Short, not Twain

Short, not Twain

No one would blame you for taking a glance at the photos above and wondering: “When did Mark Twain get arrested?” The answer is never. The man in the photos was not Twain, but a gentleman who went by the name “H.J. Short.” The photos were taken when Short was booked into Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in 1900 to serve a term of three years at hard labor for larceny. Only his initials identify him in his prison records, but a little research disclosed the fact that his first name was Hulette, which explains why he preferred to go by his initials.

Samuel Langhorne ClemensSeptember 1-2, 1867, Pera, Constantinople

Twain in an 1867 photograph by Turkish photographer, Abdullah Frères

Of course big mustaches were all the rage in those days, but whether or not Short cultivated his resemblance to the famous author, who was a generation older, is an intriguing but unanswerable question.

The prison records describe H.J. Short as a physician by trade with a nervous disposition. At 5’ 7” tall and 123 lbs., he was emaciated. He suffered from anemia and a chronic cough. The prison doctor decided that the cough was caused by tuberculosis. The diagnosis meant that the 30-year-old was “physically incapacitated from the performance of manual labor” in prison. There’s no way to know if he was really sick or if he starved himself to appear to be ill. Luckily for him, his poor health status got him freed from prison in the form of a pardon issued by President William McKinley. He was released on October 12, 1900.

Short’s Leavenworth records make for interesting reading and indicate there was a pattern in how he avoided serving much time in prison. On May 30, 1898, he was sentenced in the Eastern District of Texas to two years in prison for assault with intent to kill. Less than two months later he was pardoned from the Texas prison because he was “fatally ill with consumption” (aka tuberculosis). Obviously he didn’t die, because on May 31, 1900 he was received at Leavenworth. Details of both crimes are scant, but one news report indicated the federal sentence stemmed from the theft of cattle.

Dr. Short ad - Newspapers.com

Short’s 1896 ad in The Marietta Monitor

Short may also have been involved in insurance fraud. In 1896, not long after moving to Marietta in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), his house went up in flames. He, his wife Lizzie, and son Maury, were not in residence at the time of the fire. Neighbors quickly put out the blaze. The damage to the building and furniture amounted only to $100, but the local newspaper reported that, providentially, the good doctor had $1,600 insurance on his medical library, which he claimed was destroyed in the fire.

He did not stay out of legal trouble for long after he was released from Leavenworth. A few years earlier in his native Mississippi, he’d forged the names of several prominent men to a promissory note valued at $3,500. He stopped paying interest on the note, which brought it to the attention of law enforcement, and the forgery was discovered. In February 1901 he was arrested in Marietta and returned to Mississippi to face charges.

Evidently he found a way to mollify the law (possibly tuberculosis came up again) without much, if any, jail time, because by December 1902, Short and his family moved to Pryor, I.T., from De Leon, Texas. The Pryor Creek Clipper noted his arrival, writing: “He [Short] appears like a pleasant gentleman and one who is skilled at his chosen calling and we are glad to number him among our citizens.”

I didn’t unearth any later criminal activity of Short’s, so one can only hope the newspaper’s optimism proved to be correct.

By 1910 Short had given up the practice of medicine and had returned to Marietta with his wife and son. He worked as a “stockman,” earning his living raising cattle (hopefully the animals were purchased legally), and he owned his home, free and clear. He died in 1912, 12 years to the day after he was received at Leavenworth — not bad for a man believed to be at death’s door in 1900.

Featured photo: H.J. Short, Leavenworth inmate photo, 1900. Collection of the National Archives at Kansas City, Missouri.

The Drop

The Drop

John Medlock is to hang tomorrow for the murder of Carrie Boyd, or McKinney, more than three years ago in the Gardiner coal camp. The Boyd woman was living with a negro named McKinney when Medlock won her somewhat fickle affections. She went to live with him but after a short time left him for another man.

Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico), May 24, 1906

The murder occurred on the night of January 4, 1901. John Neeley (aka Medlock) went out looking for Carrie Boyd and he finally found her in the Gardiner saloon. Fueled with a jealous rage, he pulled out his pistol and shot her without warning. As she started to fall to the ground someone caught her and tried to hold her up. “Let her alone,” he yelled. “I want to see her drop.”

