Marjorie Coughlin

Interview with Marjorie Coughlin

By Joyce Rhodes

 Little Marjorie Coughlin arrived at San Quentin at the age of two in the custody of her parents, Dan Coughlin and Kathleen May Walsh Coughlin. There she lived and played with the children of other prison employees until 1944 when she became 18, and moved to San Francisco to work for the government. Later she transferred to Washington DC where she worked for the Adjutant General’s Office before being selected for the stenographic pool for the Nuremberg Trials in Germany.

 In this small, enclosed community, boys and girls of all ages enjoyed together tennis, roller skating and swimming in the reservoir. They spooked each other on Halloween night at the Boot Hill Cemetery. After lockup at 4 PM the girls could wear shorts or jeans, but not before.

 The Coughlin family had many cats and from their home, they smelled the larger animals; pigs, sheep and horses being raised on the prison farm.

 Once a week, Marjorie’s parents went to town to buy groceries. However, most of their needs were delivered by Miller’s Grocery (located in San Quentin Village). Vegetables were delivered from the San Quentin Ranch  by inmates. Prisoners were carefully picked for household jobs, window washing and general cleaning, repairs, and newspaper delivery. Brown bread was delivered on Wednesday.

 No liquor was kept in the home and doors were never locked. There were no phones in the homes. Prisoners were to be seen about the grounds gardening and keeping the prison site in order. Inmates collected flowers from hills abundant with foliage and blossoms. Marjorie calls it a “Tom Sawyer childhood in a Garden of Eden.”

 The children had no chance to earn money and therefore had no money in their pockets. These were the days of the Great Depression and every family in the Prison was living in far better circumstances than the people in surrounding areas. Marjorie’s parent bought new cars, took trips and sent their children to private schools and universities. Rent was $6 per month.

 The children could talk to the prisoners and did not look down on them. Sons didn’t mow lawns or rake leaves. The laundry was sent out the main gate so the girls’ only chores were bed making. The children learned little about keeping a home.

 The children were schooled on site by the two teachers until completion of the eighth grade. Then they were transported by bus to San Rafael high where they completed their studies. Entrants from San Quentin Elementary had the highest grade point averages in their classes. They couldn’t participate in after school activities because they had to catch the bus. There was little socializing with classmates. Few girls dated because potential boyfriends didn’t enjoy coming through the Main Gate, have themselves scrutinized or their cars searched.

 “The townspeople thought of this as a closed society. For sure one knew all the San Quentin families. In fact, we were one big family.”

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