10.24.2021 [archived ~ previously published 9.3.2015]
Escaping from jail was a bit easier 100 years ago or more than it would be today. The local jail in Deer River and the county jail in Grand Rapids had breaks, as did the Stillwater Prison. My perusing of the newspapers yielded the following excerpts on prison breaks, or as with the first one on breaking the lock on the jail door in order to place the prisoner inside.
Broke Jail Itasca News 11-18-1899
[Deputy George] “…Mooers returned about 9 o’clock last night and arrested his man, whose name is Bill Beadle, a big woodsman who has worked around here for the past three years. Beadle was quite ‘jaggy’ and broke when arrested. He protested his innocence vigorously and was some time in making up his mind to go to the lock-up. When he found he had to go though it was different. When at the coop Beadle was searched and no watch nor money was found on him.
The deputy sheriff made a call upon all the officers of the village before making the arrest to see if he could find the key to the lock-up. He also called upon those who were supposed to be marshal at times for the past year, but no key could be found. This necessitated breaking the lock on the jail door. In smashing the padlock the staple of the door was broken and a temporary one was used for the night.
It appears Beadle kept his eyes open and knew what a snap he had, for alas, this morning the bird had flown. It is Deputy Sheriff Mooers opinion that the prisoner had help from the outside to make his escape. A search has been made all day but up to 2 o’clock this afternoon no trace of Beadle had been found. It is believed he took to the woods.”
In 1911 a break at the Itasca County Jail was credited with the escapee having extra-long arms. “Late last Sunday night there came near being a wholesale jail delivery at the county bastille. One Beals, a prisoner indicated for arson by the grand jury evidently became tired of imposing on the sheriff’s hospitality, after his incarceration some seven months ago or made up his mind that he had ‘done time’ long enough to atone for his crime so he decided to leave, and he went and is probably still going.
Beals, who has an extra long arm, with five other prisoners, was occupying quarters in the corridor of the jail which is crowded while the new addition is being constructed. Just before midnight sheriff Riley was awakened by commotion among the prisoners downstairs and immediately investigating, found that Mr. Beals was a minus quantity. With his long arms he [Beals] succeeded in reaching through and around several bars, worked the combination lock on the corridor door, walked to the rear of the jail, pried off a bar from the window, and made good his escape. The other five prisoners could easily have followed him, but refrained, and after giving Beals sufficient time to make his getaway, they turned in an alarm. The sheriff and his deputies scoured the country for several days but Beals’ whereabouts have not as yet been ascertained.
The escape of Beals, it would seem, tells chapters. Briefly, it tells particularly of Beals guilty conscience, of the fear that the law had him so that he did not consider he could get away, this particularly, in view of the fact that this is his second escape from the authorities on this charge – a most palpable evidence of guilt. It tells of the exceeding good behavior and trustworthiness of the other prisoners, who remained in durance vile while it was so easy to make a getaway. It tells – well numerous other things.
It is to be hoped that Beals will speedily be recaptured as he is apparently too dangerous a subject to be at large.” [Bigfork Settler 1-5-1911]
Hard Times: Voices from a State Prison, 1849-1914 by Ted Genoway and published by the MN Historical Society Press (2002) about the old State Prison at Stillwater, Minnesota that over the sixty-five year period became one of the most respected prisons in the country. It covers many aspects of prison life including the occasional disappearance of inmates. One such incident was the extensive manhunt for escaped prisoners Juhl Peters and Jerry McCarthy in 1911. I tracked down an article on McCarthy’s capture and death in a newspaper from Rolla, ND:
…“McCarthy served five years in the Montana State Penitentiary for being implicated in a $15,000 diamond robbery at Butte. Later at Des Moines, Iowa, he was sentenced to 15 years at Anamosa for highway robbery and escaped after serving one year. Three months after his escape he came to Minneapolis and attempted to hold up a man on First avenue south between Washington avenue and Third street when he was frustrated by sergeant Mike Lawrence and patrolman Jonas Jonassen. At this time McCarthy pulled a gun and shot Jonassen between his arm and body. Lawrence grabbed the gun and it discharged, hitting McCarthy in the leg. McCarthy was given 10 years at Stillwater on this occasion and escaped four months later with a penitentiary sentence of 30 years hanging over him. McCarthy was formerly a prize fighter.” [Turtle Mountain Star 1-20-1911]
According to American Movie Classics (AMC) the best prison/jail break movie of all times is the Shawshank Redemption directed by Frank Darabont in 1994. The film, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is 142 minutes long and tells the tale of two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.
In descending order, others to make the top ten list are: Escape From Alcatraz (1979), The Great Escape (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), Con Air (1997), Papillon (1973), Stalag 17 (1953), and Midnight Express (1978).
Law and Order is a special interest feature of Reminisce.. During the coming months I will share some of the burglaries, murders and other crimes that occurred in our communities years ago. If you have any such events you would like to see me research and write about, please email email@example.com or call 218-244-2127.