Witnessing the shooting sobered up the bystanders and most of them cleared out of the bar in fear for their own lives. Carrie died on the floor of the saloon. Her killer disappeared into the darkness. No one was foolish enough to try to stop him.

Gardiner was a mining town in Colfax County, New Mexico. James Gardiner, a geologist for the Sante Fe Railroad, discovered coal in nearby Dillon Canyon around 1881. Soon the Old Gardiner Mine swung into production. In 1896 the Raton Coal and Coke Company took over the mine and three railroad companies established coke ovens in town. Coal miners, both white and African-American, were drawn to the area for work.

With little to do in the evenings but drink, the saloon was a gathering place for the citizens of Gardiner. Hard drinking led to fighting. A few years after Carrie’s murder the partition that separated black and white drinkers in the saloon was smashed to bits during an altercation.

Coal mining was and still is a dangerous profession. John lost the sight in his right eye during a mine explosion. He also carried the scars on his forehead and right cheek from severe burns he got in the same accident. In addition he suffered from syphilis. Given how few women lived in New Mexico back then, venereal diseases were practically an occupational hazard for miners and cowboys.

After he murdered Carrie, John headed east to Indian Territory. He wouldn’t be caught for more than two years and when he was captured it was not for Carrie’s murder but for an assault on a woman who survived the attack. Under an alias — John Medlock — he was sentenced to three years at Leavenworth Penitentiary for the assault.

Before John was released from Leavenworth the New Mexico authorities realized he was the man who shot and killed Carrie Boyd. The sheriff of Colfax County, Marion Littrell, picked him up from the federal penitentiary on May 14, 1905, and took him to New Mexico to face the murder charge.

He was convicted of Carrie’s murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He didn’t fight the sentence.

The plan was for John and another man, David Arguello, who was convicted of the murder of a peace officer, to be hanged together on May 25, 1906. Two for the price of one saved the county some money. The sheriff was besieged with applications from people who wanted to witness the hangings. By law only 20 were allowed to attend.

The night before his execution John gave a statement confirming his guilt in Carrie’s murder. He said he regretted the crime and the bad company he kept when it happened. Then he went to bed and slept well. The next morning, after eating a good breakfast, he whistled and sang in his cell as he washed up.

Raton County Courthouse

After exchanging a few last words with his minister, John calmly mounted the scaffold that had been set up on the west side of the Raton County Courthouse. The trap was sprung at 10:15 a.m. but his neck wasn’t broken in the drop. He died of strangulation 13 minutes after his body went through the trap door.

The executions of John Neeley and David Arguello were the only legal hangings in Raton, New Mexico. Of course many lynchings also occurred in New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During the Great Depression the mines in Gardiner closed and after World War II the few families still there left. By 1954 Gardiner was a ghost town. Now the land is gated private property owned by media mogul Ted Turner. It’s part of Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch and if you have a spare $450 you can book a night’s stay there.

Featured photo: John Neeley, alias Medlock, from his Leavenworth Penitentiary file. Collection of the National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

The Freedwoman

The Freedwoman

Mary Snowden and Cynthia Walton, two dusky damsels of Eufaula, who have been awaiting trial in the Muskogee jail on a charge of assault to kill, were tried by a jury and the result was a verdict of guilty as to Mary Snowden and acquittal as to Cynthia.

Muskogee Phoenix (Muskogee, Oklahoma), December 7, 1899

Mary Snowden was sentenced to five years hard labor and costs in the federal penitentiary after she was convicted of assault to kill. The 21-year-old had been married for just over a year when she became prisoner #2040 at Leavenworth. Details of the crime were not reported in the newspaper, which likely means the victim was also a person of color.

Matthew Snowden

Matthew Snowden, Leavenworth inmate photo

Her husband, Matthew Snowden, was a Creek Freedman. (Matthew’s mother had been a slave of Creek Indians. Emancipated slaves and their children were enrolled as tribal citizens). Matthew had served two stints at Leavenworth by the time he married Mary. Their marriage didn’t last long. In 1902, while she was still in prison, he got married again and the following year he was married a third time. By 1907 Matthew was incarcerated for assault to kill at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. His brothers, Littleton, Joseph and Horace, also served prison terms.

