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

Brothers in Arms and Chickens

Brothers in Arms and Chickens

Six inmates, all from the prison hospital, escaped from the Hutchinson reformatory here last night at 8:15 o’clock in one of the most daring and systematic breaks in recent years. Following the carefully laid plans the six took advantage of two prison ladders, one of which was equipped with special hooks, made a dash for a dark spot on the east wall, scaled it and disappeared before the hospital guard noticed their absence.

The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kansas), March 4, 1929

Clarence Pruitt KSP

Clarence Pruitt, KSP prisoner photos, 1926

Clarence Pruitt was paroled in August 1928 from the Kansas State Penitentiary (KSP) after serving two and a half years for stealing 32 chickens from a farmer named Guy Platte. Soon after he was paroled, authorities discovered that in 1925, he’d escaped from the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson. Rather than allowing him to enjoy his new freedom, they sent him back to the reformatory to serve out the rest of his 1924 sentence for grand larceny.

Clarence Pruitt back_marked

Clarence was one of the six men who escaped from Hutchinson into the frigid March night in 1929. He was recaptured in July. Rather than risk another escape from Hutchinson he was sent to the more secure state penitentiary — round two at the KSP for Clarence.

Lyal Berry became prisoner # 6549 at the KSP on July 19, 1919, after he pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary. He’d burgled three homes in Peabody, Kansas, was arrested and broke out of jail by cutting through the bars on the window of his cell with a stolen saw. He told prison officials he was 22 but he was actually only 17 years old and a recent graduate of the state reformatory for juveniles in Colorado. Though young, he had an impressive criminal career of robberies and jailbreaks under his belt, along with a bullet wound sustained when he was shot by a pursuing police officer after his jailbreak.

Cecil Pruitt

Lyal Berry (Cecil Pruitt), KSP prisoner photos, 1919

Lyal’s real name was Cecil Pruitt. He loved aliases and he had at least five of them, including the name of his older brother, Clarence. Born on August 17, 1901, he was two years younger than Clarence. The Pruitt brothers’ father, William, died in 1911, while they were still boys. Their mother, Elizabeth, moved to Denver, Colorado, after William’s death, where she got remarried. Clarence left school after 8th grade to work as a coal miner and farmer. Cecil only made it through 5th grade.

Although he had a poor prison record, Cecil was paroled from the KSP in August 1924, four days after his 23rd birthday. It didn’t take long for him to violate his parole. The Kansas authorities located him at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, in July 1925, where he was serving a five to six year sentence for burglary and armed robbery. He was returned to KSP to serve the rest of his sentence for the 1919 burglary on July 20, 1928 — round two at the KSP for Cecil.

The Pruitt brothers had a couple of months together at the KSP before Cecil was pardoned and released on December 13, 1929. Clarence got out in 1930.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end well for the Pruitt brothers. In March 1931, a car containing more than 100 stolen chickens was found abandoned in Greeley, Colorado. The vehicle was traced to Clarence, who pleaded guilty to theft of 1,200 to 1,800 chickens in the area and was sentenced to two to three years in a state prison. Clarence’s wife blamed his brother for her husband’s legal troubles, but by then Cecil was in a Denver jail on a narcotics charge. Plus Cecil had always been more interested in stealing cash and jewelry than chickens.

Despite having served multiple prison sentences for chicken theft, other people’s chickens continued to tempt Clarence, and by 1940 he was incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary. On May 8, 1950 he was arrested for stealing 100 chickens from farms in several counties outside Denver. He pleaded innocent to the charges and the outcome of his case wasn’t reported.

If he’d spent his criminal career stealing chickens, Cecil might have lived to a ripe old age. Instead his body was found in a “blood-stained, bullet-pocked” car in Kansas City on September 7, 1931, less than a month after he turned 30. He’d been beaten to death. Police suspected a fellow gangster killed him, but his murder was never solved. His sisters collected his body and buried him.

Featured photo: Front of reward card issued for Clarence Pruitt, prisoner #6216. Collection of the author.

Resisting Arrest

Resisting Arrest

Herbert Cochran, found guilty of burglary yesterday at Fairmont, was sentenced yesterday evening by Judge Stubbs to nine years at hard labor in the state penitentiary. After hearing the sentence Cochran cursed the judge and the attorney in the case and resisted the sheriff but was thrown down and manacled.

When Sheriff Dinen went to the jail this morning to prepare his prisoners for the trip to the penitentiary he found that Herb Cochran had torn his clothing into shreds and would not put on any other clothes. The sheriff forced him into a shirt, overalls and a mackintosh and forced him into a hack and drove to the train.

The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), March 7, 1900

Herb Cochran, alias H.C. Smith, was not a happy camper when his mugshot was forcibly taken in Omaha, Nebraska. Five years earlier, in 1895, he went on the lam after boldly cutting through the roof of the jail in Geneva, Nebraska. After such a long period of freedom, it was a terrible thing to have to return to jail.

Sheriff Ogg got word from the Omaha Police on Friday, November 24, 1899, that they had arrested Herb. Ogg traveled to the big city and took charge of the prisoner. He brought him back to Geneva, 130 miles southwest of Omaha, to face the charge of breaking and entering a store in his hometown.

Fillmore County courthouse

Postcard from the Fillmore County NEGenWeb Site

A troubled youth, Herb ran away from his home in the small village of Fairmont, Nebraska, when he was just a young teen. Then came his arrest for breaking and entering a few years later. He didn’t hold back from displaying his anger towards authorities in the courtroom during his trial. That, along with the notoriety he’d received for breaking out of jail and avoiding recapture for years, attracted large crowds. Every day during his trial, the Fillmore County Court House was full to capacity.

His lawyer tried to sell the argument that Herb was in the town of Table Rock on the night of the crime, but the jury wasn’t buying it. He was found guilty and the judge sentenced him to the state penitentiary on March 6, 1900.

East cell block Nebraska State pen

East Cell Block of the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Nebraska State Government website.

Nine years is a long sentence, but Herb had not been a cooperative prisoner.

Featured photo: Herbert Cochran’s 1899 carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.