Let’s Talk About: A 12yo prison inmate in 1931

Jarred by an old newspaper article, I had to dig into the sad story of Herbert Franklin Niccolls, Jr. Most of this information comes from Find-A-Grave. 

Born in 1919 in Boise, Idaho, to Bert and Hazel Niccolls, he was one of the younger children. The family lived in extreme poverty. When Herbert was 9, his father was declared insane and committed to an asylum. Hazel, with no other recourse, gave away her sons. 

Herbert was incorrigibly delinquent. The loving foster parents who took him in had to send him away after he repeatedly lied and stole from them. Herbert finally was released into the care of his paternal grandmother “a religious zealot who was determined to starve and beat the sin out of him.”

On the night of 5 Aug 1931, 12-year-old Herbert broke into a store for candy and tobacco. The break-in was discovered and 73-year-old Sheriff John L. Wormell entered the store to investigate. Herbert, crouched behind a vinegar barrel with a stolen gun, fired one shot, hitting the sheriff in the head and killing him instantly. 

The arrest of the 12 year old killer, barefoot and dressed in ragged overalls, made headlines across the country. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Herbert, 80 pounds, 4 foot 8 inches, with delicate features, curly brown hair, bright and polite, became a poster child for reform of the incarceration of juveniles. 

Herbert fared fairly well in prison. He was kept under close supervision of the wardens, kept away from the general population and assigned tutors and mentors, and achieved a good education behind bars. He remarked to his brother many years later that prison saved his life.

Herbert was released from prison at the age of 21. After a brief, unsuccessful start at a bakery job just after his release from prison, Niccolls worked in the accounting department of a Tacoma shipyard and there he excelled. He subsequently moved to California and joined the accounting department at MGM and later worked for 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. He married and had a son, John.  

Herbert died of a heart attack in 1983, having lived a crime-free life since his parole 42 years earlier.