10 March 2020

Mary Jane Smith: Utah's First Convicted Murderess

Scene of the murder. Victoria Alley, from SL Herald 1902-12-18

Mary Jane Smith (1864-1913) is notable for being the first woman convicted and sentenced for the crime of murder in the state of Utah. 

She was not the first Utah woman to be accused of murder, nor tried of murder… but she was the first to be convicted.  She was also an African American woman.

In 1902, Mary Jane Smith was down on her luck. She was working as a prostitute in Salt Lake's notorious Victoria Alley: a midblock alley on Block 57 (between Main and State Streets / 200 S and 300 S) with a barely noticeable narrow 12 foot entrance located at 232 S. State Street. This area is now wide open and occupied by the Gallivan Center.

Mary Jane was in need of rent money and decided she would rob one of her customers, a miner who had only been in SLC for two days- Daniel Ryan. She dosed his beer with morphine in an effort to knock the man out but not knowing the proper dose to administer she gave him too much. 

He lay in her bedroom at 47 Victoria Alley unconscious until Mary Jane asked her paramour, Mat Wilson, to remove the dying man. Mat Wilson put Daniel Ryan in the nearby outhouse and left him to die. The body of Daniel Ryan was found the next morning.

Mary Jane Smith was soon arrested and the evidence against her was strong, especially since two of her accomplices agreed to testify against her for dropped charges. When her trial for first degree murder was about to begin she plead guilty to second degree murder; she was told that she would likely receive a lighter sentence and her attorneys argued for leniency. 

 Unfortunately, Judge C. W. Morse wanted to make an “example of her for the future protection of society” and sentenced her to 20 years of prison at hard labor. The 20 years was within the allowable sentencing guidelines but it was seen by many as excessive punishment, especially as the victim was a transient and the perpetrator a resident of the tenderloin district where crimes were often overlooked.

Mary Jane apparently took the news of the sentence in stride as she was quoted in the newspapers as saying “I don’t care what they do because I’m going to live anyhow until I die.”

Prison life must have been lonely for Mary Jane. Sometimes there would be one or two other women in prison but mostly she was alone. She worked as a prison cook and laundress.

Mary Jane served 10 years of her 20 year sentence. She was pardoned and released at the end of November 1913 as she was ill and not expected to live. 

She died of cancer at the Salt Lake County Hospital on December 27, 1913. She is buried without a headstone at the northern edge of the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

1911 Sanborn map.
The red star is the location of 
47 Victoria Alley.

Mary Jane Smith's unmarked gravesite in the SLC Cemetery. March 2020.

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