Ed Morrell was an unlikely crusader.
Born Edward Brennan in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century (the exact date isn't known), his father died when he was very young. Due to his family's poverty, he was obliged to begin working in coal mines at the age of nine. As a teenager, he stowed away on a ship bound for Europe and managed to talk his way into becoming one of the regular crew. Traveling around the world, he found himself in Australia where he met a man named Morrell who promised to adopt him. When that didn't work out, Ed eventually returned to San Francisco.
Under various aliases, he began racking up criminal convictions and served his first prison sentence in San Quentin. After his release in 1893, he went to Fresno and began living under the name Ed Morrell. While working as a waiter at a local restaurant, he first met notorious outlaw Chris Evans who was being held in a local jail. Morrell was in charge of taking meals to the prisoners and, before long, Evans had managed to recruit the impressionable youngster to help him escape from jail.
After a spectacular jailbreak (Morrell had smuggled two guns to Evans and they had managed to take the mayor of Fresno as a hostage), the two of them fled to the mountains. In the weeks that followed, there was one of the most intense manhunts in California's history. Whenever deputies closed in on the pair, Morrell would chase them off with his rifle (although he never actually shot anyone). Although the manhunters seemed to stay one step behind, newspaper reporters never had any trouble finding and interviewing the two fugitives. The favourable newspaper coverage, usually portraying Morrell and Evans as Robin Hood types fighting against greedy railroad barons, made law enforcement agencies and the railroads more determined than ever to catch them.
The outlaws were finally captured by a posse after Evans was tricked into believing that one of his children was gravely ill. Police surrounded the Evans home while Evans and Morrell were inside and they surrendered without incident. Although Morrell never actually took part in the train robberies along with Evans, the railroads were determined to make an example of both of them. Morrell was dubbed the "25th man" in Evans' gang and sentenced to life imprisonment to be served at Folsom State prison in California. While still having a grim reputation today, doing time there was even more of an ordeal at the turn of the 20th century.
The use of physical punishments, i.e., torture was commonly practiced in most American prisons of the time and Folsom was definitely no exception. The prison administrators had access to a wide range of torture methods designed to break, cripple, or kill "problem" inmates. As a member of the notorious Evans gang, Ed Morrell was a marked man from the moment he entered Folsom and making an example of him was a priority for the warden and guards. Furnished with a sledge hammer, Morrell was placed on a high rock and ordered to dig a hole down through its center. For four months, Morrell was obliged to dig in one spot in full view of the warden's office despite protests from the State Engineer on site. Although he was later assigned to other work, Ed Morrell was later accused by a guard of stepping out of line (which he denied). As punishment for accusing the guard of lying, he was sentenced to fifty hours on one of Folsom's most notorious tortures: the derrick.
Located in the part of the prison known as the "Back Alley", Folsom's punishment chambers were boarded off from the rest of the prison. As Morrell would later write: "The bright light of the corridor confused me for a moment and then I saw the horrifying spectacle of nine unfortunate human beings all dangling from the ends of ropes. They were suspended each one by a block and tackle, from a balcony above their heads. Two convict assistants helped the freeman perform his gruesome work. My arms were extended backward and then a pair of handcuffs were snapped upon my wrists. One of the convicts began pulling the rope which was attached to the handcuffs, drawing me slowly upward. When my heels were just off the floor the attendant made a move to tie the rope fast to a cleat on the side of the wall, but he was brushed aside by the dungeon warder who grasped it with both hands and with the full weight of his body gave it a savage jerk. It was cruel, unmerciful! The weight of my body caused the steel of the handcuffs to cut deeply into my wrists, as I swung limply at the end of the block and tackle. Now he released an inch or so of slack until I had again regained a steadying position, the tiptoes of my brogans resting on the stone flags of the dungeon corridor".
Morrell's punishment involved being suspended in the derrick for five hours a day (two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon). He had been given no food since the previous day and was given no water while suspended. Even when his stretch was finished, the guard insisted that he be the last person taken down. Morrell proudly noted that, "I was the first man who ever walked upright from the derrick after two and a half hours of torture". After seven days of this daily regime, Morrell was taken down due to concerns about his dying on the derrick but the torture resumed three days later. His fifty-hour punishment took thirteen days to complete.
Following years of punishments and several escape attempts, Morrell finally took part in another desperate plot to instigate a prison riot. When another inmate gave away the plot details, Morrell and another twenty-four inmates were hastily transferred to San Quentin "for the safety of Folsom". Whatever he had endured before, Morrell would find out that his torture was just beginning...