The San Quentin Mistake

By J. L. Starkey

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

– William Faulkner

Fourteen years. Fourteen years?

Yes, fourteen years. Eugene Clairmont Fisher’s future was written, and it contained nothing but hard time.

His past finally caught up with him, and in 1929 Eugene began serving one to fourteen years in prison for his role as mastermind of a check fraud scheme. He arrived at San Quentin on 22 March 1929, completed his intake paperwork, and then began working as a prison cook [1].

This was his life now. It would be 1943 before he was a free man again. Finally, justice was served, and…

…oh, wait. You didn’t think it actually happened that way, did you?


Next Stop, Durango!

Eugene is paroled from San Quentin on 2 June 1930 [Ancestry image]

Eugene’s sentence was apparently just a suggestion, and unfortunately, corrections officials didn’t take it seriously.

Just fourteen months and ten days after he arrived at San Quentin, Eugene was granted parole [2]. His days served would not even equal the number of fraudulent checks he wrote to put him in prison in the first place [3].

His release came with conditions, of course. He had to stay out of trouble, report to a parole officer, and ask permission before leaving the state. While Eugene understood those things, he never was a rule-following type of guy.

Neither was self-proclaimed chef and restaurateur Will Fisher. Sometime around 1934, Will arrived in Durango, Colorado. It was the perfect little town where a man could make a decent living. A guy had to feed his family, didn’t he? His cafe was sure to be successful.

That was Will’s story, and he was sticking to it.

Meanwhile, sometime in 1934, Eugene Fisher violated his parole when he left California without permission. No one in Durango knew that part of the story, of course. They only knew that their town had a fairly new cafe, and that it was owned by a man named Will Fisher.

They also knew that a young woman was missing from her Durango home.

On 10 October 1934, the story of Lucille Pepin’s disappearance was picked up by the Associated Press. According to reports, she was last seen leaving a dance hall with Will Fisher, the married owner of a local cafe [4]. Fisher was wanted for questioning, but he left town around the time Lucille went missing. And Fisher’s wife? It was a strange story, but the gossips said that she left town recently as well.

The disappearance of Lucille Pepin

Two weeks after the story broke, Mr. and Mrs. Will Mason checked into a Florence, Arizona, hotel [5]. They had been dropped off by former Arizona legislator Harry Valentine, who offered a ride to the Oklahoma couple when he found them “…trudging along the highway.”

The couple only stayed one night at the hotel, but it was enough time for Mrs. Mason to dash off a quick note that included an incredible story, along with a plea for help.

Authorities were alerted after a hotel maid found the note, and the Masons were brought in for questioning. Officials soon discovered that Mrs. Mason was actually Lucille Pepin, and that she was being held against her will by Mr. Mason, who was also known as Durango cafe owner Will Fisher.

But the story didn’t end there. Durango residents were shocked to learn that the man who claimed he was a married cafe owner was actually William X. Fisher, a parole violator from San Quentin. Lucille’s note helped to bring the criminal to justice. It was truly a win for law enforcement!

If only they had gotten it right. But that didn’t happen.

Arizona and Colorado authorities didn’t know that William X. Fisher actually didn’t exist. Had they looked a bit further, they would have discovered that William X. was yet another alias used by Eugene C. Fisher, a career con man who had been in trouble with the law since he was thirteen years old.

The similarities to the Pearl Gilder case of two decades ago were stunning, but Eugene was no longer a young man. He was a middle-aged parole violator with a string of arrests and convictions, and he was once again facing an indictment for violating the Mann Act [6]. This time, the judge would throw the book at him. It was pretty much guaranteed, right?

Not exactly.

Eugene would again pay a very small price for breaking the law. On 20 February 1935, he was sentenced to serve just six months at the federal prison farm at La Tuna, Texas [7].

History seemed to repeat itself for the con man. In Texas, as in California, Eugene would be granted an early release from prison.

And in Texas, as in California, all roads would lead to a woman Edna.


From El Paso to Edna

La Tuna Federal Prison [Public domain image]

This whole situation was unfair. Lucille was supposed to go along with the plan, so why was Eugene the one sitting in prison?

So unfair. All of it.

But his time at La Tuna was almost over, and Eugene was ready to move on. His early release meant that “Will Fisher” was headed to Phoenix sooner than expected. It seemed like a good enough town, and he needed to keep that promise he’d made to ol’ Davidson, anyway [8].

