As published in My Life in Prison (Heathen Edition):

This book is without a doubt one of the wildest I’ve ever read. Donald Lowrie’s simple, matter-of-fact delivery of events as they transpired within the walls of San Quentin only amplifies their consistent absurdity and often brutality, and the narrative is full to the brim with mysterious and compelling characters, not least of which is Lowrie himself.

How we are the first publisher to both update and republish this book using a modern typeset—and why more people today haven’t heard of this story—is beyond me. But I’m proud of the honor because panning the literary streams of yesteryear for gold nuggets such as these is why Heathen Editions exists. Hopefully, and maybe with a little luck, our edition will attract new eyes because this story and its host of characters are truly begging for a much wider audience.

With that notion in mind, we’ve striven to enhance the text that you’re about to experience as much as possible, and we can only hope that this story may one day soon transcend its pages, whether that be a documentary or feature film, or a more aptly suited television series because these real-life characters deserve to be freed from the dusty bookshelves they’ve been relegated to for well over a century. I say that not only because it’s true, but for selfish reasons: I want to see Smoky Ryan in the flesh, with my own eyes, and barring the sudden appearance of a time machine, a television facsimile seems the quickest route. Smoky’s hard-won, streetwise wisdom resonates every time he appears, and Lowrie renders his hillbilly dialect to such perfection that Smoky is practically narrating as you read. He’s easily one of the greatest characters that I’ve ever read in literature. A bold statement, I know, but one that I firmly stand by. As a reader, [spoilers ahead!] when he is granted parole is such a bittersweet moment because you’re happy to see him leave, yet sad to see him go. And as he walks away from Lowrie for the last time, I found myself wanting to follow Smoky, to know where his story went, to discover if a rascal’s broken heart can ever be mended. Alas. . . .

Know what else I want to see? Ed Morrell’s story. Because why that saga has never been mined for the screen, big or small, is also beyond me. It takes Lowrie three chapters to relay the telling of Morrell’s five-year stint in solitary and the lie that put him there, and the entire time I was reading it all I could hear was David Holmes’ Ocean’s Eleven (or Twelve or Thirteen) soundtrack underscoring it. I could not read those three chapters (16–18) fast enough, editing it all together in my head with tracking shots, whip pans, and zip zooms. With the introduction of Harry Westwood Cooper, we meet a conniving doublecrosser who confoundingly decides to doublecross everyone around him in one of the most doublecrossiest doublecrossing stories that has surely ever been printed. That it is all true and the fact that Cooper’s plan backfires spectacularly, landing him in solitary next to Morrell elevates it to something near legend. Seriously, legend.

Then, there’s 14-year-old Claude, who you can imagine sitting on a bench, chewing gum nonchalantly—maybe even blowing bubbles, as he watches the Captain, the Warden, and a Sheriff argue back and forth over the whats of his age, the hows of his incarceration, and the whys of his delivery at San Quentin. Fourteen years old!

And never in my life did I think that I would suddenly learn the mechanics of how to hang someone, the ABCs of how to measure them to ascertain their “hanging height,” or the 123s of the math involved to solve the problem of how long their hanging rope should be, or why it needs to be that length, exactly. Yet, I now unwillingly possess that information because Lowrie refused to shy away from the specifics. That chapter left me simultaneously appalled and mesmerized and unable to deny the mythological archetypes at play—the realization shooting cold chills up my spine.

And just when you think it can’t get any worse, that’s when Lowrie introduces the “Female” Department of San Quentin, which is to say he delivers us out of hell’s frying pan and into its inferno, whose flames will surely elevate your body temperature as you learn of the many injustices delivered unto the women by their matron overlord. Tragically, the many wrongs those ladies endured makes Smoky Ryan’s departing monologue all the more poignant. The bitter truth of it will claw at your heart, likely forever.

Through it all, there is Lowrie, his eye for detail ever-present. In review after review of the book at the time of its release (some on the praise pages at the beginning of this edition) you see his keen eye for detail noted more than once. It was a quality Lowrie expressed as essential to writing in the December 1912 issue of The Editor:

“. . . learn to observe; be ready to tell the color of the eyes of the last person you spoke to, if asked to do so.”1Lowrie, D. (1912, December). Letters From the Literati XII. The Editor 36(6). 245.

