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.
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.
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.