The Wyoming State Penitentiary Death Row All Stars, which consisted of the Wyoming death row inmates, was an unconventional baseball team, as apparent from their name, which consisted of individuals with criminal backgrounds.
On July 18, 1911, they embarked on their inaugural game, comprising a twelve-member squad comprising three individuals convicted of rape, one forger, five thieves, and three murderers.
For this assembly of inmates awaiting execution, the outcome held significant implications: a victory would reduce their sentences. However, a single misstep would result in a literal death sentence.
Undoubtedly, this form of justice lacked fairness, but it aligned with the prevailing ethos of Rawlins, Wyoming, during that era.
In their book titled Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder, authors Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian recounted the practices of the town: “Desperadoes caught in the act of robbery, rape, or murder were not only subjected to hanging but occasionally subjected to skinning.
The hides of these unfortunate lawbreakers were fashioned into various items, sold as souvenirs, and utilized as a deterrent for potential criminals.”
Who Were the Wyoming Death Row Inmates of the Death Row All Stars Team?
Amidst the scorching summer heat in baseball-enthusiastic Rawlins, Wyoming, during the year 1911, a fervent audience gathered to witness an intense baseball match. Amongst them, pitcher Thomas Cameron stood poised, preparing to deliver a powerful fastball aimed directly at home plate. However, fate had a different plan in store.
With a forceful release, Cameron’s pitch veered off course, striking the opposing player’s left shoulder before ricocheting into the stands, granting the batter a free pass to first base.
Unbeknownst to the spectators, Cameron’s predicament extended beyond the confines of the game. His existence was dwindling on the pitcher’s mound, both physically and metaphorically.
Thomas Cameron, a convicted rapist, found himself taking on the role of a pitcher for the Wyoming State Penitentiary Death Row All Stars, a team exclusively comprised of the most hardened criminals.
Within the town, a wide range of individuals, from local bar patrons to the team’s captain, George Saban, who was himself a convicted murderer, and even the prison warden, had placed substantial bets on the Death Row All Stars emerging victorious.
However, for the convicts, the stakes extended far beyond the usual excitement of triumph or the agony of defeat.
According to the noteworthy book “The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption, and Murder” by Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss, each victory promised a reduction in their prison sentences. Conversely, any losses incur dire consequences.
As the author detail, “Even the slightest mistake that cost the team a win would lead to a fatal outcome.”
The Penitentiary Death Row All Stars emerged as a transient phenomenon, an unlikely amalgamation of diverse convicts who happened to possess exceptional skills in America’s beloved pastime.
Under the leadership of their standout player, Joseph Seng, a convicted murderer who had taken the life of his lover’s husband, the Death Row All Stars unwittingly became pawns in an ongoing political power struggle among state officials.
Although their tenure was brief, consisting of only four games, each match was imbued with a level of intrigue that rivaled a modern-day World Series.
The fact that the small frontier town of Rawlins allowed such individuals to partake in the pleasures of the game is remarkable, considering its longstanding adherence to a strict, old-fashioned approach to combating crime.
Authors of the book recount the town’s methods, stating, “Desperadoes caught in the act of robbery, rape, or murder were not only subjected to hanging but occasionally subjected to skinning.
Various items were crafted from the remains of these unfortunate lawbreakers, sold as keepsakes, and employed as cautionary symbols for aspiring felons.”
Among the ill-fated criminals, George Parrott stands as an example. Having committed the double murder of two deputy sheriffs during a failed train robbery, he met his end at the hands of Rawlins citizens in 1881, enduring a lynching that ultimately resulted in his skin being fashioned into shoes.
The Wyoming State Penitentiary, established in 1901, maintained an austere environment that aligned with the town’s prevailing disposition. Under the command of Otto Gramm, a wealthy entrepreneur who established a broom factory within the prison, inmates endured harsh conditions.
Gramm received compensation from the state for overseeing the prisoners, ostensibly for their “well-being.” Meanwhile, he capitalized on their labor, selling the brooms they painstakingly assembled at substantial profits, amassing nearly $250,000 between 1903 and 1911.
