Lizzie Cardish, Teenage Arsonist

Lizzie Cardish was born May 30, 1891 in Wisconsin, the daughter of full-blooded Menominee tribal members John Cardish and Cecelia Matchmehata. Some records refer to her as “Elizabeth,” but Lizzie appears to be her legal name, if she had one. There are also a variety of birthdays and ages given – one newspaper account firmly stated she was born September 16, 1890. (It’s certainly possible no one knew her real birthday – it seems to be rather common pre-1907 for birthdates to be inexact.)

September 1897: Was enrolled at the government’s Menominee Indian Training School at Keshena.

Louisa LaMotte and Lizzie Cardish (age 13 and in 6th grade) on January 17, 1905, in the daytime, set fire to the Boys and Girls dormitories of the Menominee Indian Training School. The damage was estimated at $50,000 (not adjusted for inflation). No one was injured in the fire, however the building was completely destroyed. Lizzie’s motives for starting the fire were reported to be either a wish not to attend school at all or a desire to go to the federal school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where a friend had been transferred. Newspaper reports were very inaccurate – some said she started the fire at night, and the students escaped without even grabbing their clothes. The fire was midday and no one was asleep inside. The destruction of clothes, however, may have happened.

For some reason, the crime occurred in January 1905 but did not come up for trial until 1906. In January 1906, defense attorney George Eberlein of Shawano argued that the girls should be released and turned over to their own people for punishment. In April 1906, Judge Joseph Quarles denied a motion to quash the case and set trial for June in Oshkosh. (Federal court for the eastern district of Wisconsin is generally in Milwaukee and Green Bay. I’m not sure why it was in Oshkosh.) I’m unsure who Eberlein was. Vital records suggest he may have been born c1869 and moved to South Dakota after the trial?

“Lizzie Cardish is a comely Indian maid of about sixteen years and in court Tuesday afternoon she was neatly and becomingly attired in a white gown and waist and wore a pretty dark straw hat trimmed with blue ribbon. In appearance the girl is remarkably intelligent for one of her race, and her features are quite regular.” – The Oshkosh Northwestern, June 13, 1906

She was tried in federal court at Oshkosh (Eastern District of Wisconsin), found guilty of arson committed by an Indian on a government reservation and sentenced to life in prison. After pleading guilty, the judge presiding over her case was required, under federal statute, to send her to prison for life. If the crime had occurred nine years earlier, the mandated punishment would have been death.

Eleven women had been sent to Leavenworth prior to Lizzie. Three during the current warden’s time: Mary Grayson, Mary Snowden and Mary Young, each of whom had to be sent away and temporarily stored in cages to keep them separate from the male prisoners. Lizzie, by far the youngest, was the last female prisoner ever sent to Leavenworth. Warden Robert Wilson McClaughry (1839-1920) was not willing to keep Lizzie at the penitentiary for more than a day.

McClaughry was a Civil War veteran and former superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. He was a pioneer in creating reliable identification records systems and was ready to implement and evaluate new techniques as they became available. McClaughry was the first person to introduce Bertillonage (physical measurement of criminals) into the United States in 1887, and he persuaded the Warden’s Association of the United States and Canada to adopt the system in the same year.

Lizzie’s mugshot and fingerprints were taken and the following day she was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, where there was a women’s department. McClaughry wrote to General Cecil Clay (1842-1907) on July 3 that Leavenworth was never designed for women. Lizzie was frightened, and the warden refused to treat her like a prisoner – she was housed and fed in the captain’s office until better arrangements could be made. He sent her to Lansing before getting permission from Washington because he said, in his letter, he had the “highest considerations” of “propriety” and “humanity” in mind – he would not watch a female child be alone in a prison with hundreds of male criminals. He ended his letter by urging the federal government to find a designated place for female prisoners so this would never happen again. An all-female federal prison did not open until 1927 in Alderson, West Virginia.

The public was outraged that a young girl had been sentenced to life in prison for a crime in which no one was injured, inside a prison for male offenders. Many people demanded that her sentence be commuted, including Judge Joseph Quarles, the man who by law had no option but to pass a life sentence on Lizzie. Quarles said if he had to personally go to Washington and force a pardon he would, because he would not be the judge who sentenced a young girl to life in prison. Another supporter of Lizzie’s was Father Joseph A. Shorter (1863-1936) at Leavenworth.

President Theodore Roosevelt commuted Lizzie’s sentence in September 1906, with word received by Deputy Warden JW Dobson via telegram. Solicitor general Henry Martyn Hoyt (1856-1910) followed up with a letter to Warden McClaughry on September 10. She wasn’t released immediately. She was sent to a prison closer to home, specifically for girls. The newspaper speculated Indiana, but it ended up being the Illinois State Training School for Girls in Geneva (Kane County), until she reached the age of 21. Government officials demanded that she to be brought to USP Leavenworth from the Kansas State Penitentiary before being transferred to Geneva. As far as officials were concerned, Lizzie was still “officially” incarcerated at Leavenworth (presumably because she was a federal prisoner so should have been in a federal prison).

On September 17, 1906: Marshal William Henry Mackey arrived and took Lizzie from Leavenworth to Geneva. William Howard Taft succeeded Roosevelt as president in 1909. He commuted Lizzie’s sentence on April 20, 1910. How quickly this took effect is unclear. On April 26, she was enumerated as a 19 year old inmate at the Illinois Home for Girls by a census taker.

September 21, 1910: Lizzie entered Carlisle school in Pennsylvania at age 19, signing up for a five-year term. Two witnesses beyond family were required to get in, and Lizzie’s papers were signed by W. Eaheart (signature hard to read) and Reginald Oshkosh. She also passed the physical given by Dr. Lawrence W. White at the Keshena school. It was apparently quite thorough, because even “normal” menstruation is noted. Lizzie was said to have four living siblings and four dead ones, at least one of whom died of tuberculosis. On December 7, she left the school at her mother’s request. The school formally dropped her as a student February 8, 1911 when she didn’t come back.

1913: Sylvester J. Kakkak is born to Lizzie and Frank Kakkak.

Her occupation as of January 5, 1920 was that of a maid. She married wagon maker John Fox on February 3, 1920 in Menominee, Michigan. The ceremony was performed by John E. Jones, Justice of the Peace. Witnesses were George Dittmore and Carl Jones.

Lizzie died 1926 around age 34.

May 22, 1936: Sylvester Kakkak married Myrtle Kinapoway, daughter of Andrew Kinapoway and Theresa Matchoma, at Menominee, Michigan. Service was performed by JP Robert M. Burns with witnesses Harry Kakkak and Rose Oshkesheqwoam. I am not aware of Lizzie having any living descendants today (but would love to be corrected). She does, however, have great grand-nieces and grand-nephews.

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