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Prison Breaks


On this date in 1916, there was a 1-paragraph story in the Bismarck Tribune that read: “S. F. Crabbe, state architect, visited the state penitentiary yesterday in regard to contemplated changes in the buildings...” 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 the previous evening during “the regular night for amusement” in the penitentiary auditorium. Nobody realized it, but six men didn’t attend the show – nor were they in their cells. They were in the prison library sawing through the 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 12th, James J. King escaped while working in a brick pile, and Mike Ulick escaped while tending the cows. Ulick was a trustee, and when the cows came home without him that night, the guards at first worried he’d been hurt.

A few days later, a man named Mueller 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.

Soon after, the law caught up with J. J. King in Aberdeen, but a few weeks later, July 23, 1916, he, too, was out again – with seven others. This break was well planned, with a getaway car waiting outside the prison walls. The escape took place late in the morning on a Saturday – bath day. The prison didn’t have enough guards, because the pay was so bad, so the yard guards had to be pulled inside to keep track of the bathers on Saturdays – a fact that didn’t go unnoticed.

W. H. Neavels was the brains behind the break; he’d previously worked as a policeman in Beach. He was also a prison guard but was fired for being too friendly with the inmates. Now serving time for boxcar robbery, he had a thorough working knowledge of the prison, inside and out.

Neavels’ partner in crime was Mack McGee, an African-American serving a life sentence for murder. They were both on work detail sprucing up the baseball diamond next to the icehouse. Neavels knew the icehouse created a blind spot for the tower guards, and this is where he and his men dug through the brick wall to freedom. When other prisoners spotted the hole, they followed suit. Three of the eight escapees were captured in an apple orchard that day, but it was believed the others had hopped a troops train headed for Mexico.

Less than a week later, three more prisoners escaped by hiding in a lignite coal car. The Fargo Forum reported, “The trio that escaped Saturday afternoon had been unloading lignite coal within the prison yards. They found that the car end had been staved in in an accident of some kind, and a false end had been constructed about fifteen inches from this. The space between the false and real end of the car was utilized by the convicts, this being improved by the men as they worked.”

The momentum was irresistible. About a week later, on August 8th, two more convicts broke out by locking their guard in a cooling house. One of the two was caught on August 10th, the same day another two men escaped after getting permission to go to the stock barn by themselves.

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 on August 24th. He was there to contemplate “changes in the buildings to make it more difficult for prisoners to escape.”


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 written by Merry Helm