Complying with a 1935 law, Marin County has agreed to exhume San Quentin’s Boot Hill veterans and give them each proper burials in a national cemetery with full military honors.
San Quentin opened its doors for business as California’s only prison in 1852. It was meant to house over 3,000 of the most notorious, most hardened, most deadly and condemned criminals in the state. Unfortunately, not everyone made it out alive from what was then the State’s maximum security prison.
Many such unlucky souls were buried in the prison’s own cemetery which opened in the early 1920s. Dr. Charles Bacon Boudwin, a military veteran, is buried in the cemetery. Boudwin died in 1944 after having served less than one year of his two to five year term for performing an abortion. Boudwin served in both World War I and World War II.
Boot Hill, as the grave site is called, now holds the remains of nearly 700 former inmates that have died since the grave site opened and before its closing in 1952.
A current San Quentin prisoner and U.S. Navy veteran (1978-82), Anthony Taylor, said, “This was a violent prison back then.
That’s a lot of people, more than 23 deaths per year.”
Like Dr. Boudwin, many of Boot Hill’s residents are also veterans of America’s military service, according to an article published in the Marin Independent Journal March 03, 2019.
“They had been Honorably Discharged and should be buried with other vets”
Marcus Blevins, a San Quentin prisoner and a veteran of the U.S. Army (1975-78), questioned why these people weren’t claimed by their loved ones. Then he realized that some of the inmates were from families who may have wanted to claim the decedents but couldn’t afford the cost of a funeral.
Boot Hill was likely built by prison labor about 100 years ago and is now showing its age. Constructed entirely of cement, Boot Hill’s ornate arches, thick fencing and decorative stone-like filigrees were built to preserve the dignity and respect of those departed. All of it now sits decaying and blackened with Bay Area algae after having been assaulted by local weather, time and seabirds leaving their white marks of disrespect.
Photos show simple but decaying headstones bearing only a number to identify who’s buried below.
San Quentin is not unique in its having interred indigent peoples and forgetting them. The Marin Independent Journal also reported that more than 287 decedents are buried near the Marin County Juvenile Hall near where the county once operated an indigents’ hospital and farm for poor folks from 1880 to 1963. It is likely some of the people buried there are also veterans, said the newspaper.
As well, the cremated remains of untold numbers of civilians and veterans are resting peacefully on the shelves of several Marin mortuaries, the Journal reported.
Edward Leon, owner of Monte’s Chapel of the Hills, where Marin County currently sends its unclaimed bodies, said he couldn’t say offhand how many urns he has in storage. Jack Thornton, manager of Mount Tamalpais Mortuary and Cemetery in San Rafael, which used to provide final services to the county, said they have more than 45 urns filled with unclaimed remains. It is unknown how many of these unclaimed remains are U.S. military veterans.
And in Oregon, 3,500 urns with ashes of human remains were discovered on the shelves of Oregon State Hospital. The newspaper said an estimated 1,000 of them may be veterans also needing proper military placements.
Marin County is acting in response to an obscure and loosely enforced law passed in 1935 directing where Honorably Discharged military veterans are not to be interred. The county is finally taking action to move the veterans to properly designated graves provided by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Carl Raybon, veteran of the U.S. Marines (1982-86) and current President of the Veteran’s Group of San Quentin (VGSQ), said “Marin County footing the bill (for the move) is a great way to honor the men who went into battle and then died here.”
Sean Stephens, director of the Marin County Veteran’s Service Office, said “Once the remains are delivered to a national cemetery, all costs are covered by the Veterans Administration. The piece of land, the headstone, the niche—it’s all free. There is an Honor Guard and flag. It’s an awesome tradition.”
Raybon said, “What Marin County is doing is a super thing, seeing to it that the remains of veterans are properly disposed.”
Gary Cooper, also a former Marine (1966-68) and past-president of the VGSQ, agrees, “They had been Honorably Discharged and should be buried with other vets.”
However, exhuming and relocating the former inmate veterans does not sit well with everyone. Ken Wilkerson, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp commented, “I consider the effort (by Marin County) to be a complete waste of time. Those inmate veterans screwed up, got sent to prison. So what of their remains?”
James Cook, a veteran who served during Vietnam, joined up with the Missing in America Project and is taking on the job of rounding up the remains of veterans to see that they get transported to a national cemetery.
Cook said, “It never occurred to me that there would be this problem.” Cook participated in the moving of four veteran remains to the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon, California, where they were greeted “by hundreds of people gathered to commemorate the arrival of the remains of 124 veterans,” reported the Journal. “I was just so moved,” said Cook.
The newspaper also reported that in 2010 the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1644, streamlining the process for moving unclaimed American veterans from mortuaries to national cemeteries.