Yuma Territorial Prison

The Gates Massacre

Yuma, AZ

February 17, 2005

 October 27, 1887, started out as a normal day with Superintendent Tom Gates making his rounds in the yard. Jose Lopez walked up to him and engaged him in conversation about job assignments. This was of no particular concern to the Superintendent  even though both knew work assignments were handled at the Assistant Superintendents level. This instantly changed when Lopez pulled a knife, and pressing it to Gates chest, instructed him to walk toward the sallyport.  Gates later reported that he was still not overly alarmed as he and Lopez approached the sallyport gate on the North side.  It was here that 3 other inmates working nearby suddenly dropped what they were doing and quickly surrounded Gates, each dangerously armed with a homemade knife. Now surrounded by Lopez, Esequeial Bustamente, Fernada Vasquez and Librado Pueblo, Gates knew he was in serious trouble. Pueblo, who appeared to be the recognized leader, ordered  Gates to lead them to the banks of the Gila River east of the Prison. The five of them moved to the sallyport and ordered the gatekeeper, a convict trustee, to open the gate. Everyone in the yard now knew what was happening.  Once outside the group proceeded to the Superintendent's office to acquire guns. Three other convicts took advantage of the open gate and made a dash for it. With the tower guards now alerted, their run would be short and painful. as rifle fire came raining down on them.  Pueblo had tied one of Gates' hands but before he could tie the other hand, Gates, realizing what was going to happen, said "Come on" and began walking toward his office.  This quick thinking would later save his life. Halfway to the office Lopez and Vasquez ran on ahead, entered the Superintendent's office and broke into Gates' desk, grabbing his pistol. They then started back across the yard. Gates realized that his best chance to survive was now. He called to Guard B. F. Hartlee, on the main tower guard post and ordered him to open fire.  Hartlee hesitated, asking if he was to fire, and Gates, in his usual calm manner shouted back "Fire away, Frank".  The events of the next few seconds are the basic for the legend of the "Gates Massacre". Hartlee's first shot went wild, as he ran toward the northwest corner of the main stand.  This gave Lopez time to run up to Superintendent Gates and shove a pistol in his face. Superintendent Gates struck out with his free  hand and knocked the pistol aside, discharging it.  The stray bullet struck Pueblo in the arm. Pueblo had not recovered from the shot when Secretary Hale ran up and struck Pueblo in the head with his revolver. Although stunned, Pueblo still held onto Gates.  Hale had no opportunity to continue his attack as Lopez raised his pistol.  Hale and Lopez exchanged shots with both missing.  At this point Hale ran for cover and Lopez gave chase. His pursuit ended when Hartlee finally found his range and shot Lopez.  Although Lopez went down he came right back up and turned on Hartlee only to be shot again by the guard.  Hale then joined in and shot Lopez in the arm. Bustamente, realizing that the escape had been foiled, turned on Superintendent Gates with a hatred built by years of confinement and the frustration of failure. In  one massive swing he slashed out with his knife, narrowingly missing the Superintendent's head.  It was to be his last act of defiance as Hartlee's rifle found its mark again and Bustamente staggered off toward the north wall sallyport, to contemplate his last few seconds on earth. Fernada Vasquez, had remained by his partner, Librado Pueblo who was still holding onto Superintendent Gates arm. He was not prepared for the viciousness of the action that surrounded him, and as such was off guard when Hartlee put a bullet through him, killing him instantly. Now there were only two who remained standing, the original ringleader Librado Pueblo,  and Superintendent Gates.  Pueblo, armed only with a large butcher knife, kept the Superintendent between himself and Hartlee, preventing a clean shot.  Superintendent Gates began resisting the hold Pueblo had on his arm.  As they struggled in the front yard, Pueblo drove the knife into Gates neck  It would be his last vicious act. As the two fought in the middle of the front yard, a trusted convict by the name of Barney Riggs, who was doing life in prison, ran over and grabbed a pistol from the ground.  Before Hartlee could do anything, Riggs surprised both men by shooting Pueblo dead.  It is believed that Superintendent Gates treated Riggs fairly in an earlier encounter, and Riggs had returned the favor.  Thus ended the great Gates Massacre.   The wound in Superintendent's neck was so severe that when the Superintendent tried to breath, the air passed out his neck instead of his mouth. He  survived his injuries solely because of the advanced medical facility on the prison grounds. Superintendent Gates resigned to recover from his injuries.  Guard B. F. Hartlee was promoted to assistant Superintendent.  For his courageous act, Barney Riggs was pardoned,  He would move to Texas, marry and be shot to death, but that is another story  Although Superintendent Gates recovered physically from the wound in his neck, the constant pain which he could not escape finally overcame him.  He shot himself in the head with his 45 cal. revolver.

