I was “advised by the officer and a lawyer . . . to ‘plead guilty and git [sic] a light sentence’, and in my ignorance and bewilderment I did so, but in the light of later years I see the error of such a plea.” Augustin Castro, San Quentin, 18991
Augustin Castro had been accused of killing Matthew Alderson on April 5, 1872, in the Challenge Saloon on 5th and Columbia in San Diego. Castro’s misfortune, as suggested in the quote above, happened to be his belief that the judge would indeed give a “light sentence.” He was wrong. During the nineteenth century indigents charged with murder, most of whom knew virtually nothing about law, faced the paralyzing dilemma of either pleading guilty in the hope that by thus speeding up the criminal justice process and saving taxpayers’ money they would be given a light sentence; or to insist on their innocence with the strong chance that they would ultimately suffer the maximum punishment for the alleged crime. Augustin Castro, one such impoverished defendant, illustrates this dilemma. Unfortunately, his trusting acceptance of the advice of legal counsel resulted in many years in prison rather than the lighter sentence he may have expected. Nevertheless, many observers might suggest that Castro only had himself to blame for such a perplexing predicament. After an afternoon of drinking wine and in a drunken stupor Castro allegedly killed Matthew Alderson, the owner of the Challenge Saloon in San Diego. What happened to Castro in the summer of 1872 was repeated over and over again by other indigent defendants throughout California, regardless of racial background.
Some homicides more than others, such as the Augustin Castro case, provide illumination of the criminal justice process and the treatment of indigent ethnic defendants. On Friday night, April 5, 1872, a group of people gathered in Matthew Alderson’s Challenge Saloon at 5th and Columbia streets in San Diego to drink and listen to music being played by the proprietor and two other men. It was about 9 p.m. and W. B. Carleton stated that he noticed a “Spaniard or Sonoran” who appeared to be under the influence enter the saloon. The man began drinking at the bar, talked loudly, and called for more wine. The bartender refused.2 Finally, the bartender put him out of the bar, but he came back in again. He began to display a knife with the tip of the blade broken off and Alderson asked him to put it down and leave. After walking out the door, the Mexican asked for his knife and Alderson picked it up off the table and stepped out the door. A few moments later, Carleton heard a shot, rushed out the door, but was unable to see anyone because it was so dark and there were no street lights.3 He began to grope on the porch and found Alderson lying in a pool of blood, shot one time in the head at very close range. Dr. R. J. Gregg, the examining surgeon, found one wound with the bullet lodged in the base of the brain. The appearance of the wound and the “powder marks” indicated the assailant was very close to the victim.4 Although Carleton did not actually see the shooting, he claimed, “I think that Mexican did it.”5 During the coroner’s inquest, J. Mathias, the bartender, identified the man that he put out the door as the defendant Augustin Castro.6
Ben Mannasse had been in Alderson’s saloon for a while that evening and then returned to his home across the street from the Challenge Saloon. He heard Alderson and Castro talking outside and when he looked out of the window, Mannasse saw them both standing in front of the saloon. A few moments later Mannasse heard one shot fired and saw a flash from the gun.7 He then heard someone running down the street toward the Government Corral, but did not see who it was because of the darkness. H. Baslow testified that he was standing in front of a market across from the saloon when he saw two men come out, a shot was fired, and a man ran across the street toward the corral. He heard the man running say “God damn you, I’ve shot you.”8 Constable A. M. Young, the first law enforcement officer to reach the crime scene, borrowed a pistol from one of the bar patrons and then with their help began to search the area for the assailant. Constable Young walked over to the corral, followed the fence, and discovered Augustin Castro about 200 feet from the crime scene. Later, Young testified that Castro “was preparing to shoot me when I rushed upon him.”9
On the surface this appears to be an open and shut case. At the trial, Sheriff S. W. Craigue testified that although Young found Castro first, “I went up to him; he was laying alongside of the fence in what I considered at the time, and do now, a drunken stupor; stupidly drunk.”10 Contrary to what Constable Young said, the sheriff noted that Castro did not have a gun in his hand and he was not about to “shoot or rush” at him. Sheriff Craigue continued “what convinces me that he was unconscious is that it was an hour after the occurrence, [of the shooting] and it being a very dark night he would have escaped, I think, if he had been in his senses.” When Castro woke up the next morning in his cell, the jailor informed the sheriff that the defendant had no idea where he was or why he was there. The sheriff concluded “I consider from what I saw and learned, that night was a blank to him.”11
