The Argument

The Argument

A quarrel over a woman ended last night in the slaying of an escaped convict by one of his three pals and the wounding and capture of the other three men by the police following a pistol battle.

The St. Louis Star and Times (St. Louis, Missouri), July 7, 1931

It started out as a congenial evening of drinking among friends on a hot summer night in St. Louis. Winfield (known as “Windy”) Seeman and his pal, Morris Rosen, met up with John Harrington and Harry Casey near the Mississippi riverfront. July in St. Louis is notoriously hot and humid. In order to try to cool off one of the men suggested they head to a speakeasy called “Mack’s Place” for some beers.

The speakeasy was in a house in the southeast part of the city, near the workhouse, in an area called “No Man’s Land,” where mounds of rocks from an old quarry were still scattered around. During the 19th century, workhouse inmates were forced to break rocks from the quarry into gravel as part of their penance for being imprisoned. Streetlights were few in No Man’s Land, so it was dark at night and vehicles traversed the landscape with difficulty. The police disliked the area and avoided it, which meant it was a good place to run an illegal beer tavern.

Harry Casey was a 40-year-old St. Louis man with an extensive criminal history. As a joke he was nicknamed “The Velvet Tongue Kid” thanks to his free use of some of the vilest curse words in the English language. He’d been sent to the workhouse for car theft in his late teens. By the age of 25 he’d been hardened by two prison terms in the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) — one of which came after he’d stolen some guns and attempted to kill a police officer who tried to arrest him in Illinois. He’d lived in California for a time but he’d recently returned to his hometown.

Winfield Seeman mugshot

Morris Rosen 2-1

Windy Seeman (top) and Morris Rosen (bottom) in MSP mugshots. Collection of the Missouri State Archives.

Windy Seeman and Morris Rosen had become buddies at the MSP when Windy was serving a ten-year sentence for robbery. Russian-born Morris, the younger of the two, had served a year at the MSP for assault to kill and was in for the second time for burglary and grand larceny. They were both skilled tradesmen and had been put to work on the outside in a supervised prison gang that was at work on a new prison. Windy and Morris walked away from the gang the previous October and had been on the lam ever since.

John was a salesman in his thirties with no criminal record.

The men sat in front of Mack’s Place drinking and as the alcohol flowed, tongues loosened. John casually mentioned that he thought Windy’s wife, Irene, was a very attractive woman. Perhaps it was an innocent comment or he may have been testing the waters to see how married the Seemans really were. Either way, he wasn’t prepared for for the escaped con’s reaction.

Windy accused John of trying to steal his wife. John replied that it was meant as a compliment, nothing more, but Windy became even more incensed and refused to let the matter drop.

John retreated inside the speakeasy but Windy grabbed his pistol and followed him. Harry, never one to avoid a fight, followed them both inside and Morris trailed in last. Gunfire erupted and Windy fell to the floor with a bullet wound to his chest.

Morris insisted that they needed to get his friend to a doctor. The three men laid Windy in the backseat of John’s car and headed to the city hospital. Before they got far the police, who’d been called by someone at the speakeasy, arrived on the scene. They ordered the men out of the car. Instead Harry fired at the policemen, who dropped to their knees, sought cover and returned fire.

By the time the bullets stopped flying, John had been shot in the left arm and Harry had taken a bullet to his right hand and had a deep scalp wound. Morris was seriously injured — he’d been shot in the head. Windy was dead, with bullet wounds to his stomach and heart. None of the officers was injured.

The police weren’t sure whose bullet had killed Windy. However he’d been lying in the backseat of the car during the gun battle, which made it unlikely that the officers, firing from a low angle, had shot him. John told police that Harry fired the fatal shot after the argument moved inside the speakeasy. Morris, once he’d recovered, said the same thing. But velvet-tongued Harry claimed John had fired the fatal shot.

Harry with charged with Windy’s murder. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and assault to kill and was sent to prison for ten years. He died in 1944 of stomach and liver cancer and was buried in a pauper’s grave in East St. Louis, Illinois.