The Wichita Beacon newspaper described Mary and the Snowden brothers as “members of a band of cutthroats and outlaws.”

According to her marriage license, Mary’s maiden name was Grimmett and she was born in 1879 in Indian Territory. In 1896-97 she was listed with her mother, Mary Hill, on the Indian Territory Census, living in Tahlequah in Cherokee County. Based on her almond-shaped eyes, straight hair and high cheekbones, Mary probably had both Native American and African American ancestry.

Mary appears to have been unfazed by the prospect of going to prison — she stared confidently at the camera with the hint of a smile on her pretty face. Officials at Leavenworth described her as “colored” with “l. mulatto” skin tone, good teeth, dark brown eyes, black hair and a short, slender build. Her religion was Baptist and she was literate. At the time of her incarceration, both of her parents were deceased and she had no children.

Aylesworth Album Collection. - Photographs. - Box 1. FREEDMEN DANCE DURING ENROLLMENT AT FORT GIBSON

Part of what’s intriguing about Mary is what she’s wearing — the tiny, striped straw hat and coarsely woven shirt. A photo taken at a dance during the Freedmen’s enrollment in the Five Civilized Tribes at Fort Gibson, shows the clothing worn by freedwomen around the turn of the century — the small hat and the puffy-sleeved shirt with its ruffled collar are visible. Mary’s beaded necklace is the part of her outfit that may signal her Indian heritage.

Like most of the 12 women sent to Leavenworth, Mary was transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas, because the federal penitentiary had no facilities for women. If she behaved well and earned “good time,” she would’ve been released in February 1904. Otherwise she would have served her full sentence and been freed in December 1904.

In 1906 she married James Brice, an African American man 12 years her senior. In August 1908, Mary was shot in her thigh (“Williams Causes Darktown Terror”) during an altercation with a jealous, drunken lover named Bub Williams. The wound was described as severe and may have been fatal because, although there was no announcement of her death, Mary’s husband was listed as a widower on the 1910 census.

Mary’s mugshot was one of a handful of early Leavenworth inmate photos that were re-photographed and made available online by National Archives staff. That’s lucky, because her photo is currently missing and may have been stolen from the National Archives in Kansas City, where the Leavenworth inmate files are held.

Featured photo: Mary Snowden, Leavenworth inmate photo, 1900. Collection of the National Archives.

Pink’s Story (Part 1)

Pink’s Story (Part 1)

From Friday until Tuesday night the U.S. Court has been engaged in the trial of Pink Bruner for the killing of Hugh Myers, city marshal of the town of Davis, on May 5, 1900. The evidence showed that Bruner and two other negroes went to Davis on that evening, filled up on whiskey, and rode out of town firing their pistols in the air. That Myers followed them half a mile out to a lonely spot and was shot and killed. The government claims that it was done in pursuance of a conspiracy to entice Myers out of town and kill him, and while there is no evidence Bruner did the actual shooting, he was in the plot and helped on with the game; and it must be confessed that the prosecution made a very strong case.

The Davis Weekly News (Davis, Indian Terr.), May 30, 1901

Marshal Hugh Myers road out to the west edge of Davis, a small town in Indian Territory, on a Saturday night in early May of 1900 to investigate gunshots. There he found three black men: Pink Bruner, Lyman Mahardy and Ben Cage. Myers exchanged gunfire with the men and took a bullet to his abdomen. He was able to get back to his home but the wound was fatal and he died within the hour. Before he died he told his family he believed he’d wounded one of the men.

Pink was wounded in his left leg above the knee.

The next day Pink was captured after he sought treatment for his leg wound. Lyman was also located and taken into custody. Ben Cage escaped.

