Times Past

Jailbreaks common in old days

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneAugust 3, 2013 

San Luis Obispo, the lower (older) portion of the town and the old mission buildings, as seen from the mission orchard -- the fence from Newsom's stable in the right foreground.


There have been a number of jailbreaks in our history, but the jails have also been broken into.

San Luis Obispo’s Old Mission has served this region since its founding in 1772. Perhaps the strangest form of service was as the County Jail.  In recent weeks, we’ve recalled how the Committee of Vigilance removed lawfully arrested prisoners from that jail and placed them on trial in front of the Mission.

The hangings took place immediately thereafter in what’s now the Mission Plaza.

The jail was located at the Broad Street end of the Mission’s colonnade. The space now contains the dining and kitchen sections of the newly restored Parish Hall, which houses the homeless overflow every January.

The Committee of Vigilance had broken down the door of the jail in 1858. The door and other instruments for securing prisoners still weren’t repaired in 1861. Witness this letter from Sheriff Francisco Castro to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 27, 1861:

“Gentlemen: I beg leave to ask your attention to the condition of the County Jail. Some two weeks since a Vigilance Committee broke it open for the purpose of taking from there a prisoner there in custody. In doing so the front gate was broken in and the lock was shattered to pieces, the front door was broken open and two cell locks destroyed.   
“Consequently it is impracticable to secure a prisiners [sic] as the jail is at present. I
would likewise inform your honorable body that the handcuffs and shackles in my possession are worthless and would recommend the purchase of good and sufficient ones.
Very truly,

                                                                                             Fran Castro, Sh[eri]ff
                                                                            By P.A.Forrester U[nder] Sh[eri]ff”
The reverse side of the letter carries the following notation, probably by the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors for filing purposes: “Communication of Sheriff Castro September 27, 1861 Read & Laid on the Table. [signed] Th[omas] Burton.”

It was only after the end of the Great Drought in the late 1860's that increased property tax revenue allowed the Board of Supervisors to consider building a new jail.

The Old Mission complex had also served as the site of the first county school in 1850.

Since that era the Mission has been a place of first recourse for aid to thousands of penniless and otherwise stranded travelers from the era of the horse through the age of the motorcar.  This column has quoted numerous historical accounts written by visitors from the 1850's through the 1960's recounting assistance that they received at the Mission.

During the 1980's the pastor, Fr. Jim Nesbit, authorized the serving of a daily lunch to the homeless under the colonnade.
Parishioners from the Old Mission have served in a variety of ministries serving otherwise unmet community needs.

This year’s historic resources fundraiser, La Mesa de los Padres, honors two people who have given decades of service to our community as a whole.

Maria Jackson says she “has done just about every ministry in the parish except that of pastor.” Maria’s work in the Campaign for Human Development reached out to support struggling businesses in the community.  Along with Susan and Jim Hoffman, Maria started the “Giving Tree,” which invites parishioners to donate needed gifts to those who might not otherwise have a Christmas. That program now interfaces with the Salvation Army and the Homeless Shelter. Her work with Fr. Mike Marini in Hispanic Ministry helped empower our Spanish-speaking community to build wonderful activities.

Rita Mertens took over the “Giving Tree” program in the Mission and ran it for many years. Rita has worked in the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, helping those in need find housing, necessary transportation, pay utility bills and obtain food for their table. She’s been a volunteer Hospice Counselor, a longtime Ombudsman looking out for residents at large care facilities and a CASA advocate for abused and neglected children.

Both Maria and Rita stand out as the sort of community leaders Fr. Junipero Serra hoped would emerge from the mission community he founded in 1772.

This year’s La Mesa de los Padres will be on Saturday, August 17th   at 6:00 P.M..   Call 781-8220 for tickets.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.


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