On April 25, when the defendant was taken before Justice of the Peace Henry C. Skinner, Castro waived examination and the justice ordered the prisoner held in jail to await grand jury action.12 On July 11, Castro, with court-appointed attorney Chalmers Scott, appeared before District Court Judge H. C. Rolfe. Castro with advice of counsel pled guilty to murder.13 The judge then ordered the defendant sworn and examined. Castro, a twenty-three-year-old Hispanic, testified that he had been born in San Francisco and had lived most of his life in Santa Cruz. He had arrived in San Diego County about a month before the killing and had been employed herding and shearing sheep and had come to town on the day of the crime. Castro admitted drinking wine most of the afternoon and said: “I don’t know where I went to this day, until I was locked up in jail.” The defendant also claimed he neither knew Alderson nor saw him the day of the killing. Castro stated: “I don’t remember of being in the saloon that night.”14 He admitted that he seldom drank wine until that Friday. After hearing the testimony of Castro and Sheriff Craigue, Judge Rolfe found the defendant guilty of second degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
The evidence that Castro committed the killing is convincing even though no one actually saw him shoot the victim. Machismo may have been an important factor that helps to explain this murder. It is possible that after being put out of the bar Castro viewed these actions as a challenge to his manhood. And being heavily under the influence of liquor his judgment might have been clouded, but probably not his feeling that a “gringo” had challenged him in front of many people. However, some of the facts cloud the verdict. For example, Constable Young testified that he found a Colt revolver in the possession of the defendant with “two chambers empty.”15 But why did the constable and the sheriff fail to examine the gun to determine whether it had been recently fired? And does “two chambers empty” mean that two shots had been fired? All witnesses testified that they heard only one shot. Maybe the constable meant that one chamber had been fired and another chamber had no cartridge in it. With single-action Colt revolvers, it was common to leave one chamber empty over which the hammer rests in order to prevent an accidental misfire. However, there is no way of knowing whether that is what the constable meant when he testified about the crime; he seemed to be suggesting that the gun had been fired twice.
Another mystery is the lack of any legal defense by counsel for the defendant. Typically during this era, indigent defendants received court appointed counsel-in this case Chalmers Scott.16 Considering that most of the evidence was circumstantial defense counsel might have gone to trial and fought for a reduced charge of manslaughter. Three things might explain why Scott did not take this approach in defense of his client. First, Alderson had become an influential member of the community and immediately after the crime had occurred some local citizens threatened to take the prisoner by force. Fearing lynch mob action Sheriff Craigue rushed with his prisoner down the street.17 The sheriff reached the jail safely and quickly locked Castro in a cell for safe keeping. Under these circumstances, it is possible that defense counsel felt that he would be unable to find an impartial, let alone sympathetic, jury for his client.
Two other explanations for this lack of defense also seem plausible. Chalmers Scott had recently arrived in San Diego and had very little experience in the practice of law. In fact he spent much of his life working as a surveyor rather than as a lawyer.18 With limited criminal law experience Scott may have felt that his defense efforts would fail. However, there appears to be a third explanation. Scott and District Attorney W. T. McNealy had worked together on the prosecution of the highly publicized Fenwick homicide case in which Scott had made the opening argument for the prosecution.19 It is significant that the Fenwick case finished in the courts just a few weeks before the Castro case came to trial. Scott, acting as Castro’s defense counsel, apparently recommended to his client that he plead guilty before District Court Judge H. C. Rolfe, probably with the stipulation by District Attorney McNealy that he would not seek conviction for first degree murder. Augustin Castro pled guilty and Judge Rolfe sentenced him to life in prison.
During the nineteenth century anyone wishing to gain a parole from San Quentin Prison had to establish reliable contacts with people on the outside who would be willing to write letters, circulate petitions, collect funds for lawyers’ fees, and, if possible, influence officials who might write to the governor on their behalf. Failure to gain such support would mean a long period of confinement in a dark, cramped, unsanitary, fetid cell in the Stones cell block waiting for news, hoping that his petition for release might gain favor from the governor.20 That is precisely what happed to Augustin Castro. During his incarceration several different governors ignored his pleas until finally Governor Henry T. Gage recommended his release in 1901.
