What follows is the text of an article which appeared in San Francisco’s The Call newspaper, March 10, 1898.
Outside of California residents, most of the rest of the world was to first hear the name Folsom Prison in the 1955 hit song “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. In 1968, Johnny Cash performed live at the prison to the delight of inmates and jailers.
BOGUS MONEY IS MADE RIGHT IN FOLSOM PRISON
Guards Surprise Convicts Busily Engaged in Coining Nickels in the Engine-Room.
SACRAMENTO, March 10.
A counterfeiter’s layout has been discovered at Folsom within the State prison walls, the last spot on earth where one would look for the illegal minting of Uncle Sam’s coin. If there is a place in the broad universe where neither the opportunity nor demand of money arises it is within the walls of the State prison; at least such is the general impression of people who are without experience with criminals. To those who have had dealings with me sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for the commission of crime it is known that there is no passion or desire stronger than the predilection of a prisoner to carry upon his person some small amount of money. On the part of many it becomes a mania, and they will resort to all sorts of devices and any kind of a subterfuge to withhold a few pieces of coin from the Warden upon entering the prison. Secretary Smith, in speaking of this peculiarity on the part of prisoners, once said to The Call correspondent:
“You would be surprised to know what difficulty we have in securing money from the prisoners who are brought here. No second termer ever comes without an endeavor to conceal upon his person some bit of money. I have known them to have five-dollar pieces covered with cloth and sewed upon their vests as buttons. They conceal money in their hair and in their ears, and we are not always successful in obtaining possession of it. Not long ago I brought $75 worth of books for our library with money found around the prison grounds — money that had been hidden by convicts or carried in, notwithstanding the precaution we take to relieve all the prisoners of every cent they have upon their person when entering for registration .”
But while it may not be astonishing to find this overwhelming desire on the part of convicts to conceal their spare change, there is probably no prison in the United States where the criminals successfully operated and circulated bogus coin, manufactured within the prison walls under the very eyes of the officers. For some time past Officer Charles Jally. whose station is at the rock crushing plant, has had his suspicions aroused by the peculiar conduct of some at the prisoners under his control At first he thought these whisperings and signals were carried on in the planning of some scheme to smuggle in opium. This is a very common matter at the prison, and only last week Guard Lamphry burned ten pounds of the drug which had been surreptitiously brought within the confines. After three or four days of watching Jally informed Superintendent Taylor, and both became convinced that some deeper plot was being laid, and they became more determined than ever to ascertain the cause of so much suppressed excitement among the convicts.
Yesterday they were rewarded. Some time during the morning Jally informed Taylor that there was something wrong in the engine room. Taylor gathered about him Guards Jally and Silak. and the three made a rush for the engine room. Convicts Cayne(sic) and Brown were encountered, and as the officers rushed in both convicts leaped through a window in the engine room and ran to the tank of the canal, which was within a short distance of the engine house. One of the guards followed them, while the others proceeded to Inspect the engine room.
As the convicts reached the edge of the canal there was a splash of muddy water. The crucible and dies they had used were forever beyond the possession of those in pursuit. The quick sands and murky waters of the American River were safe custodians of their guilt.
There were other evidences, however, and they consisted of a pile of nickels which were captured by the guard who entered the engine room. These nickels were splendid specimens of workmanship. The material out of which they were made consisted of babbiting, which is a white soft metal which forms the inside rim of the axle box found on a locomotive. This substance was taken from the engine which runs through the prison grounds and hauls the trains of crushed rock which are shipped from the prison rock crusher.
The nickels are seemingly as perfect and complete as any ever made by Uncle Sam. Many of them have been given circulation and The Call correspondent found no difficulty in procuring one of them in the town of Folsom.
How the dies and crucibles were ever made will perhaps remain a mystery. Plaster of parts molds were used, and in the engine room were found many fragments of this material.
Captain Murphy was rather reticent when asked about the affair.
“It amounts to nothing,” the captain said, “and if it did I would not talk about it in the absence of the warden. I do not deem it to be best for the prison discipline to take such matters up and give them undue publicity in the papers.”
When shown one of the spurious coins the captain admitted that he had seen them, but beyond the admission he preferred to say nothing.
It is not supposed that Cayne and Brown are the prisoners who made the molds, but as there are several counterfeiters doing time in Folsom, it is probable that the devices used were made by some of them, and the coining of the counterfeit left to Cayne and Brown.
A very extensive traffic has for a long time been going on among the prisoners, and the officers have been at a loss to know where the convicts obtained the money which had been so freely circulated. The cigarette paper among the convicts is a very choice article, and they will give almost anything: to obtain a package of it. On the other hand, there has been a great quantity of opium smuggled in lately, and there is no doubt that these coins ; were being made for the purpose of paying those who sent it in from the outside, as well as exchanging them for cigarette papers.
It is a matter of some regret that the entire layout was not captured, as it no doubt would have given the officers some clew (sic) as to the means employed in obtaining it. Some of the officers think that the dies were smuggled in from the outside, while others hold that the entire apparatus was made within the prison walls. As there are many tools and furnaces available around the quarries, it is very probable that the latter theory is the correct one.
The ladle used appeared similar to those used around assaying establishments, while the crucible was crude in form, and appeared as though it had been melted into shape from railroad couplings.
There are many cars arriving every day in the yard, and it is from these that the prisoners are supplied with opium from the outside. The most wonderful devices are employed in this prohibited traffic. Opium has been found in the axle boxes of the cars, or fastened to the inside of a brake beam; in fact there is no place about a flat car that has not been used in concealing the drug.
The impression prevails among the officers that it was the intention of the convicts to coin a great quantity of nickels and then ship them out on the freight cars, where their friends on the outside could receive them in exchange for opium.
It is probable that nothing but nickels were attempted to be made for the reason that the convicts could not obtain the metal necessary to manufacture silver coins.
An 1898 Liberty “V” Nickel