As recounted by the incarcerated individuals, the reign of Otto Gramm was characterized as “relentless” and reminiscent of a bygone era, with conditions described as being “of the Dark Ages.” According to their testimonies, meals were meticulously rationed, ensuring only the bare minimum sustenance to stave off starvation.
However, in April 1911, the state officially abolished this oppressive system. Much to his discontent, Otto Gramm found himself ousted alongside his lucrative broom enterprises. In his place, Big Horn County Sheriff Felix Alston assumed the role of the warden, bringing with him a markedly more empathetic perspective on prison management.
By all accounts, Alston implemented compassionate reforms within the penitentiary. These changes encompassed the introduction of exercise opportunities for the inmates, the initiation of a road-building program that allowed them to spend their days outdoors, and even the establishment of an inmate baseball team.
The Rise of the Wyoming Death Row All Stars
On July 18, 1911, the Wyoming State Penitentiary Death Row All Stars inaugurated their baseball journey with a 12-man lineup consisting of three individuals convicted of rape, a forger, five thieves, and three murderers.
Facing off against the formidable Wyoming Supply Company Juniors, who were regarded as one of the top teams in the region, the Death Row All Stars dominated the game with an impressive 11-1 victory. The star of the match was right fielder Joseph Seng, who showcased his remarkable talent by hitting two home runs, including a grand slam.
The game garnered significant attention, capturing the interest of newspapers nationwide. The Washington Post, in particular, ran an article titled “Slayer Scores Home Runs,” documenting the event.
Beyond their athletic prowess, the players drew attention to their dignified demeanor on the field. The Carbon County Journal, referring to the team as “the Cons,” commended Joseph Seng, a first-degree murder convict facing a death sentence, for his exceptional performance, noting that he intended to request a commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment from the governor in the coming month.
The local community’s fervent interest in the Death Row All Stars’ remarkable display of skill may have tapped into a primal connection to baseball that resonated with the spectators. However, it also fueled another local fascination—gambling.
George Saban, serving a prison term for the premeditated killing of three sleeping sheepherders by shooting them in the face at close range, was embroiled in a larger conflict between sheepherders and cattle ranchers over territorial disputes. Many individuals involved in the cattle industry, including local prison guards and politicians, believed that Saban’s actions were justified.
Coincidentally, the arresting officer on the day of Saban’s arrest was Sheriff Alston, who, as revealed by Alston’s grandson to the authors, happened to be Saban’s closest friend.
Despite receiving a sentence of over 20 years for his crimes, Saban enjoyed special privileges. He not only held the position of team captain but astonishingly was allowed to freely come and go from the prison, dressed in his finest civilian attire.
During his excursions, often accompanied by prison guard D.O. Johnson, whose family was involved in the cattle business, Saban frequented local establishments and facilitated betting on the Death Row All Stars’ games.
He took a 20% commission from the winning bets and provided gamblers with insider information about the team, including updates on star player Joseph Seng and the progress of his appeal. Saban had a vested interest in convincing bettors that the Death Row All Stars were destined for victory.
The Story of Joseph Seng’s Escape from an Inmate
Among those dissatisfied with the unfolding events was Gramm, who harbored hopes of reviving his broom enterprise. Through his prison informant, guard Johnson, Gramm discovered that Saban was engaged in illicit betting on the games, using funds provided by Alston.
Eager to exploit this knowledge, Gramm divulged the information to his friend, Senator Francis Warren of Wyoming.
Warren, who had gubernatorial aspirations and intended to challenge the incumbent, Governor Joseph Carey, perceived an opportunity to leverage this information against Carey, whom he suspected—whether based on belief or strategic choice—of involvement in gambling activities.
The lines were drawn, and allegiances formed on the baseball field and within the political arena.
Meanwhile, Seng’s scheduled execution was rapidly approaching, set for August 22, 1911. However, he narrowly escaped a potentially fatal encounter mere weeks prior. A fellow inmate, driven by malicious intent, wielded the heavy 10-pound steel ball attached to his leg by a chain.