Unfortunately, while serving a life sentence in San Quentin Castro had virtually no one to intercede on his behalf, but he learned from experience that if the prosecutor and judge who presided over your trial could be induced to write letters it was possible to gain executive clemency. After spending eighteen years in San Quentin, in 1890, Castro began to write letters to McNealy and Rolfe, the two men most responsible for sending him to prison. By this time both men were apparently convinced that Castro had served enough time for his crime. After receiving a letter from Rolfe, McNealy wrote back, “I agree with you, that this man [Castro] has been sufficiently punished.”21 In a letter to the governor providing facts about the Castro trial and asking for executive clemency, Rolfe claimed that “at the time I had doubts whether he was not more unfortunate than criminal.”22 Prison authorities finally paroled Castro on June 19, 1901, and the governor granted a full pardon in January 1903. Castro had entered San Quentin a young man of twenty-three; at age fifty-two he left the prison walls to start a new life.
The following documents from the San Diego History Center Research Archives and the California State Archives help to illuminate how the criminal justice system treated indigent ethnic defendants accused of murder. Although it could be a long difficult road and an arduous task for a friendless inmate; these documents do reveal that if one were convicted and sentenced to prison a process did exist to eventually provide for release and pardon.
In the matter of the inquisition upon the body of Matthew Alderson Deceased.
We, the undersigned, the jurors summoned to appear before John N. Young the Coroner of San Diego County, at Alderson’s Saloon, San Diego, on the Sixth day of April, 1872, to inquire into the cause of the death of Matthew Alderson, having been duly sworn according to law, and having made such inquisition, after inspecting the body, and hearing the testimony adduced, upon our oaths, each and all do say, that we find deceased was named Matthew Alderson, was a native of Yorkshire, England, aged about 48 years, that he came to his death on the 5th day of April, 1872, in this County, by a pistol shot from the hand of Augustin Castro.
All of which we duly certify by this inquisition, in writing by us signed, this Sixth day of April A.D. 1872.
|John N. Young, Coroner||W. J. McCormick, Foreman|
|William P. Henderson||John Fischer|
|A. W. Hathing||A. A. Cole|
|Le Vollers||N. F. Roehn|
|F. B. Seawell||M. G. Wheeler|
The People of the State of California,
In the County Court of the County of San Diego, at its May Term, A.D. Eighteen hundred and Seventy Two
The said Augustin Castro is accused by the Grand Jury of the County of San Diego, State of California, by this indictment, found this twenty-fifth day of May A.D. one thousand eight hundred and seventy two of the crime of Murder committed as follows: The said Augustin Castro on the twenty-fifth day [sic] of April A.D. eighteen hundred and seventy two at the County and State aforesaid,
Willfully, unlawfully, feloniously and of his malice aforethought in and upon one Matthew Alderson an assault did make and willfully, unlawfully, feloniously and of his malice and aforethought him the said Matthew Alderson did then and there shoot kill and murder.
Contrary to the form, force and effect of the Statute in such cases made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the people of the state of California.
W. F. McNealy, District Attorney
Names of Witnesses examined before the said Grand Jury, on finding the foregoing indictment:
Dr. Robert J. Gregg
W. B. Carlton
Statement of Defendant and Testimony of Sheriff Craigue.25
In District Court 18th Judicial District,
County of San Diego, State of California.
People of the State of California
vs. Augustin Castro
Augustin Castro being sworn says:
When I was locked up in jail, I inquired next morning what I was in there for. The Jailer was there at the time and he told me it was for killing a man. Then he told me the name of the man. I don’t know whether I done the deed or not, but the next morning I heard that I had done it. In the afternoon of that day when I came here I went down to the end of the wharf, and I got to drinking wine there in the afternoon and from that place I don’t know where I went to to this day, until I was locked up in jail and was told the next morning.
I never knew Mr. Alderson, never saw him and had no ill feeling against him, did not know him by sight, never saw him before, don’t remember of being in the saloon that night, had been drinking wine.
