen shooting, drinking or gambling on every Christmas since, and to say the impressions are undesirable is but a faint way of expressing it.”

Kid Thompson’s preliminary examination began January 15th, 1895. Alva Thompson was brought in to testify against him, but he broke down and refused to say anything. He was taken out, and Charles Etzler described the robberies as told to him by Kid Thompson. As expected, Thompson was arraigned and bound over for trial.

The grand jury trial began May 1st. A huge crowd packed the courtroom to hear Johnson testify against the kid. A string of witnesses occupied the morning. W. H. Watkins, a mail clerk, had the misfortune of being aboard both trains that were robbed. He positively identified Thompson’s voice as that of the taller robber on both occasions. Then Alva Johnson was brought in. He admitted knowing Thompson and that he had worked on Johnson’s ranch. But when questioned about the robberies, he became evasive. Finally he broke down and sobbed like a child, completely broken down. The judge dismissed him and he was taken back to his cell. Thompson and his court-appointed attorneys looked relieved, as it was likely that without Johnson’s testimony the evidence against him was not strong enough to convict. But immense pressure must have been applied to Johnson, because the next day he was unexpectedly called again by the prosecution and this time he told the whole story. As the Herald reported on May 5th:

“The shifty looks of Thompson darted at Johnson in fitful, fury-loaded glances, but the latter went on imperturbably, undisturbed by any vengeful glitters of the eye — now that his mind was fully made up. But Thompson was uncomfortable and wrathful and for once he had not the drop on the man who was sealing his fate.”

On May 7th the prosecution rested. The defense attorney called on Mrs. Johnson and her daughter, but their testimony added nothing to the case. Then he called his client Kid Thompson to the stand. He described his youth and his wanderings since. He admitted meeting Etzler while bumming a ride on a freight, but denied any involvement with the robberies. He described going to Arizona with Etzler, meeting Colonel Tupper, and his pursuit and capture by the posse of cowboys. He complained about how much the detectives had pressured him to confess. Upon cross-examination, the prosecution forced him to admit that he had spent 28 months in the Yuma penitentiary for stealing a horse.

The next day the defense called a number of witnesses, then closed. Counsel’s closing arguments lasted the rest of the afternoon. At five o’clock the judge instructed the jury, telling them that in addition to a verdict, they had to decide whether the defendant would get death or life in prison. The jury retired and was sequestered for the night. That evening Alva Johnson was transported to Folsom penitentiary to begin his life sentence. His sentence was later reduced to ten years.

The next day at two o’clock the jury announced it had reached the decision. The verdict was announced: guilty, and the penalty was hanging. As the Grass Valley Morning Union described it the next day:

“Thompson, who was as pale as a corpse, turned to the jury, shook his head carelessly and forced his pallid lips into a sardonic smile. When he was conducted back to the jail he said: ‘There is nothing worse than being hung, but I’ll fool them this trip. Before I go to the gallows I will cut my throat from ear to ear.’”

Thompson told a reporter that he had born in the Dakota Territory sometime around 1871. He had a sister, but when they were young his parents had divorced. The mother took the daughter and raised her well and she was now a teacher in Canada. The father got custody of Kid and give him no love or support. Kid had run away as a young boy. The father had recently gotten religion, and a group of soldiers from the Salvation Army — the papers called them the Holiness Band — attended all his trials to support the young man.

On May 16th, Thompson appeared in court again for his sentencing. The judge had to ask the prisoner’s first name, as he has always been referred to as Kid. “William, your honor,” he replied. The judge told him he had been fairly tried and found guilty. The sheriff would now transport him to San Quentin, where he would be hanged. Thompson appeared calm and denied that he had anything to do with the robberies.

There was an extended debate about the reward money, with the various groups of detectives, informers, and the cowboys who captured Thompson wrangling in a long series of lawsuits and hearings. Two of the contending detectives got into a quarrel about it in a law office in Los Angeles and one shot and killed the other. Eventually a judge determined the money should go to the cowboys who risked their lives to capture the outlaw.