Bruner family freedman role

Dawes Census Card (#431) for Rose Bruner and her children

Pink was a nickname. His given name was Legus and he was born in the tiny town of Sasakwa, Indian Territory, the oldest child of John Bruner and Rose Colbert Bruner. His father was a Seminole Freedman and his mother came from the Chickasaw Freedmen. The Chicksaw follow a system of matrilineal descent in which children are considered to be part of their mother’s clan.

Maintaining his innocence in Myers’ shooting, Pink claimed Lyman had a grudge against Myers and planned to kill him after luring him to a remote spot outside of town. Ben Cage was also indicted for the murder, however he remained at large.

The cases of the two men were separated and Pink was tried first. He was found guilty of first-degree murder on May 23, 1901 and sentenced to 99 years in the federal penitentiary.

Lyman’s trial was delayed until the following June. On June 28, 1902, he died in jail, apparently still awaiting trial. Death records were not kept until 1908, after Oklahoma became a state, so the cause of Lyman’s death is unknown.

Meanwhile 22-year-old Pink Bruner headed to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas to begin serving a life sentence.

Continued in Pink’s Story (Part 2).

Featured photo: Pink Bruner’s Leavenworth Penitentiary 1901 mugshots, National Archives, Kansas City, Missouri

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

“Yes, I killed ‘em. They beat me. I was their slave.”

 

And so Dan Tso-Se, 16-year-old Navajo is to go to Fort Leavenworth with the brand of Cain upon him, because, goaded to desperation by the ill-treatment he had received from five members of his tribe, he fired bullets into them as they slept in their tepee. Dan Tso-Se will be taken to the federal penitentiary to serve a ten-year sentence some time Friday.

The Salt Lake City Tribune, June 18, 1909

At 5 feet ¼ inch tall and 91 pounds, Dan Tso-Se, brand of Cain or not, would require protection when he entered USP Leavenworth on June 21, 1909, to serve a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. A Navajo boy of uncertain age — perhaps as young as 13 — Dan would be housed with hardened adult criminals, many of whom were twice his size. To make matters even worse, Dan was unable to communicate with his captors because he didn’t speak English.

A news report stated that Dan lived with his uncle on the Navajo reservation near Aneth, Utah, and it was this uncle, along with an aunt and an unidentified woman, who were the people Dan shot and killed with a 22-caliber rifle, along with wounding a third woman. After the murders Dan fled on horseback with his younger brother Tony. The pair weren’t located for a month.

According to prison documents, one of the people Dan shot and killed was his sister. Other documents state that he killed four men who had systematically mistreated him. Dan spoke no English; he spoke only the Navajo language, so there were undoubtedly facts that were lost in translation, resulting in confusion about what led up to the murders and who was killed.

Dan trusty

With long, disheveled hair and clad in ragged overalls and a dirty shirt, Dan appeared in the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, Utah, in April 1909.

It was the first time that the Indian boy had ever been off the reservation. Streetcars, automobiles and other things of the paleface civilization filled him with terror. It was with difficulty that he was persuaded to walk along the street to the courtroom to enter his plea of guilty.

The Salt Lake City Tribune, June 18, 1909

Informed of Dan’s maltreatment at the hands of the people he shot (whoever they were), the judge reduced the charges against him from murder to manslaughter, giving him four concurrent ten-year sentences. Absurdly, he was also fined $400. The sheriff then handcuffed him and escorted him to the federal prison in Kansas. There his hair was cut and he was given clean clothing before his mugshots were taken.

Dan sent a letter, written in Navajo, to his brother Tony while he was incarcerated. All letters to and from prisoners were read and officials were suspicious of the contents of the letter. “I guess we will have to take his word for it as I have no one who can talk to him,” wrote the deputy warden to the prison warden. There were other Native American prisoners at Leavenworth, but none of them spoke Navajo.

Credited with good conduct time, Dan was paroled on March 7, 1916. Prison officials had been informed that he was not welcome at his home reservation, so he was sent to the Wind River Indian Reservation near Fort Washakie, Wyoming. In an effort to find out how the young man had fared years after his release, the Leavenworth warden tried to locate Dan in 1928, but found no trace of him.