I do not know the place where this man was killed. It has never been appointed out to me, am not acquainted in San Diego at all, don’t know the places about here.
I am 23 years old. I was born in San Francisco. My business has been herding and shearing sheep. I have been in San Diego County about 1 month up to the time of killing it was my 2nd or 3rd time of being in the town. I have not been in the habit of drinking wine, once in a while I take a glass of wine when I am at work.
I was shearing sheep first for Mr. Stubels in this county, and I had been shearing sheep for Mr. Allison last. I had no men under me at all worked for ourselves.
I lived most of the time up in Santa Cruz, my relatives and friends are up there. I have uncles and cousins up there. I have a mother at Santa Cruz. I am a stranger mostly in this county. I have an uncle or two up at Pala. I have never been in jail before.
S. W. Craigue being sworn says:
I am Sheriff of this county. I first saw this man on the night of the killing of Mr. Alderson. I, in connection with Constable Young, arrested him.
I arrived on the ground in the vicinity of the murder about one half an hour after it occurred. It was a very dark night and I did not have the least idea I would find him, but we got lanterns and spread out in the country about there. Constable Young came upon him first in the old Government Corral.
I was about 50 feet from him when he found him on the other side of the fence. I went up to him, he was laying aside of the fence in what I considered at the time and I do now in a drunken stupor, stupidly drunk. It was less than 100 yards from the place where the killing took place and what convinces me that he was unconscious was that it was an hour after the occurrence and being a very dark night he would have escaped I think if he had his senses.
Young and myself arrested him and guarded him up to the jail and every indication was that he was beastly drunk.
In waking up in his cell the next morning after he was arrested, I was told by the jailer that he did not appear to know where he was. And also claimed to know nothing of what he had done and said he did not remember anything from the afternoon before about 5 o’clock and I consider from what I saw and learned that night was a blank to him. This place where I found him he had evidently got over the fence and fell and laid there.
Petition for Executive Clemency26
To His Excellency R. W. Waterman, Governor of the State of California:
This Petition for Executive clemency respectfully represents:
1. That Augustin Castro is 53 years of age, and was born in Mexico.27
2. That he was convicted of the crime of Murder 2nd Degree in the County of San Diego, on July 10th, 1872, before Judge Rolfe, and sentenced to imprisonment in the State Prison at San Quentin, for his natural life.
3. That by good behavior he has earned all the “credits” given by the statute.
4. That this is the first time he has been in prison, and that first appeal for Executive clemency, and that notice has been served on the District Attorney.
5. That especial consideration is claimed because:
The crime was committed while under the influence of drink.
6th He plead guilty, not causing the state and county any unnecessary expense.
7th Had he stood trial no jury would have found him guilty of more than manslaughter.
8th He was by state officials induced to plead guilty to the crime (Murder 2nd degree) the (officials) promising that the very lighter penalty only would be imposed (10 years).
9th Because in the natural course of events he has but little longer to live, having already suffered over 17 years imprisonment.
10th He solemnly pledges himself to abstain from the use of any intoxicants in the future and to become a worthy and law-abiding citizen.
Your petitioner therefore prays that Executive clemency will be granted.
Certificate of Conduct28
Turnkey’s Office, San Quentin Prison,
Marin County, CAL.
To Gen. John McComb, Warden,
State Prison at San Quentin, Cal.:
Sir: Inquiry from Gen. John McComb, Warden, about the Conduct of prisoner Augustin Castro # 5335 is herewith respectfully returned.
# 5335 Augustin Castro was committed July 25th 1872, from San Diego County, for Life, for Murder 2nd degree.
Castro has served up to date 17 years 7 months and 25 days solid time, which is equivalent to a sentence of 29 years 1 month and 13 days. During said long incarceration he was only once reported for punishment, this took place nearly 14 years ago, when a charge of “Inciting fellow prisoners to make a break” was placed against him and for which he was punished with 1 day dungeon and 12 lashes.
Since then his behavior has been exemplary, he is regarded a good prisoner, performing faithfully and cheerfully whatever task has been allotted to him.
B. Dougherty, Turnkey.
Pardon Board’s Ruling29
California State Prison
H. H. Markham, Sacramento
At a regular meeting of the Board State Prison Directors held at San Quentin January 16th 1892, a full Board being present.