Thompson’s attorneys appealed his case to the California Supreme Court, and his execution was postponed pending the result. His sister raised $250 to fight the case. In February 1896 the justices determined that the new law making train-robbing a capital crime was hurriedly written and clumsily drafted, but was constitutional. They sustained the conviction four to three, with two dissenting opinions. When he was informed of the decision, Thompson said, “If it has got to come off, and I reckon it has, I hope that you will not delay matters. Hurry it up and don’t keep me laying around any longer than you have to. I am no good to myself nor anyone else, and the sooner I get off the earth the better it will be. I am tired anyway of laying around here in jail. That of itself is just about as bad as being dead.”

“Is there anything you wish?” asked the under-sheriff.

“No, there is nothing I want except for this business to be hurried up and gotten over with. That’s all I care for, and if they get a hustle on themselves they will satisfy me better than anything else they can do for me.”

The execution was set for May 3rd, 1896. Thompson appeared unfazed by the sentence, casually chewing gum. “That’s all, eh?” he queried, when the somber words of the court had ceased. It was not asked impertinently, but with a scornful intonation to which he gave point upon returning to his seat.

“God damn it, I thought they were going to give me a chance to say something,” he remarked to Deputy Sheriff McClure as he sat down. “Well,” he added, “they may break my neck, but they can’t break my heart.”

To some word regarding the possibility of his being granted a new trial the “Kid” answered:

“Naw; they’ll hang me all right. The Supreme Court is owned by the Southern Pacific and Wells-Fargo, and while my attorneys are all right and want me to think I’ll get a new trial, I know they’ll hang me.”

Shortly after 1 o’clock a number of people lined the stone stairway leading from New High Street to the county jail to see him taken to San Quentin. A carriage was in waiting and the prison door swung open and allowed the Kid to make his last exit, escorted by Sheriff Burr and Deputy Sheriff Guy Woodward. “Boys, it’s all up; I guess this is my last carriage ride,” and the prisoner, recognizing some of the spectators, held out his manacled hands to give a last handshake in bidding eternal farewell.

When he arrived at San Quentin and was placed on Murderer’s Row, he found he knew his neighbor, Marshall Miller, who had killed a man during a robbery in Marysville. Miller had formerly been a miner in Prescott, Arizona, and Thompson had worked for him as a teamster.

Encouraged by the close split decision, Thompson’s attorneys filed an appeal on March 26th. The Salvation Army, probably at the urging of his father, contributed to his defense and wrote letters to the governor urging clemency. On May 10th, a stay of execution was granted, pending the appeal. On November 30th, the court declared the conviction invalid due to a technicality. Thompson had been charged with “boarding a train with intent to wreck and rob it.” The appeal said that the train had already been wrecked before he boarded it. Therefore he could not be convicted of boarding it to wreck it. The Supreme Court ordered a retrial.

The Kid was transferred back to Los Angeles County Jail as the state attempted to locate their witnesses again. Two were no longer alive, and several others had left the area and could not be found, including Etzler, the state’s prime witness. The Supreme Court decision had not clarified the law, and had even muddied it further, making it less likely to be able to obtain a conviction. The prosecution and the defense worked out a plea deal in which the state would drop the train-robbing charges if Thompson would plead guilty to murder of the fireman Arthur Masters. In return, the state would ask for a ten-year sentence. But when they appeared in court to announce this deal, Thompson backed out, denying that he had anything to do with the fireman’s death. Thompson’s attorneys resigned in disgust. Thompson’s family hired two new attorneys.

After a two-month-long search, the authorities finally located Charles Etzler in Yuma. He agreed to again testify against Thompson. The prosecution also subpoenaed two prisoners from San Quentin to testify that Thompson had told them he had lied during his trial. They also called back Alva Johnson and “Colonel” Tupper.