Featured photo: Dan Tsose, Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate photograph, 1909. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

 

Dead Man Naming

Dead Man Naming

Sheriff James S. Scarborough and his posse of cowboys were out looking a burglar who had blown open the safe of a local store on the night of April 19, 1906, making off with $302.61. Unfortunately the crime wasn’t discovered until the following day, giving the culprit plenty of time to escape. The posse set out on horseback to search the scrubby grasslands in the vicinity of Dime Box, Texas, where the crime occurred.

The focus of the search was a stranger who’d been hanging around the town of Lexington the previous day, claiming he was an engineer for the Sante Fe Railroad. The last time the man was seen he was headed towards Dime Box late in the evening on the night of the safe cracking.

Scarborough, a well-respected lawman with a fierce crime-fighting reputation, was alone and it was getting dark when he encountered a man walking along the railroad tracks south of Lexington. He ordered the stranger to halt but rather than stopping, the man pulled out a gun and fired three times in rapid succession at the sheriff, missing him with all three shots. Scarborough fired back and he was the better shot. A bullet hit the stranger in the right side of his chest. He fell over and died several minutes later without uttering any last words.

lee-county-sheriff-james-scarborough

Sheriff James S. Scarborough, circa 1899. Collection of Turner Publishing/Historic Photos of Texas Lawmen by Mike Cox.

The dead man had more than $340 in cash on him — some of it was the stolen cash — however he carried no identification. He also had six drill bits, a punch, one brace, two large rolls of fuse, twenty-two short pieces of fuse cut ready for use, and a pint flask of powder on him. Clearly the man was a safe blower — a “yegg” — in the parlance of law enforcement.

The sheriff wrote up an exhaustive physical description of the man, along with details about the crime. The information was placed in the local newspapers. To cover all the bases, a local photographer was called to prop up the dead man and photograph him. Though the photo wasn’t published, if someone recognized the man’s description, a copy would be mailed to the person to get a positive I.D. The photographer made some cash too; he sold 24 copies of the photo to the locals at 25 cents a copy!

Scarborough letter

Letter (page 1 of 3) from Sheriff Scarborough to Warden McClaughry. Coleman’s Leavenworth Penitentiary Inmate files. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

Leavenworth Penitentiary guard Samuel D. Sample read an article in the Daily Times Herald, a Texas paper, about a professional bank robber who was killed the previous week by the sheriff of Lee County. He thought the description of the dead man matched that of a recently released Leavenworth prisoner, Charles Michael Coleman. Charles  completed a four-year sentence in Leavenworth for post office burglary the previous month. Upon his release he was given a train ticket to Houston, Texas, where his wife lived.

Samuel brought the article to the attention of the Robert McClaughry, Leavenworth’s warden, who got in touch with Sheriff Scarborough. The sheriff sent McClaughry his description of the man (“hair as fine as silk”) and a copy of the dead man’s photo. The warden confirmed the man was ex-Leavenworth inmate, Charles M. Coleman, and he wrote back to the sheriff: “Yourself and officers are congratulated on getting rid of this dangerous burglar without he having succeeded in killing any of you before he was killed himself. We had enough of him here and were glad to get rid of him. We also identify in your photograph the coat and shirt that were given to Coleman when he left here.”

Coleman_SanQuentin

San Quentin Prison mugshot. California State Archives.

Born about 1858 in New York to Irish immigrant parents, Charles left home when he was 17. His first prison sentence occurred in 1886 — four years in San Quentin — for a burglary he committed in Calaveras County, California. More prison stints followed in the 1890s, when he was incarcerated in the state prisons of Illinois and Wisconsin for burglary and robbery.

Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, given his talent as a safe blower, Charles was a skilled machinist and mechanic. While he was incarcerated at Leavenworth he was in charge of work on the huge steel gates at both the east and west entrances to the prison. He also made the doors and gratings of the prison gates. Though he was an expert at both breaking safes and making prison gates, he died unidentified and was buried in an unmarked grave near where he fell in rural Texas.

