Thursday, October 21, 2010

Number 3: The Last Posse

My first inkling about this crime came about 20 years ago, when I was the chief deputy sheriff.  One of my interns, a young man named Ron Boden (now a veteran deputy sheriff), had been doing some research on Lancaster County’s only known lynching, in 1884.  I came across a reference in the biography of the sheriff at the time, Sam Melick, to the murder of the Nebraska Penitentiary warden, and subsequent prison break.  Melick had been appointed interim warden after the murder, and instituted several reforms.

Several years later, a colleague, Sgt. Geoff Marti, loaned me a great book, Gale Christianson’s Last Posse, that told the story of the 1912 prison break in gory, haunting, and glorious detail. 

To make a long story short, convict Shorty Gray and his co-conspirators shot and killed Warden James Delahunty, a deputy warden, and a guard on Wednesday, March 13, 1912.  They then made their break—right into the teeth of a brutal Nebraska spring blizzard.  Over the course to the next few days, a posse pursued.  During the pursuit, the escapees carjacked a young farmer with his team and wagon.  As the posse closed in, a gunfight broke out and the hostage was shot and killed in the exchange, along with two of the three escapees.

There was plenty of anger among the locals in the Gretna-Springfield vicinity about the death of their native son, and a controversy raged over the law enforcement tactics that brought about his demise.  Lancaster County Sheriff Gus Hyers was not unsullied by the inquiry, although it appears from my prospect a century later that the fog of war led to the tragedy.  Hindsight was still 20-20 a century ago.

Christianson, a professor of history at Indiana State University who died earlier this year, notes the following on the flyleaf:
“For anyone living west of the Mississippi in 1912, the biggest news that fateful year was a violent escape from the Nebraska state penitentiary planned and carried out by a trio of notorious robbers and safe blowers.”
Bigger news on half the continent than the sinking of the Titanic during the same year would certainly qualify this murder-escape as one of the most infamous Lincoln crimes in history.

The Sereies:


Anonymous said...

What happened with the escapee that wasn't shot?


car54 said...

the escapees "carjacked" a young farmer with his team and wagon.

Thanks for the laugh. I am sure the young farmer would be surprised at the modern terminology

Car 54

Tom Casady said...


The surviving escapee, Charles Morley, was paroled in 1941, and apparently lived to a ripe old age. He gave an interview to a reporter in 1958, and spilled the beans on the source of the guns used by the convicts in the escape: smuggled in by a preacher. He eventually disappeared in Missouri.

JIM J said...

brings the Bakers to mind..Tammy Faye and company....she had so much makeup on you could "hear" her that is what I call a wise crack!

Steve said...

Who disappeared, Morely, or the preacher? Imagine, being invisible in the "show me" state! :)

Anonymous said...

Chief-Apparently Missouri is a good place to hide out. Just remember Cole Younger and Jesse James. Thanks for your response.


Anonymous said...

The book is available at Lincoln City Libraries.

ARRRRG!!!! said...

Ohhhhh, Posse! I misread that.

Anonymous said...

As a kid, I seem to recall some event occurring at the Pen during the 60's or 70s, in which the National Guard was called out to the prison.

Is my memory mistaken, or did something like that actually happen? Can anyone shed some light into this?

Anonymous said...

The young farmer who was "carjacked" was killed, leaving a young wife who was expecting. He was my uncle and I didn't find anything to laugh about.

MrNWA4Life said...

The person who did the book made one mistake. The inmate pictured at the top, Inmate #5407 is Thomas Johnson. Johnson was hanged on May 19, 1911, a year before the escape, so it's impossible for him to be one of the escapees. In a bit of irony, I have a book that goes into detail about all of Nebraska's executions. It mentions in early 1912 there had been several escape attempts. Albert Prince was one that attempted to escape, but his attempt was stopped by the Deputy Warden, Edward Davis. As revenge, Prince stabbed Davis to death in the prison chapel on February 11, 1912. Prince of corse, was the last man hanged in Nebraska. Looks like Albert just missed out on a possible escape.

MrNWA4Life said...

I don't know about the 60's or 70's, but there was a riot at the Penitentiary in 1955

MrNWA4Life said...

I don't know about the 60's or 70's, but there was a riot at the Penitentiary in 1955