The third trial began April 14, 1897, two and a half years since the first robbery. Alva Johnson was called and he flatly refused to testify. Most thought he feared retribution by other prisoners if he “ratted” his former partner. Just as in the first trial Etzler told his story and the trainmen described the robberies. On the second day of the trial, Alva Johnson was brought back in, and this time he agreed to testify. He described how he and Thompson had planned and carried out the robberies. When asked the critical question, “Who threw the switch and derailed the train?” he replied, “Well, I suppose Thompson must have done it. There was no one else around.”

When the defense opened, they called Kid Thompson to the stand. He denied any knowledge or involvement in the two robberies. “Before my God, I am innocent of this crime,” he said at one time, and then again he declared: “I am innocent of this crime, and if they hang me for it they can.”

On April 16th, a jail trustee named Kramer leaned casually against Thompson’s cell. Jailer P. J. Kennedy noticed this and quickly separated the men. He searched Kramer and found a loaded revolver. Kramer said that Colonel Tupper had given it to him to pass to Thompson and implicated several people in the plot. The plan was for Thompson to kill the jailers and escape to the street, where Tupper would be waiting for him with a wagon. Tupper’s attorney claimed that the entire story had been fabricated by Jailer Kennedy to discredit Tupper’s testimony. Officers were sent out to arrest of the implicated individuals.

Kid Thompson mugshot from Folsom Prison records

On April 19th, the trial concluded and the jury again found Thompson guilty. Thompson seemed stunned at the news and broke out in an angry and profane tirade against the Southern Pacific detectives whom he accused of framing him. When he was restrained, he said to the jury huskily: “Well, you have done wrong, gentlemen; I am innocent.” He was sentenced to life in prison. Within fifteen minutes he was on his way to Folsom. Tupper’s trial for attempting to break Thompson out of jail began the same day. In July he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

Three years later, on July 19, 1900, Alva Johnson and B. F. Healey, another inmate on murderer’s row, carried out a well-planned and organized attempt to break out of San Quentin. They managed to get over the walls and were running away when they were spotted by guards, who opened fire with their shotguns. Healey was hit and went down. Johnson was not struck and made a run for a gap in the hill near the waterworks. The two shots roused the other guards in the prison and two minutes later a squad of eighty men were in hot pursuit. Johnson was brought to bay by Guard Randalph and gave up without a struggle.

Two years later in July 1902, Kid Thompson was one of six convicts at Folsom involved in another prison break. The guards overpowered them and the six were placed in solitary confinement. The Kid took part in four more unsuccessful attempts to break out in July 1903, June 1904, December 1904, and December 1905.

In October 1907, after serving eleven years, Alva Johnson was released on parole. There was considerable public objection to his release.

San Francisco Call, July 20, 1900

In 1909, Kid Thompson also was paroled. The parole board called him “a model prisoner,” an odd statement about a convicted murderer who had attempted to break prison five times. Within months, he had broken his parole and went to Canada, then to Chile. In 1915, he left Chile on a Russian barkentine, the Marguerite, bound for Europe. World War I had just started, and his ship was captured and sunk in the South Pacific by the German raider Leipzic. Thompson was picked up with the survivors and taken to a German prisoner-of-war camp. When released, he was shipped to San Francisco, where he was put ashore. He was recognized by a sheriff’s deputy and arrested for failing to report to his parole officer. He said he could not report since he had been in a German prison camp. He was sent back to prison, but must have been paroled again because in 1920 he was telling his war experiences to his probation officer.

The last record of the notorious Kid Thompson was in 1921. His parole officers found him wandering, homeless, confused, and ill. He was then fifty years old and his mind and health were wrecked. The officers sent him to the hospital at San Quentin, where he was treated for three months and then released.



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Anne T. Kent California Room

Anne T. Kent California Room


The official Medium account of the archive of Marin County history & culture at the Marin County Free Library