This is Jack Laustenneau, presumably photographed in 1903 when he became the 2,029th prisoner to pass through the sally port of the Territorial Prison at Yuma.
A burly Romanian from Chicago, Laustenneau was considered a rabble rouser by authorities and a social activist by his followers. Undisputed is that he organized and led a strike at the Morenci Mines in June, 1903, convincing some 1,600 miners that both President Theodore Roosevelt and Mexican President Porfirio Diaz would support their fight.
The Arizona National Guard was called in, but before the confrontation could get out of hand, an act of God intervened in the form of a violent rainstorm that sent both troops and miners scurrying.
Laustenneau was whisked off to jail by the Arizona Rangers, was charged with inciting a riot and sentenced to two years hard labor. He was sent to Yuma Territorial Prison.
There he began organizing the prisoners. In a short time, he had put together a cadre of convicts willing to challenge the authorities.
On April 28, 1904, 15 prisoners – with Laustenneau at the fore – sought their freedom. They took the prison superintendent and his assistant hostage and demanded that the prison gates be opened. The prison guards opened fire, wounding three prisoners and the assistant, whose leg was hit with buckshot.
The guards prevailed and the would-be escapees were placed in solitary confinement. Again Jack was tried, convicted and sentenced. Ten years were added to his term.
Not even the Snake Den, Yuma’s pitch-dark, 15 by 15-foot solitary confinement cave – said to be alive with scorpions and the occasional sidewinder – could tame Laustenneau’s aggressive nature. As soon as he was back in the prison population, he began organizing work strikes and grievance committees.
His discontent generated an equal response from the prison authorities; time spent in the Snake Den became a familiar part of his prison routine. Once he spent 88 consecutive days there. When he was finally brought out, two fingers had become gangrenous and had to be amputated. From then on, he was known as Three-Fingered Jack.
Laustenneau never did bend to prison authority. He was an agitator to the end, which came on August 20, 1906, as the result of venereal disease. The attending physician wrote “…the cause of death was neither mistreatment, privation nor poor accommodations.” It is not known if the words were written in defense of a prison system considered barbaric by many, or simply as an aside at the death of a man who had been an enormous thorn in the side of prison officials.
The Arizona Sentinel’s take was more succinct. “…It is said that (Laustenneau) had been in very bad health for some time, and his death was probably not unexpected.”
– W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy of the author.