A Burning Cold Morning (Part 8)

At this point in our story it is early 1922, just after New Year’s and Robert Markword is already gone from McNeil.  Leo has the majority of his sentence in front of him and has settled into the flow of daily life at the prison.  In the complicated social structure of the criminal residents there he is considered to be a small-time crook, a fact with which he is not satisfied.  His interest in the Gardner escape is still prevalent although it does seem that he took the advice of Robert Markword before he left, which was to stop making himself so noticeable to the guards and other inmates.  This fact is known due to a letter that Leo wrote in January 1922 to Robert Lester, apparently believing that his former partner was still a free man.  The letter was intercepted by the McNeil Island guards and, after finding that the addressee was actually also a federal prisoner and known associate of Humbert,  it was placed in Leo’s file as potential evidence of illicit communication between criminals.  The handwriting is legible in an overly-loopy sort of a way, with the words in neat lines on what is now yellowing paper.

Robert – 

It is just past New Year’s 1922 and I have landed at McNeil Island.  You may have heard about it over here, the whole toot about the Gardner escape, it happened just before I arrived.  I asked too many questions about that though and took a good beating for it from a bunch of prison bimbo’s – they broke my cheaters and now I have to wear prison issued ones that don’t have the right prescription.  Guess it’s best to keep quiet and discreet about that now, which is what my cellmate told me when I started showing him my notes.  He’s a good fella, name of Bob, a bank robber he says, and gave me some info on surviving in this place.  He left after a few weeks so I’m waiting on a new one but have the cell to myself for now.  I’ve been thinking about the future and hoping to make the best of it once I get out of this place.  Send me back if you can 

Leo

PS – If you’re wondering, I stayed quiet – L

Why Leo wrote such an explicit note, especially given that he had apparently been warned about being discreet, is not known, although loneliness and his general criminal naiveté may have been a contributing factor.  From the looks of the letter, it would appear that Leo wrote the post-script at least twice, erasing it and then writing it again.  As the rest of the letter has no such corrections, I think he likely thought better of it due to its rather incriminating inference to something that merited silence.  Ultimately, as it was included in what he tried to send, Leo probably could not resist the urge to make sure Robert knew he had not betrayed him to the authorities.

As 1922 went on Leo made efforts to improve his image and reputation among the inmates.  Most of his thinking at this time, up until June of that year, is also known through letters, all of them to Robert Lester and all of them of course undelivered.  His comments show a man who wants to be thought of as an experienced criminal and what Leo references several times as a “hard-boiled guy.”  In the language of that time, this meant a tough guy, someone who other people respected and probably feared.  He went out of his way to argue with the guards, pick fights with other inmates and embellish his criminal history as much as possible, especially to those that came into the prison after his own arrival.  He also continues to make references to the Gardner escape, although they tend to be much more veiled than before, and he complains about getting no replies back to his letters.  The most interesting thing among these seized communications are a few sentences from April of that year.

Still having fun with my hobby – found a good specimen last week.  Hoping to have more to tell later. 

That entry would be less remarkable were it not for the fact that one week later he received the one and only person who ever visited him while he was in prison.  This person, who signed in as Grace Melcher, was very likely a woman name Veronica Stillman, a local of the area known to have also visited Roy Gardner prior to his escape from McNeil.  She was known to have many aliases, most of which she used to visit prisoners, and had used this particular one before.  There was much speculation following the Gardner escape about how he managed to get off of the island, with the most prevalent theory being that someone picked him up in a rowboat.  Nothing else is known of Veronica’s visit to see Leo and she never returned to see him.

By June 1922, likely due to the lack of response from Lester, the letters stop and the only remaining information we have on Leo is what is contained in his prison record.  Those facts are sparse indeed and reflect only a few stints in isolation due to fighting and a trip to the hospital to have his appendix removed.  There is also a mention, in August 1923, that Leo had briefly been a trustee within the prison, followed by a terse note in September of that year, “trustee status revoked for noncompliance”.  By 1924 he had been approved for an early release, mostly due to the non-violent nature of his crime.  The last entry in his McNeil Island record, called the Exit Evaluation, was written by Finch Archer who was the warden at McNeil Island when Leo was released.

finch archer warden mcneil 1922 1934 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

Leo C Humbert #3905 – record of prisoner is mostly unremarkable although early interest in Gardner escape may indicate future plans or inclinations.  Not known to be in league with any large criminal enterprises.  Has not shown interest in vocational training or preparation for return to law-abiding society.  No family visits or communication during incarceration, and only one visit total from a local woman who is known to pursue relationships with prisoners. Letters to former associate R Lester seized as prohibited between prisoners.  Likelihood to offend again is high.

On September 13, 1924, three days after this evaluation was written, Leo Humbert was released from McNeil Island Penitentiary and Lee O’dare, sometimes known as Robert O’Hara, was born.

…to be continued

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