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  • Writer's pictureDavid Crow

San Quentin Part 3: Dr. Leo Stanley

Dr. Leo Stanley flanked by 2 friends in 1947
Dr. Leo Stanley, center, flanked by two friends in 1947, a year before Dad went to San Quentin. Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

During our long drives through the desert on the Navajo Indian Reservation, my dad would often talk about his prestigious job at San Quentin.

It all came about because of his IQ test. After Dr. Yarkin, the chief psychiatrist, learned about Dad’s high score and became friendly with him, he talked to Dr. Stanley, the chief physician, and told him to find Dad work in the hospital.

From Thurston Crow:

Dr. Yarkin made it clear that I was to be protected at all costs. If anything ever happened to me, he said, the inmate who did it would regret it.

Yarkin gave me a nice desk, and I helped Dr. Stanley with his medical duties. Yarkin removed me from all the other inmates, except at night when we went back to our cell. He even got me into a cell away from violent inmates, in a minimum-security area.

I became Dr. Stanley’s top assistant. Of all the places to work in the Big House, Dr. Stanley’s office was number one. Period. From that moment on, my life got better. I was allowed to set up menus for the inmates with special needs and frequently invented the special need, allergy, or medical condition to curry favor with the most powerful or feared inmates.

Since the only thing an inmate can look forward to is better food, it made me a very big deal.

Maneuvering my way to the top of San Quentin was just that simple. Fooling Yarkin and Stanley was child’s play.

Dr. Stanley and the five psychiatrists oversaw each inmate’s medical needs and did almost all the surgeries. The hospital was equipped to handle about 1,000 men and couldn’t keep up with the extraordinary workload in one of the largest, most overcrowded, and dangerous prisons on earth.

Dr. Leo Stanley at San Quentin, circa 1915
Dr. Leo Stanley at San Quentin, circa 1915. Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

I helped Dr. Stanley and his staff with autopsies. Fascinating stuff. Stanley showed me broken bones, scars left by knives, and bullets lodged in bones and other body parts. And I saw lots of blackened lungs from smoking.

I also helped with the routine transfers of prisoners and running errands to the fourth floor, home of the notorious Adjustment Center, where the most dangerous convicts were held because they were too great of a threat to the general prison occupation.

You never turned your back on an inmate ever, not even for a second.

It was during this time that I discovered I could tell which prisoners would kill without provocation and which prisoners should be separated, because if teamed together, they would commit an act of violence that neither would have done alone.

During a routine transfer, two convicts were working together for a few days before being sent to another prison. I told Dr. Stanley to separate the men because they were too dangerous to keep together. He told me that he valued my high IQ, but I needed to leave the administration of the prisoners to him.

A few days later, the prisoners were transferred. While they were in the car that took them to their new home, one of the prisoners strangled the driver with the chain between his handcuffs. The other prisoner shoved a shiv down the throat of the guard. Both were killed and the prisoners escaped before being recaptured several hours later.

After that, Dr. Stanley paid attention to me and agreed that I could spot sickos, as he called them, with the greatest of ease.

In no time, I convinced Yarkin that your mom had been raped and I’d gotten a bad deal.

The psychiatrist then convinced the warden that I deserved an early parole, so I was released after serving only three years.


Dad went into all the gruesome details of the autopsies with me on our car rides and then much later in his last year when I got him a book about Dr. Stanley.

At San Quentin from 1913 to 1951, with time away to serve in WWII, Dr. Stanley became an international figure in the surgical world. In his early years, he brought the prison into the modern era, updating the medical equipment and procedures.

Stanley believed the now-debunked theory that you could rejuvenate old prisoners by transplanting testicles from executed murderers. By 1940, he had performed over 10,000 testicular implants at San Quentin. If testicles weren’t available from executed convicts, he would extract them from goats, boars, rams, and deer.

Stanley also supported voluntary sterilization, convinced that over time, sterilization would reduce crime. And he encouraged his interns to perform experiments on inmates. According to Stanley, the prison setting was ideal for this, allowing for daily observation and follow-up.

Dad didn’t have any firsthand experience with the surgeries, but he had heard about them. The inmates joked that Stanley’s initials (L. L. for Leo Leonidas) stood for “lewd and lascivious.”

To read more about this famous San Quentin surgeon, check out these articles:

My next post: Dad’s first cellmate.


Read more about my larger-than-life father in my award-winning memoir, The Pale-Faced Lie. Find out how he groomed me to be his partner in crime and what happened when I finally stopped helping him.

“Cinematically gripping.”—Kirkus Reviews

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