As long as there have been jails and prisons, there have been jail breaks. Modern technology makes it much harder, but still an average of over 2000 inmates escape from state and federal prisons each year. The following incidents are from before 1933 and are mostly about men who were in northern Minnesota at the time of their escape and/or recapture.
Carl Knutson escaped from the Polk County Jail on June 18, 1921, where he was held on a charge of first-degree murder in connection with his wife’s death. He was found hiding in the woods seven miles north of Crookston. A posse of 150 men had spent the day searching for him. When he was apprehended, Knutson told officials “I just needed twenty-four hours out, to get the man.” Knutson’s thwarted plan was to find and kill the man he believed was cavorting with his wife. [6-21-1921 Bemidji Daily Pioneer]
Using Tools on Site
On January 11, 1883, two men in the same cell were caught just before they could make their escape. “Henry Wilson, a ‘professional burglar,’ and his pal Frank Wilmar, a horse thief, are caught by an alert janitor and the sheriff as they attempt to escape from the Ramsey County Jail in St. Paul. They had stolen a sledgehammer from workmen and nearly managed to pound a hole through the stone floor of a cell into the basement.” [This Day in Minnesota History | MNopedia]
A bit closer to home, three men in the Itasca County Jail got their hands on tools from a toolbox when a plumber was at the jail working on the radiators.
Three Prisoners Escaped from Jail ~ 9-6-1933 Grand Rapids Herald Review
“Three prisoners in the Itasca County Jail, who were awaiting trial, escaped during the early morning hours last Saturday. Two of the men from Ball Club, Bert Bobolink and Robert Hunter, were recaptured the next day. The third man, Wallace Stockwell, who was arrested early in the summer after an intensive search, in the woods north of Deer Lake, is still at large.
Somehow the men gained possession of a hack saw blade. This blade was used to cut through two bars in a window near the southeast corner of the building, and the three men went out of the window. All the prisoners were in their cells when the night jailer made the rounds at midnight, and the escape was not noted until a short time afterward.
Stackwell, who was being held on a charge of rape, was wanted in Massachusetts as well as elsewhere. He is thought to have engineered the plans for escape. It is possible that one of the men stole a hacksaw blade from one of the plumbers who were repairing radiators and connections in the jail a few days ago. The plumbers had their tool kits with them, and it is thought had hacksaw blades in the toolboxes. Soap was used while the bars were being sawed to deaden the sound of the operations.
Deputy Litchke went to Cass Lake on Friday to overtake the freight train on which the men from Ball Club might have taken. On his way back, Litchke stopped at Bena for gasoline, and saw Bobolink and Hunter walk past the station, so he brought them back to jail. Both are being held on charges of robbery, said to have been committed near Ball Club some weeks ago.”
Otto Emil Litchke (1896-1973) was a deputy sheriff in Itasca County for 18 years. He married Pearl Waisenan and was the father of eleven children. Gordon, Raymond, Donald, Terrence, Wallace, Elaine, Elizabeth, Joyce, Carol, Darlene, and Pat.
A Little Help from Friends
According to journalist Jesse Rhodes, “Jailbirds really have tried to fly the coop by way of contraband—files, handsaws and even guns—hidden inside baked goods…As reported in the January 14, 1909, edition of the Los Angeles Times, Mr. F. J. Humely was jailed for passing a forged check. While incarcerated and awaiting trial, he was sent two cakes—one with chocolate icing, one with white icing.
Sheriff Hammel, who intercepted the package, thought the baked goods were unusually heavy and upon investigation found half of a 38-caliber revolver in each cake. Humely apparently planned to wait until only two guards were on duty and either threaten or kill one of them with the gun in order to get the set of keys. The cakes were sent by one of Humely’s friends, a Mr. R. E. Watson, and the pair had planned to sail to Mexico, where they hoped to make money in the opium trade. Humely was ultimately sentenced to seven years at Folsom Prison.” [The File Inside the Cake: True Tales of Prison Escapes | Arts & Culture| Smithsonian Magazine]
Frank Tardy successfully escaped from the Itasca County Jail after his wife and a friend visited him, and at least one of them had concealed a blade or file which he used to make his escape several days later. Tardy was awaiting sentencing and placement in Stillwater Prison. He was eventually captured. According to the United States census, he was at the Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1935 and at Stillwater Prison in 1940.
Prisoner Escapes from County Jail ~ 10-24-1928 Grand Rapids Herald Review
“Frank A. Tardy, who had been confined in the Itasca County Jail for about two weeks, being held for Cass County authorities, escaped from the jail last Saturday evening and is still at large. All efforts to locate him since his escape have been without success and it is feared by the authorities that he has reached shelter in the woods of Canada.
Tardy was confined in a cell on the second floor of the jail and during the day, in common with other prisoners there, was given the liberty of the corridor so he could take needed exercise. In the extreme east end of the jail there is a window which is somewhat removed from the cells on that floor. This window was guarded with heavy steel bars but these bars were so arranged that by cutting two half inch bolts, the bars would swing as though on hinges.
In some manner unknown to the authorities, Tardy had evidently obtained hacksaw blades or files. He must have taken some time to cut through these bolts and must have made some noise which would have been noted by other prisoners on the floor with him. The bolts once cut through, no difficulty was encountered in making his escape as a large drainpipe which led down from the roof to the ground showed plainly upon examination that Tardy had slid down that pipe. He had prepared to escape by means of a blanket as a long cotton blanket was found tied to an iron brace at the side of the window but had not been unfolded.
Tardy had visitors on Thursday when his attorney, his wife and another person visited him. The gifts they carried were examined but the persons themselves were not searched for such contraband as saws or files as it was not thought likely he would attempt to escape. The second floor had been visited by Joe Durand, night watchman in the jail, at seven o’clock Saturday evening and Tardy was walking in the corridor at that time. At quarter past seven one of the prisoners gave an alarm and when Mr. Durand responded, said that Tardy had escaped. The alarm was immediately given, and a large number of men responded, and every available hiding place searched for several hours. The description of the escaped man was broadcast from several radio stations both Saturday evening and Sunday evening from points as far distant as Minneapolis and Chicago.”
The final story is about Joe Jetland, from Polk County. He had escaped from the county jail at Crookston in August 1924, and was apprehended in Craig, seven months later. On the train bound for Crookston, the deputy removed the handcuffs so Jetland could go to the toilet. Jetland opened the window in the bathroom and jumped from the train. He was captured again the following day.
I found an article in a 1931 Roseau newspaper which stated Jetland was “veteran of seven jail breaks and sentenced to 3 years [in the Roseau County Jail] … then he will be taken to Bismarck, North Dakota where he is wanted for breaking out of the State Penitentiary there.
There is a minimum security prison just outside of Gordon, Wisconsin, and when I lived there occasionally a prisoner would walk away and then shortly later would get caught. Surprisingly, it was often someone who was very near the end of their sentence. One of the prison guards said that some of the guys had been on the inside so long that they feared being on the outside.