After 10 years as chaplain at Alcatraz Federal Prison and then 20 years at San Quentin State Prison, the Rev. Byron Eshelman retired to the hills of Occidental and did some preaching in the churches of western Sonoma County. At Alcatraz he ministered to the notorious gangster Al Capone and the terrible criminal Robert Stroud, who in solitary confinement observed the birds outside his barred window, wrote a book about them and became the Birdman of Alcatraz. A 1962 movie about him stared Burt Lancaster in the title role.
Byron was on the smallish side with wavy hair that stayed dark late into life. When on the job, he favored black suits and somber ties, and he could pound the pulpit with the best of them. Byron’s father led evangelistic revivals, and, as a young boy, Byron began to mimic his father’s wide sweeping pulpit gestures. The senior Reverend Eshelman set up a wooden orange crate to look like a pulpit and had Byron stand behind it and preach to the people for several minutes before the main sermon began. He waved his little arms and ranted at the folks in his squeaky voice, and the people laughed and cheered. He was known far and wide as the Boy Preacher, Byron told me.
As a young man, Byron attended the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley where he was enthralled by a course called “Psychotherapy in Religion,” taught by Fritz Kunkel, a pioneer in the study of the implications of depth psychology for religious faith. After graduating from Yale Divinity School, he did clinical training at mental hospitals and prisons and came to believe that all human beings are his brothers and sisters, whatever their situation in life.
With this notion embedded in his soul, Byron would recognize ordinary human traits and talents in prisoners, even though they had done terrible things. He encouraged them to take classes, write down their thoughts and do drawings. Some of them became quite good at these things. His supervisors sometimes said he was naive and overly optimistic in his assessment of prisoners, but Byron stuck to his convictions.
During his career, Byron accompanied more than 500 men from Death Row to the gas chamber. After 10 years at San Quentin, he wrote a book called Death Row Chaplain, a deeply spiritual writing, even though it deals with men waiting execution for capital crimes. As an execution draws near, Byron notices, everyone involved becomes uncomfortable, including the warden, the doctors, the attendants and the chaplain. While the gas was doing its work, Byron quietly prayed, “O God, receive thy son, our brother in the human family ...”
Byron also noticed that almost all those executed were either mentally ill or mentally impaired or raised in abject poverty or all of the above. Many had no idea what was happening to them or why. And so Byron came to feel the execution process was so inhuman, so wasteful of time and government resources, so useless in preventing the crimes for which people are executed, and so fraught with the possibility of executing an innocent person, that the death penalty should be done away with.
“I have come to believe that the death penalty is fundamentally a symptom of bewilderment and confusion in society,” he wrote.
So that’s what a former prison chaplain came to after three decades of attending executions. Lo and behold, our present governor feels the same way, and he’s banned executions in California. Byron Eshelman, who died in 1989, would be pleased.
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.