Yuma's Early Prison Reformer

(A/n: After writing about Frank Luke's wild courage, I wanted to give a few words to anopther colorful pioneer who was equally brave but more conscientious.)

When Thomas H. Rynning was appointed Warden of Yuma's Territorial Prison by Governor Joseph Kibbey on March 1, 1907 he had already experienced a full life of adventure and service.

Born in 1866 in Beloit, Wisconsin, he was orphaned at an early age and lived with his sister in Chicago, working as an apprentice stair-builder. But the call of the Southwest was too strong for his restless spirit and he became a teen-aged bullwhacker and cowboy on the trail drives of Texas longhorns to the railroad at Dodge City, Kansas. A shooting scrape in that wide-open town sent him skedaddling back to the Lone Star State ahead of a posse led by lawman Bat Masterson.

Enlisting in the Army at 19, Rynning rode with the Eighth Cavalry in Indian campaigns that included pursuing Apache raiders in eastern Arizona and New Mexico. When his hitch was up, he became a prosperous building contractor in Tucson. But once again duty called during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and he was off to fight in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.

Back in civilian life, he hardly had time to get married and start up another construction company when his old commanding officer-by then President Roosevelt-persuaded him to take charge of the Arizona Rangers in 1902. For five years Captain Rynning commanded his 25 hard-riding, straight-shooting Rangers against some of the West's toughest bandits and rustlers along the southern border and beyond it in cooperation with Mexican authorities.

After suffering serious injuries when a horse fell on him, Rynning was glad to take the less strenuous job of riding herd on the Yuma inmates-many of whom he had helped to put there. He seemed made for prison reform and criminal rehabilitation, novel concepts at that time.

Lacking higher education in penology and psychology, he shaped up the prison population with firm discipline, even-handed treatment and plain old common sense. He was a staunch, if overly optimistic, believer in the recuperative power of hard work. As he recounted in his autobiography titled Gun Notches:

"Get a prisoner interested in his work and the trouble with him is just about over… And once they've worked their way out, that habit of work sticks and nearly all of them are good citizens from then on."

He had a good opportunity to put that theory into practice in 1908 when the Territorial Legislature passed a bill to establish a new penitentiary at Florence. With a limited budget, Rynning proposed accomplishing the project with convict labor. The prisoners would be paid not with money but time; two days off their sentences for every day worked.

The system was such a success that with five hundred men working in the open under light guard and trustees often sent on distant errands alone, only one prisoner escaped. When the new facility was completed, an expert from Washington appraised its worth at $1,500,000. Rynning calmly told him it had cost $182,000.

After that, Rynning engaged in various businesses before moving to San Diego to live out his peaceful old age, dying there in 1941.

So, as we recall Arizona's colorful pioneers, we shouldn't neglect Captain Thomas Rynning-a credit to Old Yuma and other communities where he lived and worked for the betterment of his fellow citizens. In the idiom of his time, he was one of the finest hombres who ever forked leather and carried the law into the mesquite.


Rynning, Thomas H. Gun Notches (Frontier Heritage Press, San Diego, 1971).

Miller, Joseph, Editor. The Arizona Rangers (Hasting House Publishers, New York, 1972).

M. David DeSoucy. Images of America: Arizona Rangers (Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2008).

Hunt, Frazier. Cap Mossman: Last of the Great Cowmen (Hastings House Publishers, New York, 1951).