The Case of Prisoner No. 5335 Augustin Castro convicted of Murder 2nd degree, San Diego County, July 10th 1872, and under sentence of Life imprisonment:
The Board after an investigation declined to recommend a Pardon giving as reasons, that in their judgment intoxication is no Excuse for crime, no sufficient cause being shown in the papers submitted to the Board, nothing appearing to establish a reasonable doubt of his guilt, or how it was committed but the mere fact that he was intoxicated.
J. V. Ellis, Clerk
Letter from Petitioner for Clemency30
Dec 10th 1898
Hon. H. C. Rolf, San Bernardino, Cal.
Believing sir that you are as true a friend as an unfortunate man ever had, and in view of the fact that you were the presiding judge in the case, and therefore fully cognizant of all attending circumstances I come to you again for the favor of your influence with the incoming administration — Gov. Gage, in my behalf confident as I am that your influence will prove to be the most important factor of all.
Enclosed herewith I send you a letter from the present administration. Although it offers but little encouragement I still will make an appeal to Governor Gage, and I ask that you will please write to him in my behalf to the District Attorney and Judge of San Diego. I myself have just written to the District Attorney there also a notice for publication in a newspaper in that county as required by law.
I am without money and without influential friends to help me, and must fight this battle single handed and alone except the help that you alone may make in my behalf.
Think of it, judge, it is now 26 years and five months since I entered these prison walls, 26 years out of life, out of the world, 26 years of gloom and meditation, and regret that one overt act has ruined and embittered all the years of a lifetime. I was young man the day you pronounced judgment, but now I am old and gray. At best there are but a few years left me and these I would like to spend out in the world. Surely judge, justice has been satisfied, and this mercy that I ask at the hands of my fellow man will never prove to be misplaced charity.
Hoping that you will spare me a few moments of kindly consideration, I am with due regard,
Your obedient servant
My prison record is a clean one.
Former Judge Horace Rolfe’s Letter31
ROLFE & ROLFE.
Henry T. Gage, Governor, Sacramento,
I enclose you herewith a letter which speaks for itself. You are in a better position to judge of the merits of the matter than I am.
In 1872 or 3 when I was District Judge I sentenced this man, Augustin Castro, to the state prison for life from San Diego for murder in the second degree. At the time I had doubts whether he was not more unfortunate than criminal. He was then a young man of good appearance, though a perfect stranger to me. And although giving him a life sentence, I though that if his behavior should be good and he and I both live, that in the course of twenty or twenty-five years I should probably favor executive clemency in his behalf. About twenty-six years have passed. I know not what his behavior has been. But if you find his character, disposition and behavior to have been such, since his imprisonment, or even before as to induce you in your judgment to give him a pardon, I assure you it will be a great satisfaction to me.
He seems to be without any influential friends. My recollection now is that he either proved a good character at the trial, or else, which is more probable, I made inquiry at that time and found it to be good.
Please excuse me for this intruding on your valuable time, and believe me, as ever.
H. C. Rolfe
Letter from A. H. Sweet, San Diego District Attorney32
Office of The District Attorney
SAN DIEGO COUNTY, CAL.
San Diego, Cal., Dec. 21st, 1898.
Mr. Augustin Castro,
No. 5335, San Quentin Prison,
San Quentin, Cal.
Replying to your favor of the 11th inst. Would say:
I have consulted Judge McNealy who was District Attorney at the time of your sentence concerning same, and he says you ought to be pardoned. I shall go out of office on the 1st of January next, but will hand your letter to my successor with the recommendation that he offer no resistance to your application for the discharge, and will also refer him to Judge McNealy. The Judge told me the circumstances of the offense with which you were charged, and I fully agree with him that the punishment you have already suffered is amply sufficient to meet the ends of justice.
A. H. Sweet, District Attorney
APPLICATION FOR PARDON.33
Gov. Henry T. Gage
|Age when sentenced||23|
|Date of sentence||July 10, 1872|
|Date of release|
|Date of application||Jan 9, 1899|
|Date of action||June 19, 1901|
I wish to thank Felice Levine, Program Director of Law and Social Sciences Division, NSF. The National Science Foundation provided research funding with a generous Law and Social Sciences Division Grant (NSF# 87-20939, $65,250.), 1988-1990.