At times, the details are simply too much. With my head swimming and reeling, I found myself audibly barking What?! at the insanities more than once—often, in fact. As the details cumulate, it’s easy to see how this story became an overnight sensation in 1912. How can you not be moved? How can you not be stirred? How can you not be outraged at the atrocities these humans experienced, convicts or not? That this book instigated prison reforms still in effect today will come as no surprise, likely before you’re even a quarter way through—because it’s sheer wall-to-wall lunacy at every turn.

So strongly was I affected by what I read that after Chapter 3, in which Lowrie arrives at San Quentin and is processed, I wondered if the mugshots he describes were readily available. I wanted—no, I needed to put a face with the name. A quick search yielded zero results, but morbid curiosity prodded me forth, and after several days of fumbling through disparate sources—suddenly—there was the face of Convict #19093 staring at me, across time and space. His face seemingly as mysterious as he presents himself in his own narrative. Evelyn Wells, in her biography of Fremont Older (the newspaper editor who sponsored Lowrie’s parole and put him to work at the San Francisco Bulletin upon release), even confirms his aura of mystery:

“Lowrie was meek, shy, easily influenced, with eyes which did not show the pupils and never revealed his thoughts. Only his mouth revealed the suffering of a man sensitive beyond the normal.”2Wells, E. (1936). Prison Reform. Fremont Older (p.244). D. Appleton & Company.

The Los Angeles Times, oddly, mentions his eyes too:

“He is a tall young fellow, with brown eyes that shift and turn and are seldom still for an instant.”3Lowrie Arraigned. (1901, February 27). The Los Angeles Times, A10.

What’s more, I didn’t discover one set of Lowrie mugshots, but two: he was also Convict #21873, a “two-time loser” at San Quentin—a fact that he doesn’t reveal until the final chapter, almost as an afterthought.

Again, mystery.

However, I should note that biographers and writers adapting true stories will often condense timelines and create composite characters in order to streamline a narrative, so this mystery doesn’t much bother me. Lowrie simply took his first 5-year term and his second 10-year term and combined them into a single 15-year term to simplify his story. Possibly at the behest of his editor who had word counts and column space in mind.

Still, though, who was Lowrie, really? Why such mystery? That he was educated is no question, the quality of his writing broadcasts it. Research into newspaper articles at the time of his first sentencing reveal that he was born in Boston and even briefly attended Harvard at some point.4College-Bred Man an Alleged Burglar. (1901, July 9). The Los Angeles Times, A1. His family was upper middle class, his mother a private physician in the home of a New Yorker on Fifth avenue, and his father was killed by Indians in Colorado while working as a surveyor on the Union Pacific railroad5Found Guilty of Lesser Burglary: Young Lowrie Convicted of Housebreaking. (1901, July 10). Los Angeles Herald, A9.—possibly the root cause of young Lowrie’s troubles?

Or perhaps none of that was true as boldly stated in a Los Angeles Times headline: “Dude Lowrie a Liar as well as Burglar. Young Crook not a Harvard University Graduate.” The article goes on to quote a Cambridge, Massachusetts, police inspector who details Lowrie’s record, which, if true, one can surely surmise why Lowrie hightailed it to the west coast soon after release, arriving in Los Angeles on Christmas Day 1900:

“He was arrested in our city for several jobs, and was sent to the House of Correction (the same as a penitentiary) for two years. He has done time in Massachusetts, in Joliet, and at the Elmira prison, and has just completed a term at Washington, D.C., for house breaking . . . he is a good man to lock up. He is not a Harvard man, and never was.”

Giving credence to the inspector’s accusation is the 1900 census, which confirms Lowrie as an inmate at the Middlesex County House of Correction & Jail in Massachusetts. And moving backward in time, there appears this confirmation of allegations in a September 1898 Boston newspaper article claiming Lowrie was arrested while using an assumed name:

“At this time he gave the name of James H. Richards, and refused to tell anything about himself . . . it was found that the name had been torn from an inside pocket of the coat, but on the watch pocket of his trousers was found the name George Randall . . . Washington D.C. . . .

“For a time he said that his name was Randall, but later said that his real name was Lowrie . . . He admitted that he has been arrested once before for breaking and entering, and had been sent to the Elmira Reformatory for a term which was finished last June.

“Lowrie is a man of good appearance, being about six feet tall, and well proportioned. He is a stenographer by profession, and says he does not know how he happened to drift into dishonest ways.”6Had Been Working in Suburbs: Man Brought Before Chief Watts Today Thought to Be Responsible for Breaks in Cambridge and Somerville. (1898, September 23). Boston Evening Transcript.