Featured photos: mugshot and postmortem photo of Charles M. Coleman from Coleman’s Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate files. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

Bagged by his Underwear

Bagged by his Underwear

Wardrobe malfunctions have been a problem since humans began wearing clothing. However celebrities, whose body parts seem to fall out of their clothing quite regularly, have nothing on John Morgan. John’s clothing malfunctioned in December 1901, with disastrous consequences for him.

John was imprisoned on May 3, 1901, at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, for stealing three blankets from nearby Fort Leavenworth. He claimed he had purchased the blankets but the jury disagreed, so John was sentenced to one year and one day at hard labor. He’d served more than half his sentence when he seized an opportunity to get out a little early.

While guards were distracted by a prison mutiny, John, who was working outside in the rock quarry, took the chance to escape. He absconded and headed east to Missouri. He ended up across the state in St. Louis.

All was well and good for several weeks. John enjoyed his freedom in the big city. He especially appreciated the opportunity to tipple a bit of whiskey in the many local saloons. It was all just terrific until one evening in mid-December.

John Morgan mug2

John Morgan, Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate photograph, 1901. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

John was known to have something of a problem where alcohol was concerned and one night he had a bit too much to drink at a downtown St. Louis watering hole. He got rowdy and fell into an argument with another customer and a fracas between John and the other man ensued. The bartender grabbed him by the coat to throw him out and the coat, along with his vest and shirt, were ripped. His underwear was exposed beneath his torn clothing and the prison numbers painted on it were clear for all to see.

The bartender, William Kelly, suspecting John was a convict, held him at the bar and notified the St. Louis police who telegraphed the prison warden. The police identified John, possibly through his prison mughsot.

morgan telegram

Telegrams from William Kelly and the St. Louis Police to the Leavenworth warden, John Morgan’s inmate file. Collection of NARA-Kansas city, Missouri.

The bartender got a $60 reward and John got to return to Leavenworth to finish the rest of sentence.

Featured photo: John Morgan, Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate photograph, 1901. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

Escape Tunnel

Escape Tunnel

Despite growing up in a law-abiding family, Hiram Lepper was a small-time crook that spent most of his life in prison. His story would be relegated to the scrap heap of crime history if it weren’t for the fact that he made two daring escapes from the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.

Born in 1866 in Ionia, Michigan, Hiram had one honest occupation — in 1888 he worked as a clerk for a hardware company in Grand Rapids. His first arrest came in 1893 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for selling stolen silk handkerchiefs while also carrying a razor and a revolver in his pockets.

More arrests and imprisonments followed, mostly for a type of counterfeiting called “raising” in which bills of a lower denomination were altered to look as if they had a higher value. He also carried out robberies, including one of a priest, to obtain the cash for counterfeiting. Between 1897 and 1913 he was rarely out of prison, earning sentences in Michigan State Prison, Joliet Prison in Illinois, and the federal penitentiaries in Atlanta, Georgia and Leavenworth, Kansas. He tended to be an uncooperative prisoner — talking back, refusing to obey orders, breaking things and making escape attempts — so he generally served his full time.

Hiram Lepper_Leavenworth

Inmate prison photos (intake) of Hiram Lepper, June 10, 1911, Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Collection of NARA-Kansas City.

In May 1914 Hiram was incarcerated for a third stretch in the federal prison in Atlanta. He and another prisoner escaped from the tuberculosis camp, in late December 1914, by scaling the prison wall with an improvised ladder. He was recaptured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the following May after stealing $14 from his landlady’s daughter and raising the bills from $1 to $20. He was returned to the penitentiary.

His next escape attempt was a risky scheme that took time to implement. It also required planning and hard work.

In December 1923, four prisoners, including Hiram, escaped through a tunnel barely wide enough for one man. The tunnel led from a tubercular tent on the prison grounds that had housed him and another escapee, Frank Haynes, to a point fifty feet beyond the stone wall surrounding the prison.

Prison officials believed that Lepper and Haynes dug the tunnel using only a small shovel and a miner’s lantern. It had taken them at least two months to excavate it. The men clandestinely carried the loose gravel and dirt they removed to a point 75 feet away from their tent. The entrance was through a trap door in the wooden floor of the tent. Below the trap door was a drop of eight feet into the tunnel. Three of the escapees, including Hiram, were traced to Indiana, but there the trail went cold.