Ascending a staircase, he reached the top where a small box filled with sand, typically used for waste disposal, was positioned. With calculated precision, the prisoner dropped the box over the railing, causing it to plummet 25 feet to the exact spot where Seng had been standing just moments earlier.
By sheer luck, Seng had momentarily shifted his position to converse with a guard, narrowly eluding the fatal impact.
In due course, the players assembled for a practice session. While the infield adeptly executed seamless exchanges of the ball, akin to champions of Major League Baseball, shortstop Joseph Guzzardo, convicted of manslaughter, encountered a momentary lapse.
He fumbled a sharply hit ground ball from Saban and repeated the error on the subsequent hit. Consumed by frustration, Guzzardo stormed off the field, an act that failed to sit well with his lethal team captain.
Saban seized the opportunity to reprimand Guzzardo, ensuring the rest of the team bore witness to his admonishment. Details of the incident were revealed through a letter penned by Seng.
“Mistakes on the field would not be tolerated,” Seng conveyed in his correspondence. “Saban informed us that prisoners who committed errors resulting in the team’s loss would face an extension of their sentences. Victory, on the other hand, would yield reduced time and reprieves from execution.”
Saban relayed to the players that these directives originated directly from Warden Alston while simultaneously sharing this information with the town’s gamblers. He assured them that the Death Row All Stars possessed every incentive to secure triumph and an even greater impetus to avoid defeat.
The End of Death Row All Stars and Execution of Joseph Seng
The Wyoming State Penitentiary Death Row All Stars players couldn’t escape the weight of their circumstances as they took the field on August 4. Nevertheless, they secured their second victory against the Juniors with an impressive 11-1 score.
Despite the assassination attempt and the elevated stakes, Seng, seemingly unfazed, delivered a flawless performance, going 4-for-4 and exhibiting impeccable fielding skills while awaiting news on his appeal.
In the team’s third game, Seng’s performance was slightly less remarkable, going 2-for-5, but the Cons continued their extraordinary trend of scoring 11 runs, triumphing with an 11-4 outcome.
Warden Alston, mindful of Seng’s safety and grappling with a series of prison escapes, implemented tighter security measures within the penitentiary. Diminutive inmates, aptly dubbed “human ferrets,” were dispatched to search for escapees who concealed themselves in cramped spaces on the prison grounds, including beneath buildings and through heating tunnels.
As summer drew to a close, the inmates began suspecting that Seng’s appeals had been unsuccessful, and he remained alive solely due to his prowess on the baseball field. While originally scheduled for execution on August 22, Seng inexplicably survived into the following day, potentially due to the team’s upcoming game scheduled for the 29th.
Their fourth and final victory arrived with a 15-10 score. Subsequently, Alston started discussing the replacement of baseball with educational initiatives for the prisoners.
In September, Governor Carey implemented a statewide crackdown on gambling, possibly in response to escalating rumors fueled by Gramm, implicating state officials in the gambling activities surrounding the games. Governor Carey expressed concerns about the team in a letter to Alston.
Shortly thereafter, Alston announced the discontinuation of the team, assuring local gamblers that it was a temporary measure to divert attention until the rumors subsided. However, by November, the prison received acclaim for its new educational programs, and the Death Row All Stars gradually faded into oblivion.
The inmates seemed to endorse the praise as they presented Alston with a gold watch as a token of gratitude for the reforms during Christmas.
As for Seng, his temporary reprieve had been arranged by his attorneys, but its duration proved short-lived. On May 24, 1912, he met his ultimate fate on the gallows.
The Carbon County Journal, which had previously commended his classy style of play, paid him a different tribute this time, describing his steady steps as he approached the noose and acknowledging him as a courageous man.
Next, read about the Terrifying Full Story of What Actually Happened to the Titan Submersible. Then, if you’re a wilderness buff, make sure you read about the True Story of Carl McCunn, Who Was Stranded in the Alaskan wilderness!
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