A Burning Cold Corning (Part 64)

Later that day Leo had another visit from his lawyer and was informed again, and in much more detail, about how the information provided by Otto, the Marlborough’s janitor, had led directly to his arrest.  Leo kept the fact that the man had also stolen the money hidden in the shoes to himself, and that, coupled with the details from his lawyer, drove a growing rage within Leo.  Added to his already bottled up anger toward the bank teller for signing the affidavit and the Marlborough in general for cooperating with police, this all had him in quite a state of agitation when his lawyer departed.  Once he had returned to the cell area he spent twenty minutes telling Williams about how he, “had been about to get a good start on things, get some real cash and a good reputation going in Minnesota,” only to be brought down by, “a dew drop janitor, sleazy banker and god damn hotel that can’t respect people’s privacy!”  He also mentioned quite loudly that he was, “going to get even with all of them!” Williams pointed out that Leo probably should have handled several things differently, which almost led to a fist fight.  In the end, both men walked away and were chatting quietly about the escape an hour later.  

phone

phone

The first part of their plan was initiated by Williams the next morning, who told the guards he needed to call his lawyer.   They pointed out that is was Saturday but he persisted, saying that he just happened to have a really hard working attorney who would be in the office on the weekend.  After about an hour of badgering the guards relented and led Williams out to the phone in the hallway.  He dialed a number and had a conversation which sounded like a simple discussion between a prisoner and his attorney.  At least it seemed that way if you were not paying close attention, which the guards did not seem to be doing.   The next day Williams had a visitor, a man named Clifford Washington, who was later a cooperating witness during the investigation.  Their conversation was short and to the point with Williams uttering a simple request;  “We need saw blades, and a lot of them.”

Alice Lanning aka Betty Talyor Betty Markword

Alice Lanning aka Betty Talyor Betty Markword

Exactly how it was done or who managed to get those blades to Williams is a mystery that is likely to remain unsolved.  An examination of the jail records from September twenty-ninth to October second shows that three people signed in to see him over those days; his lawyer, a man named Jack Mills and a woman named Betty Taylor.  It may or may not be a coincidence (given the commonplace nature of the last name) that Betty Taylor was a known alias of Alice Lanning, who was also known as Betty Markword and was the one-time wife of Leo’s former cellmate at McNeil Island.  Regardless of how they were smuggled in, by the late afternoon of October 2, 1929 Leo and John Williams had a collection of saw blades and were ready to get started on the next part of the escape.

The word had quietly spread among the prisoners that Leo was serious about his plan and was going to act on it.  Although he would have preferred to keep the whole thing a secret it was obvious that it would be impossible to do so, especially since they were going to need everyone’s cooperation to be successful.  Leo played up the angle that once he had made his own escape, anyone who wanted to could follow him out as long as it was understood that they needed to go their own way once free from the jail.  That opportunity likely kept anyone from telling the guards, although it also helped that another one of the prisoners, known as “Big Black” Terry had made it clear what would happen to anyone who did rat out the plan.  He intended to be one of those following Leo and Williams out and, “any’ya that cause a problem’s gonna be seein’ me up close an’ personal.”   Given his six foot four, two hundred and forty pound size and known violent disposition, that threat definitely meant something to the others. 

That night, promptly at eleven-thirty p.m.,  the small window slid open in the door and a guard called out, “Line it up!” from the other side.  As they did every night, the prisoners formed a straight line on their side of the door, then stepped up to the window one after the other, stating their name and having their presence verified by the deputy looking through the hole.  Once that was over all the lights, except for two in the ceiling at either end of the cell, were turned off and the area officially entered “quiet time.”   As had been observed by several prisoners previously, and by Leo himself when he could not sleep, the guards almost never looked through the door again until the morning wake-up call.  After waiting thirty minutes to allow the guards to settle in for the night, Leo and Williams got to work.

Their mission on this first night was just to cut out the piece of the wall that would allow them to slip in and out of the office space Leo had observed.  It took four hours of very slow sawing, working their way through the wood and plaster with great care, as they wanted to keep the piece as intact as possible.  They had to take several breaks to rest hands that had gotten cramped both from the slow motion required to limit the noise and also the narrow grip needed to hold the saw blades.  Eventually, tired but triumphant, they lifted the rectangular piece out of the wall and Leo slipped through the opening to ensure it was large enough.   

That ended their work for the night and the next day, per a prior arrangement facilitated by Big Black, various prisoners took turns sitting on the floor in front of the cut-out.  That piece, even though it had been carefully removed and then replaced, still had some flaws which could potentially be seen by a keen-eyed guard, especially if they made another trip inside of the cell.  These prisoners were paid in cigarettes from Leo and Williams, who tried to catch cat naps throughout the day so they would be ready for more work the next night.  Before they got started again though Leo pulled his partner aside.

“I forgot something, forgot to tell you something we needed to get.  We’re gonna need some chewing gum.”

…to be continued

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