A Burning Cold Morning (Part 62)

Sterns County Jail courtesy theclio.com

Sterns County Jail courtesy theclio.com

The Sterns County Jail at the time had quite a significant overcrowding problem, bad enough that it was a well-known issue around the state.  That did not prevent Sheriff Schomer from taking Leo there and promptly getting him secured as an inmate.  As he emerged from the area where he had been processed into the jail Leo was met with a surprise.  Instead of being led down the grey corridor toward the entry to the proper jail, he was instead walked toward a hallway that turned to the right off the jail entry.  Across the front of that corridor a temporary wall had been erected, one that had a black metal double-door set firmly in the center.  That door was secured by a thick piece of chain that ran through the door handles and was attached by a padlock.  In front of the door stood a deputy and a jail guard, both holding shotguns.  The guard walking Leo grabbed his elbow to stop him about ten feet from the double door. 

1930's handcuffs

1930’s handcuffs

“Alright, now you’re going to be a resident of our special containment unit for right now, until a proper cell opens up, whenever the hell that might be.  You’ll be in there with a few other fellas so you’d better behave yourself, ya hear me?”

Leo nodded his head in reply, wondering exactly what he was about to experience.  He could already detect a very strong smell, one that was a mixture of body odor, urine and dirty canvas, and he could hear the distinct hum of voices from the other side of the wall.  The guard took off Leo’s handcuffs and then the deputy unlocked the padlock and pulled the chain before opening the right side of the door and motioning him inside.  

What greeted him on the other side was more than a “few other fellas”, as it was in fact the entire overflow from the county jail, all being held in the corridor of what looked to have previously been an office space.  The walls were cement and painted a dull brown, the ceiling white with a crack running down the middle.  Although it was bright at the entry, the lighting was uneven along the length of the hallway with some areas very dim especially near the far corners.  The doors to the rooms that had opened up off the hallway were all solid wood and were secured by gate hasps and padlocks.  There was a single window, about two feet by three feet, at the end of the corridor which had bars covering it.  That wall was also, for some unknown reason, painted a stark white.  When Leo later managed to look out that window he confirmed his belief that this cell was on the second floor of the jail building.  Wooden benches lined the sides and there were four small tables and about ten chairs scattered around the open floor space.  Some of the prisoners occupied these sitting locations although the majority of them were lounging about on the floor itself with ten of them fast asleep.  There were no mattresses or cots, just a collection of pillows and blankets which were apparently community property.  Leo would come to find out that it was best to retain those items when you did mange to get your hands on them, as there was no guarantee you would get either of them back if you lost possession.  In a corner near the metal doors were three large buckets that the men used to relieve themselves and which were emptied twice a day by the designated “newest rat”, which as of that moment was Leo.  He later also learned that the men were taken out of the community cell in pairs once per day to “tend to their business” and it was considered to be proper protocol to save your messier bodily functions until that time of the day.  All in all, it was a very unpleasant situation and Leo was quite upset at being held in such a place, something that he let the guards know right away and continuously during his imprisonment.  

Several days later he had the first opportunity to meet with a lawyer, at which point he found out that Otto’s betrayal of him extended far beyond the theft of the eight hundred dollars.  He also was informed about the Marlborough’s cooperation with the investigation and that the bank teller in Meier Grove had been the one to positively identify him and swear out the affidavit which led to his arrest.  All of this left Leo in a rage, one that he carried into the courtroom that day for his arraignment.  When asked to enter a plea he instead launched into a bitter diatribe about the jail conditions, his refusal to be kept in such squalor and the fact that he vowed vengeance on everyone who had betrayed him or been involved in his, “faulty and manufactured arrest.”  Although the judge let him go on for a few minutes, watching him with an amused, patient look on his face, eventually Leo started attacking the court’s credibility at which point a not guilty plea was entered by the judge and he was forcibly hauled out of the courtroom.  

barred window

Over the next couple of days Leo did manage to calm down, just as he always did when incarcerated, and began to seriously consider the situation in which he now found himself.  He was well aware that if convicted of armed bank robbery the prison sentence was going to be quite severe, a situation he wanted to avoid.  Based on the evidence against him that he knew about he also felt that a conviction was likely.  That left him with the determination to escape.  At the time the Stearns County Jail was only seven years old, having been completed in 1922, and was lauded as being inescapable, a boast that was often repeated by prison guards and inmates alike.  Leo took that into consideration as he wandered around the large improvised cell, testing the door hinges on the former offices, the window bars and anything else he saw as a potential avenue for escape.  The other inmates all told him to forget about it, that they had already tried all of that, but Leo pointed out that he was a civil engineer who had went to Duke University, and as such had a far better chance of figuring out weak points.  That was mostly met with shrugs and laughter, but he remained undeterred for several days, finally abandoning the idea on the twenty-forth.  He would need to come up with some other plan for escape.  

It came to him that night, as he lay on the cold tile floor of the hallway, absent a blanket that had been stolen from him earlier in the day, and comforted little by the thin pillow beneath his head.  Staring up at the ceiling he decided that despite his own embarrassment over his diabetic condition, he needed to try to make use of it.  The next morning he went to the double-door and started pounding on it.  Finally the small slit, which had been cut into it as a window to allow the guards to occasionally observe the cell, opened and a grey eye stared back at Leo.

“What’d you want, boy?” 

“I need to speak to the warden.  Right now.”

