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Escaping the Hell Hole
Yuma Territorial Prison is scheduled to be closed by the state March 29 unless funds can be raised locally to keep it open. This story is one in a series of stories about the prison and its role in Yuma's history.
For the inmates who were doing hard time at the Yuma Territorial Prison, the only thing on many of their minds was escape, but not many succeeded.
Of the 3,069 prisoners held at the prison during its 33 years of use, only 26 escaped successfully. Eight others died attempting escape.
"I am sure if you are incarcerated for a long time and you are bored, you will begin to plot your way out, because you want out," said Tina Clark, historian and archaeologist for the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.
"They were laying in their bunks with nothing much to do and were probably focused on ways to gain their freedom because they didn't have it."
Clark said compared to convicts in modern detention facilities, the prisoners at the Territorial Prison had it rough.
"The prisoners called it the 'Hell Hole.' They knew they were in an isolated condition. The cells were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. It was a very remote spot because of the grand Sonoran Desert."
Clark said the prisoners who had committed lesser crimes probably didn't like being stuck with rapists and thugs.
"They probably grew tired of their roommates because they were murderers and desperados. Toward the end, there were six men to each cell and there was only one (latrine) bucket that was emptied once a day. That is a stinky mess, and if you had a mean guard, your life could be hell. Those are the people who wanted to escape."
One of these prisoners wanted nothing more than his freedom and unsuccessfully tried to escape at least three times.
Charles Govero was 24 years old when he was admitted to the prison on June 15, 1890, after being convicted of assault to commit murder. His first escape attempt was on May 15, 1891, and he was recaptured the next day near Gila Bend.
Govero's second attempt was in May 1892. This time he was able to stay free for about two weeks before being recaptured in Tacna.
According to prison records, his third attempt to escape involved his unlocking the door of the main corridor and placing a ladder against a wall with the intention of scaling it. He was discovered by a guard named Flyn and was returned to his cell. He was punished by being forced to wear a ball and chain for 90 days.
Govero was later pardoned by Gov. L.C. Hughes on July 11, 1894, and was discharged that same day.
Clark said it was hard for prisoners to get out of Arizona once they made their escape.
"If you tried to head to California or Mexico, you would be in the desert on your own with no access to water. The reason many of the escaped prisoners were captured was because the Quechan tribal men, who were native to this area, would track them down quickly. The guards didn't go and jump on horseback to find the prisoners, but the tribal men would go out to find them."
Henry Ferguson, 23, had much better luck than Govero in his bid for freedom.
He was sentenced to five years for second-degree burglary and was admitted on Dec. 21, 1894. The next summer he spent one day in solitary for fighting, and then another 17 days for smuggling a file into the solitary cell in an attempt to escape.
According to the Superintendent's Report published in the Arizona Sentinel in 1895, "On the night of (Aug. 25) Frank Amer No. 1024 and Henry Ferguson No. 1028, who were confined in the solitary cell, attempted to escape. They filed thru the iron cage, and by removing sufficient rock and mortar to admit their passing into the tunnel...
"(They) escaped into the yard, where they concealed themselves under the stone shed ... with a coil of rope and a three-pronged grappling hook ... at the break of day they were discovered and returned to solitary."
Ferguson didn't lose hope. On April 30, 1896, he finally made his escape, and was never returned to the prison.
ESCAPEE INFORMATION (incomplete list)
• J. Lewis, 1878
• William Leary, 1879
• Theodore Brown, 1879
• John C. Shard, 1883
• Jesus Cordova, 1883
• Manuel Barrios, 1885
• J.N. Walker, 1889
• William Morrell, 1890
• Manuel Baca, 1895
• Catena Vasquez, 1895
• Henry Ferguson, 1896
• J. Dace, 1896
• John Kelly, 1898
Recaptured after escape:
• M.L. Wilcox
• Albino Villa
• Ed Reyes
• Charles Govero
• William Morrell
• Frank Forrest
• Zack Booth
• Thomas Cameron
• Frank Arrie
• Juan Tenorio
• W.A. Ellis
Killed while attempting escape:
• Ezequiel Bustamente, shot to death