Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Tyrannical Rule of Superintendent O'Brien

The Tyrant Emerges -May 20th, 1897 

Newspaper Clipping
Dr. Edward Stephen O’Brien's reign was the start of a terrible legacy that was rumored to have lasted throughout many decades even after he had been long gone. That legacy was cruelty. From the very beginning of his days at Preston, O’Brien ruled over the boys with an iron fist, literally. Rumors and gossip spread around town of his terrible temper and lack of self-restraint. By November of 1897, O’Brien had earned the title of “Tyrant.” Seven people which included employees and wards, filed petitions and affidavits with the Governor accusing O’Brien of “awful brutality” and “torturing the wards.”

H.R. Bernard, the Board Secretary for Preston stated this about O’Brien, “He who cannot govern himself, must not expect to govern others.” Bernard went on to accuse O’Brien for mismanaging the school and having an“uncontrollable temper.” He also claimed that O’Brien’s “egotism persuaded himself that he is indispensable and harbors under the hallucination that, as he expressed it, he is a ‘stone wall’ and ‘cannot be removed’.”

Bernard continued to state an account that would then be the start of many stories to come, which inevitably earned the school the title “Preston School of Scandal.”


“ I was called upon one evening to report immediately to the Superintendent’s office, and rushed in to find Dr. O’Brien wildly excited and beating A. Ascensio over the head and face with a cane, which he soon broke. He continued his blows with the part left in his hand. Which was also broken a moment later from the force of the blows.
Then the Doctor grabbed a pole about four feet long and proceeded to belabor the yelling lad over the body. The force of the blows was terrific.

I have also witnessed a rough and tumble fight on the front portico of the administration building between O’Brien and a 16 year old lad from Ione……. Each pummeled the other for some time, until a blow from O’Brien cut the lad’s face. The boy was allowed to go, but later Mr. Phillips, an officer of the school and Deputy Sherriff was sent after the boy whom he brought back and was taken to the Superintendent…..O’Brien became brave and threatened the boy that if he ever dared to speak to him in Ione that he {O’Brien} , who had just handed the revolver to Phillips, would blow a hole in him that a team could run through”- H.R. Bernard's Affidavit.

Another account was recorded by Amador County Physician, E.E. Endicott on 11/14/1897 that reads:

This incident, among many others of a similar nature, came under my personal observation while in professional attendance at the said school, and serves to confirm in my mind, as I believe the of many citizens of Ione, the serious charges now appearing in the daily press…
A youth by the name of Nick Hamilton, in an endeavor to escape, had sustained a sprained knee. When called in to attend the injured lad I found him lying in the hospital suffering great pain. I examined the knee and found it badly swollen and inflamed. Dr. A.L. Adams of Ione had also examined him and confirmed diagnosis. Treatment was at once instituted with a view to relieving the suffering boy, when the Superintendent appeared and desired to examine the injury.

He rudely grasped the boy’s limb, and to our astonishment began vigorously flexing, extending and rotating the limb, heedless of the yells of pain emanating from the tortured boy, his only reply being “LIE STILL, I’M BOSS HERE!!”- E.E. Endicot, M.D.'s Affidavit.

Copyright: J. Rubio
One note I like to make right here is that this boy, Nick Hamilton died six months after this story was published in the paper. His cause of death according to the Biennial Report states he died from “pulmonary tuberculosis” and that he was kept “isolated” from all the boys. Yes, I guess anything is possible, but wouldn’t that be the perfect excuse to keep him isolated?  It also says they used “strict antiseptic precautions” to avoid contamination with the other wards. Perhaps he wasn’t sick at all, and this was a terrible punishment for his story leaking out to the press. By him being kept isolated there was no way for any of the other boys to know whether he was really sick or not. 

Remember, he had been there a while and had they known he had tuberculosis upon arriving there they would have kept him isolated all the time. Maybe the poor boy didn’t survive O’Brien’s torture, so they made an excuse that he died from tuberculosis. His body was never claimed, so he was laid to rest in the cemetery behind Preston.  Two more witnesses P.J. Glas and J.J. Harlon stated that O’Brien “flogged a boy until his flesh peeled from his back.” He also “lashed” another boy until he“exhausted him to the ground.”

Sadly, although so many came forward to testify against O’Brien for his misconduct and vicious cruelty to the boys, he was exonerated. According to the December 18th edition of the 1897 newspapers, the headline read “Dr.O’Brien Has Been Vindicated.” It was obvious there was some sort of payoff and cover-up on the part of O’Brien and his friends in high places. Even the Governor himself couldn’t seem to have anything done to O’Brien despite his very best efforts.

In regards to the entire investigation, The Board of Trustees for Preston ruled in favor of O’Brien, completely exonerating him of the charges of cruelty and unnecessary severity to inmates. The vote passed 2 to 1, being that Trustee Tyrrell voted negatively towards O’Brien. Unfortunately, O’Brien got off without so much as a slap on the wrist and even threatened to sue the State if they alleged any more wrongdoing. He was asked to resign on good terms to avoid any further scandal and he agreed as part of the stipulations of his investigation.

I am a firm believer that you reap what you sow in life and death. I also believe that when justice is not served, for whatever reason, that it will be left in God's hands to judge those who are guilty of horrible crimes upon meeting their "maker." With that being said, I have recently tracked down the grave of Preston's 2nd Superintendent, Dr. E.S. O'Brien. Although I feel that what he did there was completely horrible and wrong, again, he has paid for his sins in death and I respect the graves of all people, good or bad. At the same time we do not have to forget the horrible legacy he was made infamous for. At least we can do that much to remember the boys he affected during his reign at the Preston School of Industry. (Check out E. S. O'Brien's grave HERE).

For more information on Superintendent O'Brien and the rest of the Preston School of Industry's history, please keep reading my blog, and check out my book, "Behind The Walls" today! 

(© Copyright 2012-2015, J’aime Rubio, Originally published either on blog “Dreaming Casually” by J’aime Rubio, on my Facebook Page or in the book “Behind The Walls- A Historical Exposé of The Preston School of Industry” by author, J’aime Rubio.)

All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission by the author/publisher, J’aime Rubio. 

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