Laughter from the other side.  “This ain’t no prison dummy, it’s a jail.  We ain’t got no warden.  Go sit back down.”  Leo blushed at his mistake, feeling even worse because he realized the other’s had heard the whole conversation and it would effect their perception of his criminal credibility.  He almost gave up but then went back to pounding on the door.  It took almost two hours but finally the guards were so tired of his hammering on the door that they hauled him out of the cell and into the jail administrators office.  Once there, Leo outlined his medical issues and insisted that he needed to be placed in the infirmary.  The administrator just stared back at him and laughed.

“Prisoner, that cell is just as damn crowded as the one you’re in, so no use in trying this trick.  And don’t waste nobody’s time with this nonsense again.” 

Three minutes later Leo was back in the community cell, and one hour after that John F. Williams was booked into the jail and joined the group.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 2)

I am sure that convicts, even dying ones, tell lies all the time.  I do not think that sets them too far apart from the rest of humanity.  Truthfulness may not be our strongest virtue.  Researching things as frequently and as in detail as I often do has also made it obvious that there are all kinds of false leads, apocryphal stories, urban legends and misreported facts about every imaginable historical event.  So, some random journal entry about a generally insignificant criminal’s death is not exactly a eureka moment.  I have always given a little extra weight to “dying utterances” though and it did seem likely from the info in the journal that Leo probably knew his time was up when he pulled that guard in close for those last words.  It struck me as interesting and worth a second look so I dove in and, well, that was a long time ago.  The story that unfolded from my research is truly an interesting one, a hidden tale of Minneapolis and the surrounding area that includes all of the usual trigger words; criminals, murder, deceit, gangsters and explosions.  It also includes things that will give you more hope, things such as bravery, courage, forgiveness and redemption.  And I definitely found out that Leo Humbert was not as insignificant as he seemed to be at first.  For now, let’s step back into time a ways and onto the baseball field in New Munich, Minnesota on July 6th, 1910.

new munich mn 2017

new munich mn 2017

 

It was, and still is, a very small town, although between 1900 and 1910 it had gone through one of its two large population booms.  A forty percent increase had left New Munich with one hundred and ninety residents by 1910 and that growth would continue for another decade, ending in 1920 when the population was three hundred and twenty five.  Since that time, things have pretty much stayed the same.  The Hombert’s (for that was Leo’s last name at birth) had been in the area for awhile by the time this growth started, having moved to the area in 1891 after getting married in Ohio.  The patriarch, Benjamin Hombert, a man with sloping shoulders, blue eyes and thick brown hair, was a farmer and occasionally picked up extra work as a day laborer.  He and his wife Lizzie produced a large family of four girls and four boys, of whom Leo was the third youngest of all, and the most junior boy.

part of 1910 census hombert family only

part of 1910 census hombert family only

As a child Leo was wiry and “all angles and edges” as his mother wrote in her diary several times, and he had the sharp features which he would carry with him through most of his life.  They all helped their father on the farm and the family was generally known as honest and hard-working.  The Hombert’s took good care of their children and seven of them became solid parts of the Stearns County community.  Leo, however, would do little to ever repay or appreciate the nurturing and safety they provided.

Ben Hombert’s  great passion, other than his family, was baseball and he played on the local team, a collection of energetic and scrappy men, all much younger than him.  The team was known for getting into fights on the field, although Leo’s father never participated and was know as “Softy” because of it.  He played mostly in the outfield and could still catch up to a fly ball pretty well although his arm was “not the force it used to be,” as he would say.  Ben encouraged his children to come and watch his games and practices, hoping to give them insight into his own love of baseball.  He had not been greatly successful in this though, and although his daughter Olivia though it was a grand game, Ben had hoped one of his son’s might pick up the sport and play alongside him.  Leo seemed to be his last chance for this and he often would take the boy, protesting or not, along with him.  It probably was not the best way to encourage a youngster to like something, and young Leo would usually misbehave in some way as his father was on the field.  This usually amounted to pranks or general mischief but this particular day would mark what could later be identified as the beginning of a long criminal career for Leo Hombert.

It was a Wednesday, their usual practice day, and the team was trying to get in a practice session before the rain, which was threatening in the eastern sky, started to fall in earnest.  A game was coming up against a good Saint Cloud club and every man on the team wanted to beat them.  Light, intermittent showers had been falling throughout the day but there was a break in the weather around two p.m.  Although on many occasions only a few of the players made it, this session was fully attended as the local newspaper was sending a photographer to take the team’s picture.

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

Whether they would admit it or not, all of the men were looking forward to cutting that page out of the edition in which it appeared, or buying a few extra copies to keep around and show off.  There were not many opportunities for celebrity in New Munich.

The team manager was Charlie Amsden, a man born in Sauk Centre who had moved over to New Munich to work in a bank owned by his brother Michael, who was also the owner of the local baseball club.  While Michael was tall and imposing, Charlie had been crippled by an accident in his early teens and years of limited mobility had left him frail and thin.  He often looked like he was wearing clothing that was several sizes too big, usually because he just could not find items to fit his very thin frame.  The move to New Munich though had seemed to energize him and his brother had purchased a top of the line wheelchair for Charlie.  After that he was often seen zipping down the aptly named Main Street of the town and the residents liked his quick smile and dry sense of humor, especially when he applied it to himself.  He also had taken on the task of managing his brother’s baseball club and found great enjoyment in the camaraderie of the team.  As they were all assembled that day, circled around their proud owner in front of the chicken wire outfield fence of the field, Leo began his life of crime with a crippled man as his victim.

…to be continued