The story of Yuma Territorial Prison Superintendent Thomas Gates' suicide begins many years earlier. On October 27, 1877, seven Mexicans prisoners of the Yuma Territorial Prison made a violent escape attempt in what is known as "the Gates Riot." Taking penitentiary Superintendent Thomas Gates hostage, the convicts, led by inmate Puebla, quickly encountered difficulties in their efforts. Inmate Padilla was carried over the prison embankments by guard Fredley, who then regained custody of him; inmate Baca was shot twice by Guard Reynolds. Inmate Puebla was shot by the gun in inmate Lopez' hand; as for Lopez, he was pistol-whipped by a staff member, Rule, during the struggle, then shot by guard B. F. Hartlee and by staff member Rule.
Inmate Bustamante then attempted to attack Superintendent Gates with a butcher knife, at which point from his position in the guard tower guard Hartlee shot Bustamante, then shot inmate Vasquez. The remaining would-be-escapee, Puebla, savagely stabbed the Superintendent in the neck. Using Gates as a shield, he tried to work his way toward the west wall of the institution.
Although severely wounded by the stab wound and battered by knife handles during the struggle, Gates continued to fight with the convict. He would likely not have survived had another convict, Barney Riggs, not leapt into action. Riggs - a lifer convicted of murder himself - came to Gates' rescue. Gates directed Riggs to shoot Puebla with the gun inmate Lopez, lying lifeless nearby, had used.
Riggs swiftly shot Puebla, stopping the assault. Guard Hartlee also delivered another shot to Puebla. Riggs and another convict, Sprague, promptly rendered first aid to Gates and carried him to his room. Gates survived the violent attack, crediting Riggs with saving his life. He later wrote in his report of the incident that "had [Guard Hartlee] killed Riggs, Puebla would certainly have killed me." Fortunately, Hartlee was somehow able to quickly discern that Riggs was attempting to help, not to continue the assault, and withheld his fire until he had a clean shot at Puebla.
Despite living through the traumatic event, Thomas Gates suffered from the after-effects for the remainder of his life. According to the Arizona Sentinel, Gates was never the same after the attack. In the notice of his death, the Sentinel wrote, "... it is generally believed that the shock he received at the time has been the cause of his decline and ultimate death."
Almost 20 years later, on March 13, 1896, Gates shot himself in the right temple with a .41 caliber Colt revolver while at his residence at the prison. Only 62 years old, Gates had undergone surgery for piles (hemorrhoids) a few weeks prior and was said to have been "gradually sinking" thereafter and suffering internal pain. Evidently either planning his suicide or fearing death from his illness, Gates made his will a few days before taking his life and passed his private papers to a doctor named Heffernan for safekeeping.
The prison physician, Dr. Cotter, found Gates' body moments after the fatal shot. After being embalmed, Gates' body was shipped to Los Angeles, where he was to be buried beside his late wife.
A tribute to Barney K. Riggs, the prisoner who saved Supt. Gates' life, hangs on the wall of the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum. MJ Miller photo.