An Interview with April Moore, Author of Folsom's 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men

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.

DW:  As a reader, I wanted to know more about your family and how they acquired these records. Have you ever written about that?

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.

Pam Goes to Prison

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
Joseph Campbell

     I recently spent two days at the Cleveland Unit with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.  PEP teaches incarcerated men about how to run and start their own business. After arriving at the Cleveland Unit, about thirty men and a few women dressed in a suit or modest business attire (no skirts, open toed shoes or tight fitting/revealing shirts) traded our driver’s licenses for a first-name only badge.  We were then patted down by a correctional officer of the same gender and were politely asked to walk through a metal detector.  After milling about in a small holding room, we were led towards the chow hall.  As instructed, we walked down the hallway between the yellow lines. A sprinkling of men in prison blues stood back against the wall eyeing us as we passed by. I could hear the roar of shouting voices and thunderous applause coming from the chow hall.  My breath quickened and my heart raced with each step.

     This was not my personal experience of prison. In my early twenties, I had visited my brother at Folsom several times. At Folsom, we were in the visitation room with at least one hundred other people, but the room was oddly muted.  We conversed in hushed tones as if we were in a library. All inmates and their visitors faced the front of the room, while a table of guards stared down at us like we were a herd of unruly cattle.  Touching was not allowed with the exception of a brief hug at the beginning of our visit. 

     As we stepped into the chow hall, a line of men in blues (kind of like hospital scrubs) high-fived us as we entered.  They greeted us by name.  Some shook our hands and thanked us for being there. We were told that they encouraged hugs in this program, but not with women. The further I ventured into the room, I felt completely undeserving of the enthusiastic reception.  I just showed up. We then had our picture taken holding a sign that read, “I Got Caught Doing Something Good,” along with a photo where we stood with a group of men from the program. 

     Then we were free to mingle.

     My other visits to prison to visit Khristian Oliver at the Pollunsky Unit and Sonya Reed at the Mountain View Unit were even more controlled and sedate.  Both Khristian and Sonya were behind glass.  With Khristian, we spoke via a black phone and with Sonya we spoke through a mesh wire.  Physical contact was not allowed and we were to remain seated at all times.  It sounds horrible to say, but the only time I got to touch Khristian Oliver was when he was dead on a gurney.

     I am not comfortable with large groups of people, so I approached a man standing alone in the middle of the room.  To get the conversation flowing, I asked, “What’s your business plan?” 

     “Well,” he said, “I’m a writer.”
     “So am I!” I interrupted. What are the odds?  Out of 88 men, the first man I talk to is a writer.
     “What do you write?” he asked.
     “Non-fiction.  How about you?”
     “I write creative nonfiction,” he said.
     “Me too!”

     I felt like I was at an odd social function and I’d found a kindred spirit.  This man was articulate, confident and interested in my thoughts about publishing.  When he told me about his business plan to start a company that published the written work of men and women behind bars, I was sold.  Heck, I’d done the same for Sonya Reed on a much smaller scale.  The power of story is strong and the men and women behind bars deserve to be heard.  I learned later that he had committed a murder at the age of fourteen, but at that moment in time the only thing that differentiated us was our clothes and where we called home.

To be continued…