Eugene had to admit, he felt sorry for George Davidson. The man missed his wife something awful. Edna Davidson was back home in Phoenix, probably wondering how George was getting along in prison. That poor woman! She was probably worried sick.

George was a good prison friend, and Eugene always helped his friends. He promised that he would check up on Edna, and he intended to keep that promise [9]. Why didn’t more people see that he was a good guy? Gosh, you get caught in a few misunderstandings, and suddenly no one trusts you? No one wants to give you a chance?

Life was really unfair that way.

In July 1935, Eugene was released from La Tuna Prison. Shortly thereafter, William X. Fisher arrived in Phoenix to make good on his prison promise. It was a gallant gesture from the con man.

It was also a lie, of course.


He Said, She Said

There were two sides to the bizarre story that would unfold in the latter half of 1935, but Eugene would insist that his version was true. Sure, he was using his William X. Fisher alias part of the time, but he was still telling the truth. Why would anyone doubt that?

This was all Edna’s fault. She was the one who was lying! And George was a liar too, come to think of it.

George lied about a lot of things, but Edna set Eugene straight. She wasn’t interested in George; she was interested in Eugene. She visited Eugene every weekend for almost two whole months after he arrived in Phoenix. They were in love, and they were going to start a life together. It wouldn’t be too difficult, really. Edna said that she wasn’t even married to George, so it wasn’t like she needed to get a divorce.

Yes, Eugene needed to tell the judge about that, because it proved his innocence…again. Why did he always get blamed for these misunderstandings? It was so unfair.

On 21 August 1935, Eugene C. Fisher married Edna Davidson in Kanab, Utah [10]. It was Eugene’s fifth marriage, and Edna’s first…or second, depending on which version of the truth was actually true [11].

Eugene vowed that this marriage would be different, and to prove that, he took his bride on a honeymoon to the Pacific Northwest. Edna wouldn’t mind paying for the trip, since she had plenty of money saved up from working in the jewelry department of that five-and-dime store.

OK, so things didn’t work out. Those things happened, right? Sure, it was sad, but the judge and jury would take Eugene’s side. He was sure of that. These things happened sometimes, right?

Edna’s first marriage, 20 Feb 1931 [Ancestry image]

Edna Williams Davidson Fisher disagreed with her new husband’s story, and she knew the judge would take her side. William Fisher promised that he would help George Davidson get an early release from La Tuna prison, and she foolishly believed that promise. Then, he forced her into that fake marriage (though the certificate seemed real enough), even though he knew she was already married to George. Even worse, he made Edna pay for the honeymoon!

OK, so maybe she had told a lie or two along the way, but she was still going to blame Eugene (or Will, or whatever his name was) for this whole mess. Oh, goodness, his promises and stories! He deserved to go back to prison just for lying so much.

On 5 October 1935, the law caught up with the newlyweds in Hood River, Oregon. As Eugene slept with his guns (and a large amount of jewelry) at his side, FBI agents rescued “pretty Mrs. Edna Williams Davidson” from the ex-con [12].

Eugene was sent to a Phoenix jail to await trial for yet another Mann Act violation. His case would be heard almost seven years to the day after his conviction for check fraud [13].

This time, things would end differently for him.


The Con Man Walks

Next stop on Eugene’s courthouse tour: Phoenix, Arizona [14]

The headlines were shocking, and the stories were salacious and detailed. Eugene C. Fisher – alias William X. Fisher, alias Will Fisher, alias Will Mason, alias Clairmont Fisher – was a free man.

On 7 February 1936, Judge James H. Baldwin “instructed the jury to return a verdict of acquittal” in the case of Edna Davidson Fisher vs. Will X. Fisher, based on insufficient evidence [15]. The charges were dismissed, and Eugene was released from jail immediately.

Who was telling the truth, and who was lying? Those answers will never be known, but it’s safe to say that Eugene’s acquittal did nothing to make him change his ways.

After all, there were lots of people who believed his stories, and no one seemed to know or care that he was wanted for a parole violation. But there was still a chance that someone would learn his secret, and that was a risk he just couldn’t take.

His mind made up, Eugene headed out of town.

A few months later, a heating engineer named William M. Fisher arrived in Vancouver, Washington [16]. No one knew too much about him, but Ada Dillon thought that the bachelor from California was the man of her dreams.

