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Territorial Prison adds digital exhibit of 'prisoners of conscience'
History is now available with the simple touch of a finger at Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park.
Those who visit the Yuma icon now have access to an interactive digital exhibit detailing the lives of nine “prisoners of conscience” who were incarcerated at the facility in the 1880s. The touchscreen display, found inside the park's museum, was designed and programmed by Brett Frame.
The exhibit briefly chronicles the lives of nine men who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints convicted of polygamy during the 1880s.
“They were such unusual prisoners,” said Charles Flynn, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which manages the Yuma Territorial Prison.
“They weren't the usual murderers and cutthroats that normally were here. There was an odd combination of prisoners here, and we just think that adds a real Yuma element to the story.”
The nine men were Edmund Lovell Edward, William Jordan Flake, Hyrum Smith Phelps, Charles Innes Robson, James Neils Skousen, Alma Platte Spilsbury, Oscar Marion Stewart, George Thomas Wilson and James Thomas Wilson.
Historian David Boone, an associate professor with the church history department of Brigham Young University, performed the research needed to create the exhibit.
“With something as potentially controversial as this topic, we wanted to have solid research,” Flynn said. “About a year ago, we discovered that Professor Boone ... had been working on this and was actually developing a full manuscript. He shared that with us. Then our challenge was to boil that down from 300 pages to nine pages.”
According to Boone, in 1882 Sen. George F. Edmunds of Vermont renewed prosecution efforts against Mormon polygamists with the enactment of the Edmunds Act. The law made “unlawful cohabitation” a felony, which removed the need to prove multiple marriages had occurred.
Because of the new law, more than 1,300 men were imprisoned, including the nine who served time in Yuma.
“These were not your typical run-of-the-mill inmates in the Yuma Territorial Prison,” Boone said. “They were interested in reform. They were trying to make it better and they weren't treated like the typical inmate.”
The eldest of the nine, Skousen, was trusted enough to leave the prison without guard to supervise the prison warden's young sons as they fished in the nearby river. He was a prisoner in Yuma from December 1884 to July 1885.
The guards “would go pack a lunch for them, and they would stay out all day,” Boone said. Skousen “knew what time he had to be back, and they'd go spend the day out (fishing). That was a great relief for the parents.”
Robson, who was imprisoned in Yuma from April to July 1885, had actually been warden of the penitentiary in Salt Lake City in the early 1870s.
He was placed in charge of the prison's inefficient kitchen, “and within days he had it turned around,” Boone said, adding that before Robson's arrival, “they were emptying wheelbarrows of leftovers and spoiled food into the river each day.”
Flake, who had helped found Snowflake, Ariz., was warned he would be arrested for polygamy in 1884 but refused to flee to Mexico as some of his compatriots had done. Instead he invited Marshal Donovan, the man who would arrest him, “into his home and fed him dinner, introducing him to his two wives, Lucy and Prudence,” according to Boone.
He was then taken to Prescott. During his trial, he refused to recognize the validity of the law, calling it a “mockery, a travesty on justice.”
He was sentenced to six months in prison for polygamy but was trusted enough to turn himself in at Yuma without an escort. He did so on Dec. 10, 1884, and remained there until June 5, 1885.
When Flake was released, he said he would not give up either of his wives because the courts could not prosecute him for the same crime twice. His wives gave birth to 20 of his children during his lifetime.
Flake went on to become a prosperous businessman and died at the age of 93 in August 1932. His many descendants include Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake - and Boone, who gathered the research for the exhibit at the park.
The digital exhibit “is a legacy,” Boone said.
Boone is compiling his complete research about the nine “prisoners of conscience” into a book that will be sold at the Yuma Territorial Prison gift shop in the near future.
The park is located at 1 Prison Hill Road. For more information about the new digital exhibit or about the hours of operation, call 783-4771.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.