Lepper news clip

News clipping from the Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, Sat., Feb. 2, 1924.

Hiram Lepper was recaptured in Baltimore after five weeks on the lam. Though he requested parole in 1930, it wasn’t granted. He died of a heart attack in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on February 5, 1938, having spent more than half his life in prison. His family brought his body home to Michigan for burial.

Featured photo: 1897 carte de visite mugshot, front and back, of Hiram Lepper. Collection of the author.

Bury Freddie There

Bury Freddie There

Justice was sometimes meted out in an arbitrary and indiscriminate fashion, or so it seemed in October 1899 when Fred Mason was given a five-year sentence to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Jewelry and “trinkets” belonging to a white man, J. M. Golledge, were apparently found in Fred’s possession. He claimed the actual thief was a man named George Carpenter however he pleaded guilty to burglary. He was probably hoping that, given his youth, Judge Townsend of Chickasha, Indian Territory, would be lenient. Clearly Fred misjudged the judge.

Fred arrived at Leavenworth on October 9, 1899. He was 16-years-old, 5 foot 6 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. Born in Texas, Fred had no education and left home at the age of 12. Prior to prison he worked as a hotel waiter and a bootblack.

During his year and a half stay at Leavenworth he was put into solitary confinement 11 times for talking (which was never allowed), laughing, using foul language, marching out of step and loafing when he was supposed to be working. Given that Leavenworth housed some of the hardest criminals in America, it’s impossible not to wonder if Fred’s tendency to break the rules wasn’t actually a desperate attempt to get himself removed from the rest of the inmate population and, consequently, out of harm’s way.

Fred’s last stay in solitary lasted almost a month, from December 19, 1900, to January 17, 1901. It’s likely that shortly after he got out of solitary he was moved to the hospital because Fred had a serious case of tuberculosis. In fact it’s almost certain that at times when the guards claimed he was avoiding his tasks he was actually too weak to work.

On April 6, 1901, Fred Mason died at the Leavenworth Prison Hospital. His cause of death was listed as “tabes mesenterica,” which, in layman’s terms, means he literally wasted away. An autopsy found that tuberculosis lesions were spread throughout his abdomen — he had probably been unable to eat for weeks, maybe months. His heart was described as “small and flabby” and his aortic valve was narrowed, probably also a result of his tuberculosis.

The Leavenworth warden, Robert W. McClaughry, told Fred’s mother that her son suffered shortness of breath and had gone deaf before he died. Perhaps trying to ease a mother’s grief over the loss of her only son, he also noted that Fred “did not suffer much pain.” McClaughry had arrived at Leavenworth just three months before Fred Mason became an inmate. A reformer in the field of penal correction, the 60-year-old McClaughry believed that prisons could work to improve their inmate’s lives, not simply punish them. He also introduced Bertillon’s system of cataloging suspects and criminals into the United States and it’s likely that McClaughry initiated the process of taking inmate photos at Leavenworth.

McClaughry was writing to Fred’s mother, in part, because he needed to know what the family wanted done with the body. Rutha Mason wrote back, thanking McClaughry for letting her know right away that her only son had died and for his “kindness to Fred.” She wanted to know if Fred had left any final words for his family. McClaughry wrote back to say that he had been unconscious for three days prior to his death and had been unable to speak.

Mason telegram

Telegram from Ruth Mason to Warden McClaughry, from Fred Mason’s Leavenworth file. Collection of NARA-Kansas City.

The Mason family was too poor to afford to have their son’s body returned to Texas, so his mother requested that prison officials “bury Freddie there.” She mentioned that she had made every effort possible to get him a pardon but had been unsuccessful. The warden reassured her that her son’s grave would be marked with a “neat headstone, so that if any time his friends desire to remove his remains, they can be identified and obtained.”

Currently Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary maintains a cemetery for prisoners but it is not accessible to the public nor does it contain any headstones.

Featured photo: Fred Mason, Leavenworth Penitentiary Inmate Photograph, 1899. Collection of NARA-Kansas city.