The Jailbreakers’ Will

The Jailbreakers’ Will

It happened in the early hours of the morning on December 4, 1891. Two police officers were standing outside the Broadway Jail in San Francisco when they noticed two men walk into Hinckley alley, a narrow pathway that ran next to the jail building. Wondering what the men were doing there so late at night, the officers followed them. But by the time they got to the alley, the men had disappeared. As the policemen turned back towards the street, a sound caught their attention. It was an odd scraping noise that seemed to be coming from the wall above their heads.

BroadwayJail

The Broadway Jail in April 1906. Courtesy of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

“I think someone is cutting through the jail wall,” Officer Reynolds said to his companion. Reynolds ran inside the jail and sent up an escape alarm while the other officer stood guard in the alley.

The cellThe jail was immediately searched. All the cells on the first floor — the ones that held the male prisoners — were in order. On the second floor, where the women prisoners were housed, the jailers discovered two cellmates who were awake and playing cards at a table next to the wall. Their beds had not been slept in. They told the jailers that they were restless and couldn’t sleep.

An officer searched the cell and found that the box one of the women had been sitting on was quite heavy. He turned it over and discovered it was full of bricks and mortar. Next to where the women had been sitting, a cloth had been pasted on the wall with a piece of soap. Behind the cloth there was a large hole in the wall.

Using the handle of a spoon and a kitchen knife, Jennie Hastings and Hazel Corbett had come within one layer of bricks of escaping from the jail. The fourteen-foot drop to the street did not deter them in the least. It would have been “like stepping off a streetcar,” commented Jennie.

Hazel and Jennie

Drawings from The San Francisco Examiner newspaper.

It was an obvious question, but why had they done it? Jennie and Hazel said they had $1.30 between them and wanted to “spend it on a good old drunk.” They knew the walls were weak and it hadn’t been hard to cut through the inner layer of bricks.

When told about the men who’d been seen outside the jail, they insisted they’d planned the escape alone. Bad luck, though, that the men had gone into the alley at just the wrong time, leading to their plan being exposed.

According to The San Francisco Examiner, Hazel had been photographed “more than once for the San Francisco Rogues’ Gallery.” In October she’d been sentenced to 125 days to jail for petty larceny. Jennie, who worked as a prostitute, stood accused of robbing a client. She had been held in the Broadway Jail under $2000 bond since September on a charge of grand larceny.

One of the items that turned up when their cell was searched was a will. It read:

Last will and testament of Hazel Corbett and Jennie Hastings. This, 2nd day of December, 1891, A. D., in the city and county of San Francisco. We, the undersigned, give and bequeath all our personal effects as follows: The checkerboard and deck of cards to Major Barnett in cell 34; nightcap to Sofia Jackson, 60; all of our groceries to Annie Williams, in cell 63; can of molasses to Jennie Seymour, alias ‘Brick,’ also the salt, cell 64; twelve napkins and novels to cell 34; sateen dress and black mother hubbard cloak to Annie Kelly, cell unknown; lamp to Jessie Covens, and to the matron our best wishes and good will. Signed

“JENNIE HASTINGS”

“HAZEL CORBETT”

Thanks to Jennie and Hazel’s attempted jailbreak, the authorities decreed that women would no longer held in the Broadway Jail. A separate facility was established for them on the outskirts of the city at the Ingleside Jail. In January 1892, Jennie was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to spend a year at the new women’s jail.

In 1895 a client tried to slash Jennie’s throat during a drunken argument. She survived the attack. She made her last appearance in the news in 1897, when a gold pin was stolen from her “crib.” Anxious to get it back, she reported the theft to the police. As for Hazel, she finished her sentence for petty larceny and was not heard from again in San Francisco.

Featured photo: Jennie Hastings–Photo Number 13278–“An old time San Francisco pickpocket; also a grand and petty larceny thief of the old school.” Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks Documenting San Francisco History and Law Enforcement, ca 1895-1936; UC Berkeley Bancroft Library

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