1 Letter from Augustin Castro to Governor Henry T. Gage, January 18, 1899, in Augustin Castro, Pardon File # 6601, Applications for Pardon, Historical Case Files, Prison Records, Governor’s Papers, California State Archives, hereinafter Pardon File #, Applications for Pardon, CSA.
2 Testimony of W. B. Carleton, body of Matthew Alderson, April 6, 1872, 1, Coroner’s Inquests, San Diego County, San Diego History Center Research Archives, hereinafter, SDHCRA.
3 Ibid., 2.
4 Testimony of Dr. R. J. Gregg, ibid., 1.
5 Testimony of Carleton, ibid., 3.
6 Testimony of J. Mathias, ibid., 4.
7 Testimony of Ben Mannasse, ibid., 8.
8 Testimony of H. Baslow, ibid., 9.
9 Testimony of Constable A. M. Young, ibid., 10-11.
10 Testimony of Sheriff S. W. Craigue, July 11, 1872, 3-4, People v. Augustin Castro, District Court, San Diego County, SDHCRA.
11 Ibid., 5.
12 San Diego Union, April 26, 1872.
13 Years later in a letter requesting a pardon, Castro claimed that he was advised by Sheriff S. W. Craigue and Chalmers Scott to plead guilty. Letter from Augustin Castro to Governor Henry T. Gage, January 18, 1899, in Pardon File # 6601, Applications for Pardon, CSA.
14 Testimony of Augustin Castro, 1, July 11, 1872, People v. Castro, District Court, San Diego County, SDHCRA.
15 Testimony of Constable Young, body of Matthew Alderson, 11, Coroner’s Inquests, San Diego County, SDHCRA.
16 San Diego Union, April 4, and July 15, 1872.
17 Ibid., April 6, 1872.
18 Obituary on Chalmers Scott in the San Diego Union, November 17, 1898.
19 Ibid., May 7, 1872.
20 For conditions in San Quentin Prison, see Clare V. McKanna, Jr., “Crime and Punishment: The Hispanic Experience in San Quentin, 1851-1880,” Southern California Quarterly 72 (Spring 1990): 1-18.
21 Letter from W. T. McNealy to H. C. Rolfe, May 19, 1890, ibid.
22 Letter from H. C. Rolfe to Governor Henry T. Gage, January 9, 1899, in Augustin Castro, Pardon File # 6601, Applications for Pardon, CSA.
23 Body of Matthew Alderson, April 6, 1872, Coroner’s Inquests, San Diego County, SDHCRA.
24 Oddly enough the indictment records the wrong date for the killing. It actually occurred on April 5, 1872. Indictment, July 15, 1872, People v. Augustin Castro, District Court of the Eighteenth Judicial District, San Diego County, SDHCRA.
25 Statement of Defendant and testimony of Sheriff Craigue, July 11, 1872, People v. Augustin Castro, District Court of the Eighteenth Judicial District, San Diego County, SDHCRA.
26 Petition for Executive Clemency, n.d. (circa 1889), in Augustin Castro, Pardon File # 6601, Applications for Pardon, CSA.
27 During the trial Castro claimed that he had been born in San Francisco and had lived in Santa Cruz County where he worked shearing sheep.
28 B. Dougherty, Turnkey, Certificate of Conduct, March 21, 1890, ibid.
29 Pardon Board’s Ruling, January 18, 1892, ibid.
30 Letter from Augustin Castro, No. 5335, Petitioner for Clemency, to H. C. Rolfe December 10, 1898, ibid.
31 Letter from H.C. Rolfe to Governor Henry T. Gage, January 9, 1899, ibid.
32 Letter from A. H. Sweet, San Diego County District Attorney to Augustin Castro, No. 5335, San Quentin Prison, December 21, 1898, ibid.
33 Augustin Castro, No. 5335, Application for Pardon, ibid.
Clare V. McKanna, Jr. is the author of Homicide, Race, and Justice in the American West, 1880-1920 (1997) and is currently working on a manuscript discussing ethnicity and homicide in nineteenth-century California. He is a lecturer in the Department of History and the Department of American Indians Studies, San Diego State University.