The Irene Chronicles. Part III. An Eventful Stay in the County Jail

New to Irene Johnson? Read the earlier parts of her story:
The Girl in the Blackbird Hat
The Girl Bandit Confesses

After her arrest on November 17, 1919 for armed robbery, Irene Johnson and her beau were placed in the Contra Costa county jail.

The Contra Costa County jail from


On November 25, Bert and Irene were due to appear in Judge Odell’s courtroom for a preliminary hearing. Miss Johnson was all smiles as she entered the room, wearing the blackbird hat Bert had stolen from Mrs. Brown. Throughout the hearing, she and Bert exchanged flirtatious glances. Judge Odell ordered the pair held for trial at the Superior court, and set their bonds at $10,000 each. As the hearing adjourned, Miss Johnson strolled over to Bert and patted his sleeve.

Further reporting on Miss Johnson’s beau Bert Garrett had been in trouble throughout his life. As a youth, he had spent time in the Ione reformatory. After committing a burglary in San Francisco, Garrett had been sent to San Quentin for three years. Soon after being released, he committed another burglary and on September 16, 1918, a judge gave him a year in Folsom Prison. Less than two months later, he escaped from prison and had been on the run ever since. Guards at the prison disclosed that, during the short time he was incarcerated there, Garrett regularly received letters from a woman in Oakland signed “Clara.” As of yet, the police were unable to determine whether Clara was, in fact, Irene.

Irene was placed on the top floor of the county jail where women were held. Bert Johnson was placed on one of the lower floors with the other men. For a day or two, everything went smoothly, but the jail matron began to notice some odd behavior on Irene’s part. Every evening, when she brought dinner to Irene’s cell, the girl was dressed in her street clothes “as though she was expecting to leave.” Apparently, she was not required to wear a prison uniform and the matron didn’t ask her why she was dressed the way she was.

Exactly a week after the preliminary hearing, a commotion occurred when Jailer Don Williams foiled an attack by Bert and five other male inmates. The prisoners had armed themselves with a chain and a five-pound lead pipe. They had intended to jump the guard, incapacitate them, and escape. But Williams was too quick for them. He dodged a blow from Bert’s lead pipe. As the other prisoners advanced, Bert demanded the keys to the upper floor of the jail where Irene was locked up. Williams, however, managed to pull his revolver.

“We’ve played the game and lost,” cried Garrett. All the prisoners surrendered. An inspection f their cells proved the prisoners had their blankets and personal effects packed up and ready for escape.

Despite being a rather inept criminal, officials decided it was best to move Bert to San Quentin prison. On December 15, the Sacramento Star disclosed that “little is known of the girl, because her real identity is shielded by the authorities. It is known, however, that she has lived in Portland, under the name of Mrs. B. D. Nelson. Her mother is here from a northwest city, but the authorities have refused to point her out or disclose her name.” The paper reckoned Irene would only get probation for her crimes. And Garrett being out of the picture helped her case. “It is believed that without his influence, she will live a straight life in some city where she is not known.”

A brief article from 1913, from an earlier phase of Bert’s career


Newspapers gave varying descriptions of Irene Johnson, describing her age as 18, 20, and 23, and her hair as a beautiful shade of golden blonde or bright auburn. Her lawyer, T.D. Johnstone, told reporters Irene pleaded Not Guilty to the charge against her. If he managed to get her charges dismissed in Contra Costa County or got a deal for probation, he would represent Irene in Alameda, where she was also facing charges.

Two weeks later, to the delight of Bay Area readers, Irene decided it was time to tell her life story. It turned out she had a more storied past than she first admitted to.

Read more in The Curious Odyssey of Irene Johnson!