The Forgotten Man

It was the kind of hot night in July when tempers easily flare. That night William “Babe” Quinn tangled with William McBee over a ten cent can of beer in an alley behind a meat packing house in Kansas City, Kansas. Babe’s knife ended up in William’s side. He fled the scene. William was taken to a hospital. The knife had punctured his heart. He died a few hours later.

Babe was born just before Christmas 1882 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to parents who’d been born into slavery. The Quinn family moved to Wyandotte County, on the eastern edge of Kansas, when Babe was just a young boy. The family was a large one: Babe had four full brothers and three half brothers from his mother’s first marriage. He was the youngest child, perhaps hence his nickname.

Several months after the fight he was arrested in Kansas City, Missouri. Found guilty of murder, he was sentenced to hang. But Edward Hoch, the newly-elected governor of Kansas, refused to sign Babe’s death warrant, along with the warrants of several other condemned men. (Hoch outlawed the death penalty in Kansas in 1907. It would later be reinstated.)

With a sentence of life in prison, Babe was sent to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, KS. He was familiar with the place because his father had been sent there for the murder of a girlfriend, Patsy Clayton, in 1895, when Babe was 12. But he wouldn’t be seeing his father behind bars, because John Quinn had recently died in the prison.

William “Babe” Quinn, Kansas State Penitentiary I.D. photo

Fast forward 11 years, to 1916. Babe’s sentence was commuted to 15 years by the governor, Arthur Capper. Soon after that he was paroled. A requirement of his parole was to report to the warden every month. He did that for several months, until one month, he forgot. The Kansas City cops picked him up on suspicion committing a robbery in Missouri. He was sent back to the penitentiary as a parole violator.

The court decided Babe deserved a very harsh sentence for the infraction: 15 years. It also decided the 11 years he’d already served would not count towards this new sentence. How this was legal he didn’t know, but he had no money and no way to fight it.

He served the extra 15. And then he served three more years, because prison authorities seemed to have forgotten about him. In 1935, Dan T. Kelliher, a Kansas City reporter, discovered that Babe had served 14 years longer than he should have and brought it to the attention of the governor. That governor, Alf Landon, commuted his sentence and he was released.

Except for his brief parole, he’d been behind bars for 29 years. “I can’t believe I’m free again. I’m a dazed man,” he said.

Babe Quinn leaving prison on August 24, 1935, with reporter Dan T. Kelliher (left) and Warden Lacey M. Simpson. N.E.A. photo, collection of the author

Aged 52, with $20 in his pocket—a “gift” from the state—and another $20 that he’d earned working in prison at the rate of four cents a day, he left prison. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, $40 wasn’t going to take him very far.

By the time Babe got his freedom, his mother was long gone. She had died in 1918 the Osawatomie State Hospital, a mental asylum where she’d lived for many years. His brothers, those that were still alive, had dispersed across the country.

Babe spent the rest of his life in the state that had kept him so long behind bars. In 1940 he worked in a W.P.A. camp in Smoky Hill Township. By the start of World War II, he’d moved back to Kansas City. There he worked in a place called the State Line Cafeteria. He died on February 28, 1951, 16 years after we was finally let out of prison. He was buried in the Wyandotte County potter’s field.

If you’d like to view the family tree I’ve built for Babe Quinn and his family, click here.

10 thoughts on “The Forgotten Man

  1. I love history, Shayne. Your historical research and writing makes my day. Good to have your posts back. Thank you for sharing. And yes, I agree, it’s a travesty of justice to forget to release someone from prison once the prison sentence is up.
    Your story reminds me of a Reno County, KS, prisoner from years ago. He had nearly completed serving his 60 day jail sentence. Early in the evening, he made sure all the jailers knew what time he should be released.
    He was arrested at 02:47 hours (2:47 a.m.) and he was released at about the same time. He sure didn’t want to stay in jail one extra minute.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great story. Mr. Babe looked like he’d had a darn hard life judging from the picture taken of him when he was in his 30’s. That reporter was a great man.
    ( Can’t access the tree w/o an subscr. Unless I’m mistaken?)

    Liked by 1 person

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