John, whose father, Patrick Harrington, was a St. Louis policeman, returned to life as a salesman. He was killed in July 1952 when he failed to stop at an intersection near Route 66 in St. Louis County while driving his car at a high rate of speed. John’s car struck another vehicle and he was thrown 30 feet from his wreck. He died at the scene of fractures, shock and blunt force head trauma. Passengers in the other two cars involved in the crash suffered only minor injuries.

Morris survived but his lost his eye. He was returned to the MSP to finish his sentence once he’d recovered. He was released in 1934 and he moved back to his hometown of Kansas City. Eventually he became a part owner of Toffler’s Loan Shop in Leavenworth, Kansas. The store, part pawn shop and part general store, sold rifles, shotguns and pistols, among other things.

In December 1952, while demonstrating a revolver he believed to be unloaded, Morris snapped the trigger and the gun exploded. It wounded him in the hand and wounded a bystander in the arm. He recovered from his second gunshot wound and lived another 33 years, dying in 1995 at the age of 90.

Featured photo: Morris Rosen’s mugshot, taken on November 19, 1931. The Missouri State Penitentiary Database, collection of the Missouri State Archives.

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.

Gangster Undressed

Gangster Undressed

We still didn’t think we had anything but a crazy drunk and both of us took him out to the car. He was dressed in his underwear and shoes only, with an expensive fur coat over them. I made the crack about being a drugstore cowboy when we were taking him out.

 

Kast went in to call headquarters and I stayed with DeVol. I figured I would have no trouble in handling him. But just as Kast stepped out, DeVol dove for me in the back seat and got both hands around my throat. I grappled with him and he sank his teeth into my left wrist and hand. I kicked the door open and dragged him out onto the pavement.

 

We rolled there for a second and then DeVol broke away and started to run across the street. I caught up to him and hit him over the head with the butt of my gun. Kast had heard the commotion and came running out and also hit DeVol.

 

He didn’t attempt to escape again and in a few minutes several other squads arrived and they found the bank loot and guns in the apartment. It was not until then we realized what sort of criminal we had been fighting with.

— Patrolman George Hammergren, The Minneapolis Star, December 19, 1932

St. Paul Policeman George Hammergren and his partner, Officer Kast, had arrested one of the most wanted criminals of their day. Lawrence DeVol was the look out man during a holdup of the Third Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis by the Barker-Karpis gang on December 16, 1932. The gang escaped with $22,000 in cash and $92,000 in bonds. Lawrence shot and killed two police officers during the getaway.

Holed up in a rented St. Paul apartment with a bandit pal after the heist, Lawrence went out on the evening of December 18, 1932, dressed only in underpants and a coat. (In search of cigs, booze, drugs or all three?) When he returned he got confused and banged on the wrong apartment door, demanding to be let in. The man who lived in the apartment had no idea who he was and told him to “get going.” Lawrence wandered down the hall and returned to the apartment, waving his revolver. Peeking through the safety chain and seeing the gun, the man became alarmed, slammed the door and called police. Meanwhile Lawrence wandered off, found the correct apartment and entered, leaving the door ajar.

Officers Hammergren and Kast arrived at the apartment building for what they thought would be a straightforward nuisance call. They located the open apartment door, went in and found a man getting dressed. They asked him where the man with the “rod” was. He pointed to the bedroom, stating, “He’s been drinking and got a little boisterous, but he hasn’t got a rod of any kind.” Hammergren went into the bedroom and found Lawrence, clad only in his underpants, pointing a gun at him. Hammergren grabbed both Lawrence’s hands but was unable to get the gun from him. He yelled for Kast and the three scuffled, eventually extracting the gun from Lawrence. Figuring him to be “just a crazy drunk” they didn’t bother to handcuff him before taking him outside and putting him in the squad car. Meanwhile the other man escaped.

