Founder of the San Quentin Museum began building photo, artifact collection in 1984
Jeff Craemer is curator of San Quentin prison’s museum, and steeped in history.
Craemer was born and raised in Marin County and observed San Quentin as he grew up “from a distance.”
“Back then there were no bathrooms inside the cells,” Craemer said. “They only had buckets on the back of the cell floor and there was no heat in the cells.” He added, “In one cell they housed five prisoners.”
The museum is crammed with prison mementos, including a model of the gallows, the noose used in the last hanging, weapons confiscated from prisoners, firearms used by guards over the years, a mockup of a prison cell, many old issues of the San Quentin News and numerous photos.
In 1960 Craemer saw the Spanish cellblock demolished and rebuilt as The Adjustment Center.
He started regularly coming into the prison in 1984, when then Associate Warden Richard Nelson worked with him to collect photographs and materials for a museum.
Nelson connected Craemer with a grant writer to generate funding for the museum and continued to help accumulate items for the museum. One piece looked like an ordinary pen, but when opened, it turned out to be a deadly weapon.
When its collection became sufficient, the museum held a Grand Opening in June 1986. A local television station as well as CNN covered the event.
Craemer recalls how Clinton T. Duffy’s appointment as warden in 1940 changed the prison’s culture.
Duffy initiated a number of programs for prisoners, a departure from the prevailing mode of “lock-em-up and throw away the key.” He supported the furniture factory and a vocational trade school to teach prisoners new skills and prepare them to lead a productive life.
By the time Craemer became involved in the San Quentin museum work, Duffy’s reforms were established and had begun to attract the attention of staff in other prisons.
“I remember how men [staff] from other prisons came to see all the vocation training and wanted to have the same programing in their prisons,” Craemer said.
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With historical documents and other museum pieces, Craemer documented how San Quentin prisoners contributed to the war effort during World War II.
He recalls shipments of supplies arriving at the prison and the incarcerated building things for the military.
“Warden Duffy knew how to organize things,” Craemer said. “They made cargo nets for the ships and huge bumpers for the ships to prevent them from damage as well as the submarine cable nets to prevent a Japanese West-coast naval invasion.”
Prisoners built assault boats, assembled, painted and laced bunks used in the transport of battle-bound troops and made ammunition boxes and military boots — all without pay.
“I have pictures where in the dinner hall there were no divisions,” Craemer said. “All the men were sitting together and assembling war ration books.”
Warden Duffy escorted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt through San Quentin for a National Security Award ceremony to honor prisoners for doing their part in the war effort.
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As to women at San Quentin, Craemer remembers the execution of Barbara Grant in 1955. “She had the vocabulary of a longshoreman and a teamster,” he recalled.
Craemer also talked about the August 1979 escape of John Waller, William McGirk and Forrest Tucker in a 14-foot-long canoe built of wood and plastic sheets.
“They built the boat in the furniture factory and took off,” Craemer said. “They pretended to be fishing as they paddled away.”
On the side of the boat the men had painted Rub-a-Dub-Dub Marin Yacht Club, which according to a Feb. 13, 1981 San Quentin News article “made the vessel appear so innocent that a guard in the San Quentin tower who saw the men sailing away with some difficulty called to them to ask if they were all right. The men assured him they were.” The boat had begun sinking but made it safely to shore.
Authorities arrested McGirk in San Rafael two months later and captured Waller in Gilroy in April 1980. Tucker disappeared.
Craemer would have liked to have the boat for the museum’s collection, but prosecutors kept it as evidence in the trial.
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Creamer clearly remembers the events of August 1970. He was working for his family newspaper, the Marin Independent Journal.
He recalls that Jonathan Jackson walked into a Marin courthouse and took hostages. The plan was to negotiate the release from San Quentin of his brother, George Jackson. The plan failed and ended with a judge, Harold Haley, Jonathan Jackson and two prisoners killed in a barrage of bullets. Craemer says he still sees pictures of this horrific event in his head.
Craemer says all kinds of people visit the museum and inquire about San Quentin’s history.
It’s not unusual, said Craemer, for someone to ask him to help track down a long lost relative once incarcerated at San Quentin. Typically these folks cannot find help anywhere else. Craemer digs into documents and records and does his best to help.
He remembers one search reaching back to 1854 to find a woman’s relative.
“This teary-eyed woman got a sense of relief that she was able to find her long-ago ancestor,” Craemer said. Then, he recalls a man in a black coat claiming to be a relation of Wyatt Earp and a young woman who claimed to be the great-granddaughter of Wells Fargo bank robber, C. E. Bolton, better known as Black Bart.
Craemer mentions two publications that tell the history of San Quentin well. This is San Quentin, is a folio of sketches depicting the history of the prison. The book, originally published around 1944, has a foreword written by Nelson when he was president of the San Quentin Museum Association.
The other is the first edition of San Quentin Inside The Walls, published in 1991. The picture book includes photos of prisoners as they first enter the prison, of Death Row, of the famous and infamous, of women inmates, as well as other aspects of the prison’s history that readers might find interesting.
The museum, located just outside the gates of San Quentin, is open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.