Sure, she was stretching the truth when she told him she was widowed, but that was such a small detail. William was a good man – an honest man! Wasn’t he?

It looked like it was time for the con man to plan another wedding.

Another alias for the son of Jared and Mary Fisher? [Ancestry image]

To be continued in 2020…


Citations

  1. California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950 for Eugene C Fisher. San Quentin State Prison > Identification Cards > Identification Cards, 46141-47680; digital images 1299-1300 of 3072. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
  2. California State Archives; Sacramento, California; San Quentin State>Inmate Photograph and Mug Books>Book 14, 45151-47824/Inmate 46790, digital image 188 of 308. Original data: Department of Corrections. San Quentin State Prison Records, 1850–1950. ID #R135, California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento, California. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. (See also: “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9R4K-LZ?cc=1810731&wc=QZFS-WX8%3A648807101%2C651364501%2C651378101%2C1589282411 : 8 December 2015), California>Marin>San Quentin Prison>ED 26>image 70 of 92; citing NARA microfilm publication T626 Washington D.C.: NARA, 2002.)
  3. “G-Men Jail Two On Women’s Tip,” The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon, 6 Oct 1935, p. 8, col. 1. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
  4. “Durango Girl Missing, Two Men in Custody and a Third Sought,” The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colorado, 10 Oct 1934, p. 2, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
  5. “Girl’s Note Brings Arrest of Coast Parole Violator,” Arizona Republic, Phoenix, Arizona, 24 Oct 1934, p. 1, col. 2-3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
  6. Federal Jury Indicts Pair,” Arizona Republic, 16 Feb 1935, p. 1, col. 3 and p. 12, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
  7. “Durango Resident is Sentenced on a Mann Act Charge,” The Daily Sentinel, 20 Feb 1935, p. 1, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
  8. “Jacobs Metes Liquor Term,” Arizona Republic, Phoenix, Arizona, 23 Apr 1935, p. 4, col. 7. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
  9. “Fisher Faces Extradition,” Arizona Republic, 9 Oct 1935, p. 10, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Forced to Wed by Ex-Convict,” The Semi Weekly Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Washington, 7 February 1936, p. 2, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
  10. “Utah, County Marriages, 1887-1940”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XLQW-KHL : 12 November 2017), Eugene C Fisher and Edna S Williams, 1935.
  11. County Marriage Records. Arizona History and Archives Division, Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona Marriage Records, 1865-1972 for Edna Williams, Maricopa > Marriage Affidavits, 1931, digital image 1095 of 1152. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. Arizona, County Marriage Records, 1865-1972 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
  12. “G Men Capture Kidnap Band,” The Capital Journal, Salem, Oregon, 5 Oct 1935, p. 1, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
  13. “Forcible Bigamous Marriage Charged to Former Convict,” Beaumont Enterprise, Beaumont, Texas, 7 Feb 1936, p. 10, col. 8. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
  14. Photo by United States National Archives – United States National Archives, RG 121-BS, Box 4, Folder 1, Print 1A, available from the United States Federal Judicial Center http://www.fjc.gov/history/courthouses.nsf/lookup/AZ-Phoenix_1913_1_Ref.jpg/$file/AZ-Phoenix_1913_1_Ref.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16603524.
  15. “Mann Act Case Suspect Freed,” El Paso Times, El Paso, Texas, 8 Feb 1936, p. 20, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Dismiss Mann Act Charges,” The Yuma Daily Sun, Yuma, Arizona, 7 Feb 1936, p. 1, col. 7. Retrieved from newspaperarchive.com.)
  16. Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington; Marriage Records, 1854-2013 for William M fisher, Clark County, Marriage Certificates 1937 Jan-Apr, digital image 657 of 1185. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. Washington, Marriage Records, 1854-2013 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.

7 thoughts on “The San Quentin Mistake

  1. You had to bring him here, huh? Durango still is “the perfect little town…”😊

    This guy really takes the cake.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I need to add Durango to my extreme genealogy road trip, right? I’m searching for a directory from the early 1930s…wondering if Eugene listed his cafe among local businesses.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We might have something. We also have the local paper digitized, but it’s only available at the library.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I saw that when I was researching, and my first thought was “time for a road trip” because I really need a vacation!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Well you’d better look me up if you come to town!

        Liked by 1 person

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