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 


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

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 7)

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.

Robert Markword possibly at lake setting

Robert Markword possibly at lake setting

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.

Robert Markword

Robert Markword

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.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 6)

Just how Leo Humbert, who at the time of his conviction in the territory of Hawaii was a civilian, ended up as a prisoner at the Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison on Alcatraz Island is partially lost to the passage of time.  On October 18, 1921, when Leo was received there, Alcatraz was a prison used to house, with very few exceptions, military prisoners.  The men held there were broken up into two group; those in what were referred to as disciplinary companies, and those referred to as general prisoners.  In the spirit of rehabilitation, the disciplinary companies were used to try to restore men who had committed relatively minor crimes to active duty.  They basically served a four month period of training during which they received military-oriented instruction, more privileges than the general prisoners, the right to be referred to by name rather than number, and the ability to be evaluated at the end to go back onto active duty.  The program proved rather successful in the short period of time it was in place on Alcatraz.  Leo, prisoner number 13267, was not a member of this special company.

mcneil island prison courtesy legends of america

mcneil island prison courtesy legends of america

Although it is possible that the Army had intervened in some way to get him sent there, it is more likely that he was transferred there only as a stopping point on his way to McNeil Island prison in Washington, where he ultimately ended up serving the majority of his time.  Leo spent about three and a half weeks as a prisoner of Alcatraz, transferring out on November 9th, so any additional punishment the Army may have hoped he would receive by being in the general prisoner population there was short-lived.  No other records exist of his time there and the next mention of him is of being received at the United States Penitentiary McNeil Island, Washington on November 11, 1921.

gardner escape mcneil island newspaper

gardner escape mcneil island newspaper

It was a rather tense time at the prison when Leo arrived.  Just a few months before, on September 5th, prisoner Roy Gardner had made good on his escape threat from McNeil, running off during a baseball game while the guards were distracted.  The drama surrounding that, with Gardner recaptured in Arizona just the day before Leo arrived, had everyone at the prison on high alert.  Guards were wary, procedures were tight and even the prisoners seemed to sense that screwing around was not a very good idea, especially with the count of armed guards having been increased over the last few months.  Most of that increase was attributable to the fact that over seventy-five rounds had been fired at Gardner as he ran off, all of them failing to actually stop him.  Things like that tended to be a little embarrassing and every guard was determined to not have a repeat performance.

thomas maloney courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

thomas maloney courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

None of that seemed to make the slightest difference to Leo, who was fascinated by the entire Gardner escape and constantly asked questions about it.  Guards, prisoners, even the warden Thomas Maloney, none of them were exempt from questioning, with Leo spending his evenings jotting down notes in a small paper pad he kept tucked into his bed frame.  He asked about which guards were on duty, who knew about it beforehand, what everyone thought had happened during Gardner’s time on the lam, and every other detail you could imagine.  He also convinced a few of the prisoners to draw a map, as best as they could remember, of exactly how the caper had went down that September day.  He was vocal about it too, not really bothering to hide the fact that he considered Gardner to be a hero.  Eventually a few of the prisoners, possibly following some prompting from the guards, cornered Leo behind the bakery and gave a him a fairly good beating.  That worked for four days, the amount of time that he was confined to the infirmary, healing up his black eyes, bleeding kidneys and other injuries.  As he walked out of sickbay that day he yelled up to a guard in a tower, “I’m hoping your aim is still lousy” and then laughed before lighting a cigarette.

mcneil island guard tower 1920 1950 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

mcneil island guard tower 1920 1950 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

When he returned to his cell, the notebook of course was gone, and he found that his privilege of even having access to any kind of paper had been taken away.  That did not stop Leo, it just hindered him a bit as he slowly managed to trade away cigarettes and other small items for pieces of paper and eventually an even smaller notebook than he had possessed before his beating.  These items came from those prisoners who were less afraid of the guards and shared some of Leo’s thinking on the relative merits of Gardner’s escape.  He continued to collect information, make maps, and keep notes during the remainder of his time at the prison.  It is also likely that he managed to figure out the identity of the outside accomplice who had aided Gardner in the days immediately following his escape, something the authorities had never been able to do.  That person would play a role in some of Leo’s future endeavors and may have actually been in contact with him while he was imprisoned there.  Although he never actually escaped from McNeil, it is very possible that this is where the first inklings of the idea of prison escape started to form in Leo’s head.