As the west was being settled in the early 1800s, two obstacles loomed larger then the rest.  First and foremost was the Rocky Mountains.  For those with less stamina, there was the long way around.  This took them south through the Arizona territory to southern California.  The obstacle here was the mighty Colorado River.  Not the trickle that exists today, but a raging torrent  cascading down from the Rockies.  Obviously a bridge needed to be built. to extend the Santa Fe trail into California.  This Bridge was built at the south western tip of Arizona at Yuma.  That started it all,  The town grew and with it came recognition, and in 1876 the Yuma Territorial Prison was built.   As we entered the prison's walls, we passed though the gift shop, paid our dues, and stepped out into the front yard of the Prison.  A decorative board walk had been created which led to a somewhat comic graveyard.  I paused for a few seconds at the Sheriff's office to consider the "Help Wanted" sign.  Naah, I settled for a snapshot instead.  We stopped to read the funny gravestones that were standing at the end of the boardwalk, then on to the prison itself.
The Prison Superintendent was an appointed position often given as a political favor.  The pay was a substantial sum for the time, $250 per month plus a residence.  A cozy house was built in 1883 on the northwest corner, surrounded by a lawn and white picket fence.  In a frontier town, furniture and home improvement materials were not easily purchased in Yuma.  Any improvements desired by a Superintendent were done with inmate labor in prison shops. This provided an opportunity for training prisoners in new skills. It included landscaping, making of furniture, and remodeling. The main cellblock was built to house up to 204 prisoners, but at times the Superintendent's report stated that up to 240 prisoners were kept here.  Each cell was approximately 9 by 12 foot and could hold 6 prisoners. When space became limited, the more trusted prisoners would sleep in the hallways.  Cells were constructed of  strap iron and granite rock, which was plastered and whitewashed. The iron was shipped in from California via steamboat, but the granite was quarried by prisoners on site.  Originally, the cellblock was completely enclosed and not exposed to the elements as it appears today. One of the earliest electrical generating plants in the West furnished power for lights and a ventilation system in the cellblock. In 1902, a hospital was constructed on top of the main cellblock.  This well supplied facility contained a dispensary, a doctor's office, operating room, attendants' room, bathroom with flushing toilets, and a consumption ward.  It wasn't uncommon for prisoners from other institutions to be sent to the Territorial prison at Yuma to recuperate their health.  As an inmate, forty-eight hours a week were spent working in the fields, quarry, adobe yard, or on assignments in a shop.  Whether you needed a tin cup or a new mattress, designed silver spurs or carved wooden table legs, here was a shop equipped for producing the item.  There were two shop buildings inside the prison, both are gone now.  Each had several workshops, all different.  Out of the tailor and shoe shop came garments to wear.  A bakery oven yielded breads and desserts.  The rehabilitation program of that time consisted of the more knowledgeable teaching those who wanted to learn.  After hours, inmates were allowed to produce crafts which were sold or traded at a monthly craft fair open to the public.  A share of the profit was saved and given to the inmate when he left the prison. After the prison was finally closed September 15, 1909, the facilities had several interesting uses.  Five of the areas including the hospital were utilized for the Yuma High School from 1910 to 1914.  Today the Yuma High School's athletic team are still called the Yuma Criminals or "Crims"  The empty cells provided free lodging for hobos riding the freights in the 1920s and sheltered many homeless families during the Depression.  I have found that I am most interested when I am standing on the vary ground where a great incident occurred, and this was definitely such a place.  It was a great day.

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