Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Prison Breaks

Ways To Subscribe

On this date in 1916, there was a one-paragraph story in the Bismarck Tribune that read: “S. F. Crabbe, state architect, visited the state penitentiary yesterday …” While that might not sound like much, it was, in fact, quite significant.

Let’s start with April Fools Day of the previous year – 1915. The headline on that date read, “Six Prisoners Elude Guards And Escape From State Prison.” The break happened during “the regular night for amusement” in the penitentiary auditorium. Nobody realized it, but the six men didn’t attend the show – nor were they in their cells. They were in the prison library sawing through bars on the window. Once outside, they headed south, followed by a posse that caught four of them near Glencoe six days later.

A little more than a year later, on June 12, a man escaped while working in a brick pile, and another escaped while tending the cows. The latter was a trustee, and when the cows came home without him, the guards at first worried he’d been hurt.

A few days later, another man escaped in a wagonload of ashes. He was caught, but two days later he got out again. Two others escaped by hiding on trains as they left the prison yard. The law recaptured one of the escapees, but a few weeks later he was out again – with seven others. This break was well planned, with a getaway car waiting. The escape took place after two inmates exploited a blind spot for the tower guards to dig through a brick wall. When other prisoners spotted the hole, they followed. Three of the eight were captured in an apple orchard, but the others likely hopped a troop train headed for Mexico. Less than a week later, three more prisoners escaped by hiding in a lignite coal car.

The momentum was irresistible. About a week later, on August 8th, two more convicts broke out by locking their guard in a cooling house.

This brought the number of escapes to 22 within 10 weeks, not to mention the six who escaped the previous year – which is why it was significant that the state architect was visiting the penitentiary, to contemplate changes to make it more difficult for prisoners to escape.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Bismarck Daily Tribune.
April 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7, 1915.
June 13 and 14, 1916.
July 23, 1916.
August 9, 10, 11 and 24, 1916.
Fargo Forum.
July 24 and 31, 1916.
August 9 and 11, 1916.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Related Content