Born on November 17, 1903 in Belpre, Ohio, Lawrence was the middle of three sons of Helem and Emma (Shanks) DeVol. On his father’s side the family traced their ancestry back to Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower. Helem moved his family to Tulsa, Oklahoma when Lawrence was six. He found work in the oil fields and he died there in 1917.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

Mugshot, age 24

Lawrence got his start in crime at a tender age and by the time he turned 11, he was labeled “incorrigible” and was sent to reform school in Oklahoma. His brothers, Albert and Clarence, also joined  the criminal ranks, but it was Lawrence who evolved into a big-time gangster and garnered most of the headlines. By the time he reached his late twenties, Lawrence had a rap sheet that included numerous convictions for grand larceny and burglary. He’d served multiple prison terms, accumulated 17 aliases and was wanted by police in ten states.

He became acquainted with gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis at the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1928. Together the pair escaped in 1929 and pulled off several robberies. They were later arrested in Kansas City, where Lawrence was able to post bail and skip town, leaving Creepy behind. He carried out another string of heists that culminated in the fatal shooting a police officer in Kirksville, Missouri. He also managed to escape custody there, but in addition to robbery he was now wanted for murder, and not just any murder, but the murder of a cop.

Lawrence headed to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he hooked up with his old pal, Creepy (who apparently had forgiven him for the earlier ditch), and Creepy’s friends Fred and Arthur “Doc” Barker, along with members of their gang. The men pulled off bank robberies in Minnesota, Kansas and North Dakota before going to Minneapolis for the December 16th robbery.

Hammergen and his partner, Kast, were lucky that when they captured Lawrence that cold December night, he was out of his head with drink. In full control of his senses there’s no doubt he wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot them.

DeVol_ducks_photoBleary-eyed, with his face scuffed and still wearing only his fur coat and (presumably) underpants and shoes, his mugshots were taken at the St. Paul police station. Two days later the Minneapolis police photographed a cleaned up and far-from-contrite-looking Lawrence after he’d been charged with bank robbery and murder. He’s still wearing his beloved fur coat, but this time he’s also sporting a suit, tie and hat. On his way into Minneapolis city hall, a news photographer got a double exposure photo of DeVol, who was apparently still edgy after his capture in St. Paul, causing him to jump when the photographer’s flashbulb went off.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

Mugshots taken on December 20, 1932 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He pleaded guilty to the murder of policemen Ira Evans and Leo Gorsky and was given a life sentence. First sent to the Stillwater penitentiary, he was moved to the St. Peter Hospital for the Criminally Insane on December 27, 1935 — it turned out to be a late Christmas gift of sorts for Lawrence.

Psychiatrists at St. Peter’s described him as suffering from a mania called “Dementia Praecox Catatonia.” The condition was characterized, they claimed, by “unbalanced judgment, delusions, hallucinations, alternating apathy and indifference, and tremendous and often violent excitement. The victim’s memory remains good, however, he does not lose the capacity to understand situations and act.” That should have been a warning to anyone familiar with Lawrence and his criminal history.

Unlike his psychiatrists, Lawrence understood perfectly the opportunity that was presented to him and he wasted no time in taking advantage of it. He organized a successful escape from the hospital, along with fifteen other dangerous criminals, the following July.

Criminal history file: Barton, Leonard.

A nationwide search wound up in Enid, Oklahoma, when police officers located him in a tavern on July 7, 1936. Asked to accompany them back to the station for questioning, he said, “Let me finish drinking my beer.” While draining the mug with one hand, he pulled out his gun with the other and opened fire, wounding one officer and killing the other. Though he fled the scene, this time there would be no getaway. With more Enid officers in hot pursuit, Lawrence James DeVol was shot nine times and killed a few blocks from the tavern where he enjoyed his final beer.

Featured photo: mugshots of Lawrence DeVol taken December 18, 1932. Collection of the author.

Additional mugshots and news photo of St. Peter’s Hospital escaped men from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

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.