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The Library Springfield-Greene County Library District Springfield, Missouri
Local History

Jail Break

Jail Delivery Results in the Recapture of the Prisoners--How They Got Out Remains a Mystery.

 Springfield Daily Herald, April 11, 1883, page 3.

"About ten o’clock yesterday morning three prisoners confined in the Greene County Jail made a break for liberty which if unsuccessful caused no little excitement and some lively foot-racing.  At the time mentioned Mrs. Patterson, wife of the sheriff, was occupied about her domestic duties in the jailor’s residence, adjoining the jail.  She was suddenly apprized of the fact that something was wrong by hearing a clatter of feet in the hall way.  Going to the door she saw them run through the hall and leap over the fence.  She immediately gave the alarm when the officers, accompanied by about 150 citizens, started in pursuit.  The crowd turned out in about a minute after the alarm was given and the streets presented the scene of a headlong chase in which everybody took the most lively interest, those who did not join in the rush inquiring in an excited manner for the cause of the disturbance.

"The prisoners who escaped were Albert Miller and Charles Lightner, alias Logan, accused of the Walnut Grove burglary and James Lewis, one of the notorious Lewis brothers of Newton County, whose exploits in train robbing and similar undertakings caused not little terror in the counties of Newton, McDonald and Barry, a few months since.  All three of the prisoners after escaping from the jail through the College Street entrance ran to the alley which runs along the west side of the jail building and passed through this alley to its junction with Olive Street, a distance of about forty yards.  Here they passed the blacksmith shop of Oldham brothers in front of which a horse was hitched.  Lewis quickly unhitched the horse and mounting started down Olive Street going west.  But it soon turned out that Lewis had secured no bonanza in the horse-flesh line as his steed proved himself a champion slow goer.  Generous officials ought to accord to the chagrined Lewis the privilege of shooting that horse as Deputy Sheriff Edward Davis on foot overtook him before he had gone seventy-five yards.

"Lewis surrendered without requiring a showing of arms and was ignominiously collared and marched back to the cooler.

"Miller and Lightner continued their course together out Olive Street until they reached Campbell, where Miller turned north on the latter street.  He had only a short distance to go, however, as he was confronted in the middle of the bridge over Jordan [Creek] by an excited looking man, who headed him off at that point and held an ugly looking weapon too close to be comfortable.  Miller trembled when he saw the pistol pointed at him, but he quaked like an aspen when he discovered that the man who held the aforesaid head-splitter was no less a person than Bob Cooper, the plucky editor of the Springfield News.  His heart went down into his boots and his hair raised his hat off his head while he right about faced and took the road to the jail with the doughty Bob behind.  Bob is becoming a celebrated case between running a newspaper and a hotel and making a full hand on the police force.

"Mr. Sam Elzy mounted the discarded steed of Lewis, as that gentleman was yanked off to jail and made him do good service in the pursuit and capture of the third fugitive, Lightner.  The burglar did not show any surprising amount of endurance and was speedily overtaken near the Gulf depot, by Mr. Elzy accompanied by several other parties on foot, where after an ineffectual attempt to dodge out of sight through a train of freight cars he hove to in answer to repeated calls to halt, with the remark that ‘he was about played out.’

"The prisoners were all returned to the jail and safely under lock and key within fifteen minutes from the time they left.  The prompt action of the officers is to be highly commended but the city is to be especially congratulated upon the possession of such a valuable volunteer police force as appeared at a minutes notice this morning and acquitted themselves so credibly.

"There were in the cell from which these three prisoners escaped, eight more who chose rather to remain in their places than to risk the chances of a scamper through the streets.  One of these was the brother of Lewis, who was in the trio of fugitives.  The prisoners state that the door was left unlocked in the morning but it is most likely that some of the prisoners contrived to manufacture a key with which to effect the escape.  That key would be an interesting specimen if it could be discovered.  The officers are confident that the door was locked and as the lock bears no evidence of having been tampered with, the only explanation is that the prisoners must have used a key of some kind.  Some of the prisoners are ingenious fellows and are capable of making a key with very indifferent tools and materials.

"The following prisoners occupied the same cell with those who escaped:  Henry Tatum, W. S. Clark, Geo. Lewis, Richard Airey, H. C. Stapp, Dr. Beeler and C. C. Shipman.  All of these prisoners as well as the runaways were searched but no key found on their persons.  It is supposed that the prisioners who escaped used a key which they afterwards threw away in their flight.  As soon as the alarm was given Capt. McDonald hurried into the jail building and procuring the key locked the remaining prisoners in the cell."

The fugitives flight can be followed on the 1884 Sanborn Fire Insurance map available on line.  See pages 1, 2 and 4.  The Greene County jail was locate behind the courthouse on the public square.  The postcard above shows the Greene County courthouse on the left, facing the square and the jailor's residence behind on what is now called Park Central West.  The courthouse and other buildings were later replaced with the Heer's building.  More postcards of Springfield's public square are available on the Local History page.  Credit for this article goes to one of our regular patrons.

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