The second half of that final sentence would seem to become a recurring theme in his life; one that others would reflect on once they got to know Lowrie personally and the circumstances of his imprisonment(s), as noted again by Evelyn Wells:

“What had happened to Lowrie that he had stumbled?”7Wells, E. (1936). Prison Reform. Fremont Older (p.245). D. Appleton & Company.

One vice that certainly contributed much to his recurring problems was alcohol—or maybe it was a problem greatly exacerbated by drinking, as observed by more than one of his peers:

“Lowrie was a dipsomaniac8One who has an uncontrollable and recurring urge to drink alcohol., given to long sprees, and had committed robbery while under the influence of liquor. He could fill long periods of time with intense constructive work. Then the reaction would set in. He drank. Drinking, anything could happen to Lowrie.”9Ibid (p.244).

“Lowrie was invited to join [Thomas Mott] Osborne at Sing Sing as his private secretary, but Lowrie’s heavy drinking was too much for Osborne, who let him go after six months . . . In a letter dated 28 March 1917, for instance, Osborne wrote to Lowrie and warned him . . . ‘It is not the mere “lapses over the wine”—serious as these are . . . Your inability to keep sober is serious.’”10Connelly, D. (2009, Spring/Summer). Research Notes. The Courant. 10, 4-5.

“Donald Lowrie, a gifted, sensitive, imaginative, troubled creature . . .

“Don’s misdeeds must have arisen from a compulsion he couldn’t control, not from a necessity of a more tangible sort. He had, perhaps without realizing it or understanding it, a quarrel with society.

“Yet he was gentle . . . much less at home in rough company.”11Duffus, R.L. (1960). Friends of Fremont Older. The Tower of Jewels: Memories of San Francisco (p.226). W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Even Fremont Older himself became troubled by Lowrie’s many relapses:

“Older became certain that Donald Lowrie and his kind were doomed. Something in the man’s nature and mind made him different from other men . . .

“How many times he had gone out to hunt Lowrie, traced him through detectives or reporters, found him at last struggling in the horrors of delirium! . . .

“‘No power on earth could save Lowrie,’ said Older sadly. ‘Men like Donald Lowrie are different. In their making something went wrong. They are like cripples, stumbling along. Their minds are diseased.’”12Wells, E. (1936). Prison Reform. Fremont Older (pp.248-49). D. Appleton & Company.

Much like the details in this book, as the observed traits of Lowrie cumulate—gentle, intense, meek, shy, troubled, different, sensitive beyond the normal—one may arrive at the conclusion that Lowrie’s mind was more likely dis-eased rather than diseased. As you read this text, a question worth reflecting on may be: how could someone with such a keen eye for detail maintain even a shred of sanity in the world such as it was at the turn of the 20th century and in a place such as San Quentin? How does one turn off a mind naturally geared for such astute and meticulous observation?

I’m loathe to cite the oft-quoted cliché of “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” yet that’s exactly what Lowrie seemed to be throughout the entirety of his life—and, I believe, why he so fascinates me. If he did stoop low enough to commit the burglaries that imprisoned him, then how did he also rise up enough to act as assistant counsel for his own defense in the trial that first sent him to San Quentin?13Will Reside in San Quentin. (1901, July 11). Daily Times Index, A1. Who does that?

The more I learn about Lowrie and the deeper I dig, the more questions I have. History seems to have ultimately dismissed him as an alcoholic burglar who couldn’t “make good,” but, again, as the details cumulate, there’s no single label you can hang on the man and make stick for long. Dipsomaniac? Okay, sure. Yet, after starting work at the Bulletin and serializing what would become this book, he wrote over one hundred thousand words in a few weeks14Barry, J.D. (1912, October). Donald Lowrie. The American Magazine, (74) 676. and singlehandedly increased the Bulletin’s circulation by 41,000.15Wells, E. (1936). Prison Reform. Fremont Older (p.245). D. Appleton & Company. Anyone possessing even a modicum of knowledge concerning writing or newspaper subscriptions knows you can’t balk at those numbers.

