Those familiar with Folsom Prison are obviously aware of some wardens that worked there through the years and most likely big events that happened at the prison under certain wardens such as sporting events, music or even escape attempts. This week, I will introduce you to William H. Reilly, his family, and some of the events and prison changes that took place during Reilly’s tenure from 1908 to 1912.
When Warden William H. Reilly came to Folsom at the end of 1907, he brought with him his wife May and their children William Jr., Phyllis, Margaret, Thomas, and Vivian. Reilly had been a sheriff and farmer in Ventura when he was selected by Folsom Prison’s board to take Warden Archibald Yell’s place and started his term in 1908. There was not a separate house for the Warden at this time so Reilly and his family lived on the third floor of one of the prison buildings, taking residence on one half of it while the other half was used for prison official rooms. The Reilly children were not allowed to go on the two floors below unattended because of the prisoners, but Margaret Reilly later said that she and her siblings had found a hole in the floor and would take turns peeping down at the prisoners below. Inmates were also used on the third floor for housework and those who were known for good behavior were allowed into the Reilly residence to clean for the family.
Almost as soon as Warden Reilly and his family moved to the prison, it was obvious that his large family could not stay inside an actual prison building and the prison board approved plans for a large 16 room granite home right outside the main gates of the prison. Construction began late in 1908 and continued into 1909 before it was completed, this house was used for later wardens and their families for years to come. The children attended school in a special carriage that came to the Warden’s house and brought them to Granite Grammar School in town.
Once he arrived at the prison, Reilly stated to residents of Folsom and the prison board that he would not make sweeping changes at first and would instead watch and see who did their job well instead of firing those left over from the old Warden despite a warning from Governor James Gillet to surround himself with trusted subordinates. However, Reilly did fire the man in charge of the prison farm almost immediately and replaced him with his own brother Edward Reilly who had experience farming in Watsonville. Warden Reilly also began much needed improvements on some of the older buildings and hired his father-in-law; Thomas Beck, to oversee the building of a prison asylum which everyone in town dubbed the “bug house” so the criminally insane could be separated from the general population. Beck had previously served as a California State Senator in the 1870s and California’s Secretary of State until 1880. As the asylum began work, Reilly also began security improvements by adding on to the walls of the prison using granite from the prison quarry and struck a deal with the railroad to trade them granite for a locomotive for hauling so the prison could outright own a locomotive instead of wasting money on renting one.
By late 1908, Reilly began a new “class” policy for inmates by separating them into three different groups based on behavior. All inmates regardless of their crime were placed in the “middle” group and could move either up or down dependent on behavior and the three groups were separated from each other, rotating when they could be in the yard, at the dining hall, etc. which was viewed positively by the prison board.
While Warden Reilly was concerned with updating the prison policies and structures, his family was adjusting to their new way of life. His children especially enjoyed living at the prison because it was their own playground after the inmates were called inside for the day. They would walk the gardens kept by Chinese inmates, and play in the quarry, using large sacks as sleds to slide down into it and recalled that they enjoyed the free food because it was always cooked by the best chefs in Folsom. Mrs. Reilly hosted several parties once the Warden’s house was finished which included large birthday parties for her children, holiday events for the local children and dinners for the prison guards and their families.
For most of his short career as Folsom Prison’s Warden, William Reilly was well liked by staff and the town in general, but in 1912 the prison board worked to get him dismissed from his position citing incompetency in disciplining subordinates in conjunction with the shooting of some prisoners and claims of cruelty towards inmates. At first, Reilly tried to fight the dismissal but was going to be taken to trial so agreed to resign to avoid publicity.
The Reilly family moved out of the Warden’s House on June 1st, 1912 and went to San Francisco where William Reilly was hired as a prison guard and May Reilly worked as a stenographer. After leaving Folsom, Reilly’s health took a turn for the worse and his daughter Margaret said that he was consistently ill until his death in 1920.
The Reilly children remained close for the rest of their lives. Margaret married her brother Tom’s business partner and the three of them moved to Alaska where they ran a frozen shrimp cannery. Phyllis married Gail Apperson who was Marin County’s treasurer and founder of the Marin County Credit Association, William Jr. worked as an electrician in the bay area and Vivian married Frank Burns and the couple made their home in Ross, California near Phyllis and her family.