This is a good time to take a quick side-journey to learn about another person who had an impact on Leo Humbert, a gentleman named Robert M. Markword. Although he will not be around toward the end of our story, he did have an impact on Leo’s life.
Robert was born on February 20, 1896 in South Dakota, although some records indicate his place of birth as Ursa, Illinois. His father Karl was a laborer and often worked far away from home. His mother Bessie, a pleasant but strictly no-nonsense kind of a woman, took in laundry to assist with the family expenses. She was the kind of mother who Robert later described as, “hugging you with one arm and switching your back with the other.” She often had her only son, a trouble-maker from a very young age, go and cut his own branch off the birch tree in the backyard which she would then use to discipline him. As that happened fairly frequently, it should probably be no surprise that Karl returned home from a long absence one Sunday to find his wife crying on the front steps and their son gone forever.
Already predisposed to trouble, Robert took up quickly with a loose association of criminals in Alabama, specializing mostly in small-time robbery and extortion over a period of a few years. He was of medium height and slender build, with brown hair that had a strange tendency to appear black in any kind of low light setting. His eyes, also brown, had a slightly bloodshot look to them all of the time, and his face was rounded out by protruding ears, a long thin nose and a strong chin with a dimple in it. It was during these early years of his criminal career that he was tattooed with the image that would eventually be used to identify his body many years later; a cowgirl wearing a kerchief. It was not very well done and his associates took to teasing him about the “winged mermaid” he had on his arm, but Robert liked it and would often wear short-sleeve shirts to put it on display. Five weeks after getting that tattoo the gang decided to improve their financial position by banding together to rob a local bank on a Friday afternoon.
That robbery, although successful at first, fell apart as most robberies involving a good amount of cash and too many robbers do, because some of them just could not refrain from spending their loot. It took about two weeks to round up all the individuals involved, with the very last one being Robert Markword who was quietly hiding out and not spending any of the money. Feeling betrayed by his companions impulsiveness, he cut a deal to provide off-the-record information that the police would later use to secure the conviction of all the other members of the robbery gang. This information involved the location of various incriminating pieces of evidence relating to the planning of the robbery, all of which had been rather sloppily concealed under the floor in the house of the gang’s leader. To try to protect him, the police instructed Robert to plead guilty before the others were tried, resulting in a sentence that had him incarcerated at McNeil Island. There, in November 1921, he welcomed his new cellmate Leo Humbert.
When they first met, with Robert calling a “Hi ya there” in a slow, whispery drawl to the newly in-processed Leo, the latter assumed his cellmate was from the south. That impression stuck for a few days until they got around to sharing a few things about themselves. When Robert heard that Leo was from Minnesota he stated they had grown up neighbors, which drew a blank expression from Leo in reply. It took a little bit of convincing on Robert’s part but eventually he did persuade his cellmate that he was from South Dakota. His accent was just something he had picked up while in Alabama, his interpretation of their manner of speaking which he much preferred over the plain, midwestern tone with which he had grown up.
They spoke often after that, Leo mostly about the Gardner escape and Robert about his bank robbery. Although it had been his first he never told Leo that, building himself up to be much more experienced than he actually was, presenting tips and lessons learned as though he had been at it for years. To further bolster his reputation, he showed his cellmate a scar on his chest, and another on his back, which he claimed had come from being shot during a robbery. Leo paid attention and it was this misguided advice, delivered in Robert’s slow drawl over the course of six weeks, that would serve Leo poorly in his own bank robbery career. Their conversations can to an abrupt end one day when two guards and a tall man in a pinstripe suit came and took Robert from the cell. Leo never knew it of course, but his cellmate had only been placed at McNeil for a short period of time to provide some cover for having sold out his companions. It seemed like a reasonable idea, putting a snitch in prison just long enough for it to seem real to those he had betrayed, but Robert Markword would learn much later that this trick had not worked at all.