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Monday, September 17, 2018

Yuma Territorial Prison: Madora Ingalls-Prison Warden Wife & Reformer

The Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona was often described as either a “hell hole” or a “country club.” Many of the changes that led to this prison becoming more tolerable to prisoners is due to the effort of the wife of Prison Superintendent Frank Ingalls, Madora Spauling Ingalls.

Yuma Territorial Prison was considered a hell hole by prisoners due to:

  • "Insufferable heat (Yuma has two seasons: mildly warm and hotter than uno-where)
  • Surrounded by rivers, quick sand and desert in all directions
  • An inhuman "Snake Den" (dark cell) and Ball and Chain as standard punishment
  • Tuberculosis was the #1 Killer
  • "Impossible to endure, more impossible to escape."
River and desert outside Yuma Territorial Prison

However, after efforts to improve the prison, many by the above-mentioned couple, many non-inmate residents of Yuma resented the convicts enjoying amenities they didn’t have:

  • Electricity
  • Forced Ventilation
  • Sanitation, including two bathtubs and three showers
  • A library with 2,000 books, the most in the Territory at the time
  • Enlightened, progressive administration
  • Prison Band

 Considered one of the two best superintendents in the prison’s history, Frank Salter (F. S.) Ingalls was initially a surveyor by trade. He served as prison superintendent from June 1883-July 1886 and October 1889-September 1891.

The Yuma Prison Library was created in 1883 during the administration of superintendent F.S. Ingalls, who also opened blacksmith, carpentry, cobbler, and tailor shops to teach inmates job skills. It was under his administration that an electric dynamo was installed at the prison, one of the first generators in the West.. Electricity replaced coal oil and candles for lighting.

The following is from the Superintendent's Report, November 1, 1883. 

          “I recommend that the Legislature make a fair appropriation for a Prison Library, also to provide for a Mechanics Library of several volumes, for the special use of convict mechanics and those learning trades.

          “Every visitor to this institution pays $0.25 for the privilege of inspecting the prison. This money is set aside, and will be used towards assisting in establishing a Prison Library. The amount so far realized from this source is $78.25.” 

The prison library was the brainchild of his wife, Madora Ingalls who was concerned about the education of prisoners. She helped raise funds to buy the library’s furniture and 2,000 books.

Madora Ingalls display at Yuma Territorial Prison Museum

Some consider it the first library in the Arizona Territory. As the prison superintendent’s wife, she also helped raised money for a prison band, nursed some of the sickest prisoners, and decorated cells, the dining room and hospital with flowers annually on "Floral Mission Day." She sometimes brought prisoners food from her own kitchen, wrote letters for those who were illiterate, and worked for prison reform to help the inmates increase their chances of leaving prison to return to a better and more meaningful life.

There is a story about her that some consider true but, others claim is legend. It is said to have taken place at a time in 1891 when Madora was not at the prison. There were no reports in the Yuma and other newspapers of the time. The first known documentation of the story occurred in 1962. It might be the stuff of fiction, but it does make for a good story.

Supposedly, there was a prison escape attempt in the prison yard in July where a crew of inmates worked under the direction of two guards. (There were many prison escapes over the history of the prison, with a total of 26 inmates leaving and not being found and returned.) One guard was stabbed with a steel spike, his gun seized and the other guard in the yard shot. As the prisoners realized what was happening, they joined in the riot to break out.

Now armed with the rifles and pistols of both guards, the prisoners stormed the gates to break free. Realizing an uprising was in progress, the guard in the tower fired on the prisoners. One of the prisoners shot and killed the tower guard. As the steam whistle blew signaling the escape attempt, other guards worked to reach the top of the tower and the Lowell Battery Gun, which was similar to the Gatlin Gun, but they were held back by inmate fire.
Gatlin Gun on display at Yuma Territorial Prison Musuem
Supposedly, no one knows how it happened, but Madora Ingalls, who came with her husband to the prison while in her late twenties and the mother of three children, climbed into the guard tower. She fired the Lowell, spraying the ground in front of the prison yard gates, keeping prisoners pinned inside until the remaining prison guards were able to organize and quell the riot.

Whether or not the last story is true, Madora Ingalls left a mark felt by the inmates of the Yuma Territorial Prison. She stands as one of the leaders in early prison reform in the United States.

Frank Ingalls died in Yuma, Arizona on January 19, 1927 at the age of 76. Madora Ingalls died on November 30, 1938 at the age of 83. They are both buried in the Yuma Pioneer Cemetery.

Across the Colorado River and north on the eastern side of California readers will find the Mono Basin, home to the setting for my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series. Book 4 in the series, Haunted by Love, takes place mostly in Bridgeport, the county seat, and includes my fictionalized tale that might explain the “Lady in White,” a ghost who has been reported sighted several times since the late 1870’s in Room 16 of the Leavitt House, now the Bridgeport Inn. Please CLICK HERE to read the book description and find the purchase link for Haunted by Love.

Trafzer, Cliff and Steve George, Prison Centennial 1876-1976 – A Pictorial History of The Arizona Territorial Prison at Yuma; Rio Colorado Press: 1980.
Find-a-Grave for Madora Spaulding  Ingalls and Frank Salter Ingalls


  1. This series is so fascinating. I thank you for sharing it. Doris

    1. Thank you, Doris. I greatly enjoyed researching her story. She is an example of one who made the most of the opportunity presented to her to good to those some felt were not worth time or effort.

  2. I love the story about Madora firing the battery gun to keep the prisoners pinned down. Whether it's true or not, doesn't matter. It's a great legend.

    1. Me, too. I could not resist passing on that last story about Madora, even if it is fiction.

  3. I can certainly understand the citizens resenting prisoners having amenities they could not enjoy, but I can also see the need to reform, not just punish, the prisoners. Also, I see electricity as a safety issue.
    Madora must have been a brave woman to marry and raise their children under the ever present danger of a prison. I think I can believe that she held off those prisoners with the Lowell gun.
    This was such an interesting post, Zina. I love the cover for Haunted by Love. All the best to you...

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I did read in some of my research that the prison exchanged electric power past 9:00p.m. with the city of Yuma for pumping that kept their water reservoir full. However, Yuma citizens would have needed to have electric wire and fixtures installed in their homes to take advantage of that, and there was probably the problem. Like you said, having electric lights in the prison was probably more of a safety factor for the administrators and guards than for a prisoner benefit. You can see the strings of electric lights strung between the cell blocks.

  4. I've so enjoyed all these posts, Zina. I live close to Yuma but have never visited the prison. This makes me want to go.

  5. Dear Ms Abbott, Is this truly a book and is it available? My wife and I do historicl portrayals in Yuma and at the prison. I am searching for factual information on Mrs Ingalls.

  6. I did not include my personals. My name is Pete Dryer and my wife is Joyce however my sobriquet is Smokey Pickett