A year or so ago, I came across April Moore's blog about the 93 men that were executed at Folsom Prison. With my own connections to two executed men and to Folsom Prison, where my brother served thirteen years, I was intrigued. This past week, I read April's book, Folsom's 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men. If you are a fan of true crime or just a history buff, you will love this book. I did. And the book's genesis is totally cool. April's Aunt Betty had this box filled with the mugshots of these men and a history of Folsom. Being more curious than a five-year-old kid on Christmas eve, I wanted to know more about Aunt Betty and Uncle Tom and how they acquired these historical treasures.
The book is about each of the 93 men, their crime and details from their execution. It also includes details about California history, as well as Folsom's history. All of the executions took place before 1937 and the amount of time from crime to execution date is incredibly brief. A lot of research went into the writing of this book!
I asked April if she would answer a few of my questions and she graciously accepted my offer.
April Moore: I wrote a blog post last year that had a little more detail than the introduction does, about how my great-great uncle acquired the records. You can read about it here. I kick myself for not asking my aunt more questions about it before she passed away several years ago, but at that time, I never imagined writing a book about them. I suppose some things are meant to remain a mystery.
DW: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Folsom’s 93?
April Moore: I'd have to say, that cross referencing information was the toughest part. Obviously, I didn't want to get any facts wrong, but locating collaborating sources was a struggle sometimes, given that many documents and sources no longer existed, or were just unavailable.Of course, coming across conflicting information was also a headache, so I spent a good deal of time deciphering fact from fiction. I will add that the other difficult aspect was knowing when to stop researching and just write the damn book!
DW: Before writing this book, did you have an opinion on the death penalty? If so, did it change?
April Moore: Great question. I have to admit, I didn't really have a strong opinion before, so this project really forced me to examine the issue and decide for myself. To begin with, from a financial standpoint, capital punishment is much more costly to states and tax payers than keeping offenders locked up for life without parole. Currently, California spends roughly $137 million per year to keep inmates on death row, but without it, the cost could drop to $11.5 million. Instead, states could allocate that money for education, crime prevention, and rebuilding crime-ridden neighborhoods, just to name a few. I understand that it may bring closure to the victim's family, but it only creates another grieving family--the inmate's; the grief cycle continues. It's also been shown that the death penalty does not deter criminals from committing a capital offense. Lastly, I believe the system is incredibly flawed. Too many innocent people have been put to death. I get that executions has rid the world of some pretty heinous individuals, but it has come at a great cost. The Innocence Project has exonerated 18 people from death row, but there were countless others who were not saved in time. It makes me wonder if all of the 3100+ inmates currently on death row in the United States are truly guilty.
DW: After doing your research, did you feel that any of these men were innocent?
April Moore: Yes, absolutely. Several of the 93, particularly the minorities, weren't necessarily given fair treatment or even a fair trial. Oftentimes, it appeared they were doomed from the moment of arrest. During the turn of the twentieth century, investigation practices and methods were shoddy--at best. Investigators routinely mishandled evidenced, were prejudiced against minorities, or were simply overzealous about landing a conviction. It broke my heart to see some of these men be convicted when serious doubts about their guilt existed. If it's that easy to be wrongly accused today--given all of our technology and crime collection methods--think how easy it was to be wrongly accused back then.
DW: Which man did you find the most fascinating?
April Moore: Probably #28, Jacob Oppenheimer. For a man who spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement, he had this incredible insight into the human psyche and the outside world. He wrote such poignant and thoughtful essays, stories and letters that made me think, that given the opportunity, he could have been one of America's more revered authors. On the flip side, the man was a killer, although it's hard not to argue that the prison and their treatment of him, contributed a great deal to that.
DW: I’d read that you went on a tour of Folsom. What did you think of the prison?
April Moore: Oh my gosh, that was quite an experience! Such a formidable presence; if only those gray walls could talk. It was fantastic to finally see the place that I had spent so much time researching. The history nerd in me was going crazy with excitement! I really didn't know what to expect, but I certainly didn't think I'd be walking through the cell blocks and through crowds of inmates in the yard. The highlight of course, was seeing the original condemned row; walking the steps to the trap door, and standing where so many men took their final breaths. Creepy, but surreal. It's impossible to not have tremendous awe and respect for the prison, as well as the staff who risk their lives everyday working there. As incredible as it was, I'm not anxious to tour it again any time soon. The view from the outside is enough for now.
DW: What is in store for you now? More historical nonfiction?
April Moore: After five years of research and writing Folsom's 93, I'm headed back to fiction for a little while. Years ago, I wrote a novel and set it aside, so I might revive that, but I've recently started an urban fantasy that I'm having a lot of fun with. It's nice to get back into the fiction realm, but I'm sure it won't be long before the history geek in me starts itching for a new project.
Thanks April! I'm going to leave my readers with a song.