Frustratingly, I have joined what seems to be a long list of persons asking the same question so succinctly posed by Ms. Wells: What had happened to Lowrie that he had stumbled? Why did he vacillate between such extremes? Was it something in his youth? Rebellion against his upbringing? Was he far too sensitive for this world and had to self-medicate with alcohol? Was he undiagnosed bipolar, a condition worsened by liquor? Or was he simply a lying shyster who reveled in drink, conning everyone around him and putting on airs just long enough to make it to the rush of his next drunken criminal spree? Or was he some strange, complex amalgamation of all those things?

These are the questions that plague me because I don’t think Lowrie should be so easily dismissed; there’s just something about him, especially after reading this book, that seems worthy of further investigation—that’s why we Heathens are already hard at work on the 1915 sequel My Life Out of Prison, which details his life after San Quentin, working at the Bulletin, and traveling the lecture circuit with Ed Morrell to educate the public on the need for prison reform, because maybe some of the answers I seek await within its pages.

And after much searching, we’ve finally located and are hard at work on his third and final book Back in Prison—Why?, which answers many questions as it was the serial Lowrie was working on in 1925 after once again being imprisoned for burglary in Arizona. Fremont Older sent Evelyn Wells to edit the story, and she sat with Lowrie every day for four months in a ward of the Arizona Penitentiary, but before Lowrie could finish he died of tuberculosis. Wells completed the book with notes she had taken at his bedside.16Wells, E. (1936). Prison Reform. Fremont Older (p.248). D. Appleton & Company.

A tragic end for a tragic man? That’s the question I keep asking myself as I piece together more of the puzzle that was Donald Lowrie. . . .

As for the text of this book, the original surely could have used another pass by an editor, which is surprising considering this story was originally serialized in the Bulletin. We have corrected myriad spelling and punctuation errors, in addition to updating a few archaic and hyphenated words to reflect their modern usage. Additionally, we have added some 250 footnotes with further corrections and to supplement the text with context, clarification, and commentary as needed. We’ve also added section breaks in some of the chapters to help with Lowrie’s sometimes jarring tendency to switch topics without warning.

There also existed a numbering error with the original chapters: Chapters 23 and 26 were skipped over entirely. Whether those chapters were removed from the final version before print or their omission was a simple lapse in counting we cannot say barring a journey to San Francisco and burrowing into the Bulletin archives, so, meantime, we have inserted those chapters and left them blank intentionally.

We were also able to locate several photos of San Quentin approximate to the period of Lowrie’s incarceration, circa 1890s–1910s, which we have included where appropriate. And, in addition to Lowrie’s mugshots, we were able to use either direct information supplied by Lowrie throughout the text or his indirect clues and a bit of deduction to locate nearly two dozen more mugshots of inmates who populate this story, which we have placed where they seem most appropriate within the text. This is one aspect that I believe elevates and makes our edition of this book truly unique. For me, while it’s sometimes incredibly disconcerting to read the words about what these individuals endured, it’s something else entirely when you can actually see their faces and styled hair and dapper, early 20th century clothing (most sporting fine hats that make me nostalgic for a time I never knew) versus the dichotomy of their shaved heads and faces and those plain, bold prison stripes. Convicts assuredly—whether wrongfully or rightfully—but humans absolutely.

Finally, I will leave you with these words by Lowrie from this book’s final chapter to better preface and bookend the many events of which you are about to learn:

“Much that could be written has been left unwritten, and much that has been written has been toned down in order to be entirely fair, or to avoid giving offense to readers.”

While the historical record may cast doubt on Lowrie’s version of events in the lead up to his arrival at San Quentin, I think it’s no doubt that he chose to “tell it straight” after stepping through its gates. If only for the simple fact that there were too many witnesses—approximately 1,500 to 2,000 of them—to the events which he details. I also have no doubt that, as noted, he left much unwritten. Just how much we may never know—but what he did write sure is a doozy.

Regardless of who you are as you begin this book, I’m most certain that you won’t be the same once finished.

I’m also most certain that no matter the assumptions you may have already formed concerning the character of Donald Lowrie, the words that follow will challenge all of them—for as Thomas Mott Osborne wrote (a man so passionately inspired by this very book that he chose to voluntarily commit himself to one week of imprisonment at Auburn Prison in New York), this book is “written so simply yet with such power.”17Osborne, T. M. (1914). Why I Went to Prison. Within Prison Walls (p.4). D. Appleton & Company.

What was it within Lowrie that fueled that power?


Sheridan Cleland



My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie (Heathen Edition)