“Funny cat you are, Leo, very funny,” Williams replied.
“I’m not foolin’ you. We need to get some chewing gum before we go much further. We’ll be cutting through them metal bars and that gum is the way to make them much more quiet.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“We chew it up, ok, get it soft. Then, we put it on the saw blades and that squeaky whine you get when cutting through metal, well, it goes away. Without that gum those guards are going to hear us.”
“Bushwa!” Williams snapped back at Leo.
“You’re gonna have to trust me on this, ok? I’m telling you that’s what we need to do.”
Williams did not exactly believe Leo but he did agree to go along with the plan. That night the only action they took was to both go through the hole and scout out the particulars of the office and window they would be using to escape. The next day they both purchased several packs of gum from the small commissary the jail had available for prisoners and that night they got to work on the bars. Williams was surprised when Leo’s gum trick actually worked, making the saws silent except for a dull scraping sound which neither of them believed could be heard even directly below the second-story window. The process of replacing the gum was tedious at times but certainly well worth the effort.
Over the next seven nights the two men worked diligently on their project, taking turns cutting almost completely through each of the bars except for one that they intended to leave intact. They would use this bar as an anchor to which they planned to fasten some tied together blankets as an aid in climbing down the wall. On the morning of the sixth an inmate, newly incarcerated the day before, threatened to expose the plot but was quickly silenced after a short discussion with Big Black Terry. During the night of October tenth Leo and Williams completed all the preparatory work possible, leaving only the last minute effort of fully cutting through each of the bars and achieving their goal of escaping. They did not tell any of the inmates about their success and slept more than usual during the eleventh so they would be ready to go that night and be alert as possible. That evening, awake to get the meager dinner the jail provided, they sat together eating and talking in a corner.
“We gotta go tonight, we can’t risk no delay,” Williams whispered.
“Yeah, it’s tonight. We’ll be running free by the time the sun comes up,” Leo replied, a grin on this face as he though about freedom.
“I’ll start telling the others now, ok, so they’re ready to go. We waited long enough today.”
Leo just held up his hand in reply and stared across the cell area, not speaking or eating. That dragged on for several minutes after which Williams thought he knew what his partner was considering.
“You can’t go back on the deal, you can’t I’m tellin’ ya. That’s what you’re thinking, ain’t it? You’re thinkin’ a slipping out tonight and leaving these guys behind?”
Leo did not speak but turned to look at Williams. He blinked slowly several times, his piercing blue eyes seeming to look beyond his partner.
“You can’t do it, we made a promise, we gotta make good, ok?” Williams reiterated, speaking just loud enough to get curious looks from several of the prisoners. Finally Leo shook his head.
“Of course, of course, we’ll make good on it. You tell Terry and he’ll set it up with the others. Get a few blankets together while you’re at it.” Leo then went back to eating after which he laid down and closed his eyes.
Immediately after the eleven-thirty head count the two men stood up and made their way to the hole, where Terry had stationed himself earlier in the evening. Before stepping aside he leaned in and whispered to Leo.
“I’ll be waitin’ for your sign’l, understand? I’m right here, yo’ make sure to tell me when you’re through them bars. We’ll all be right behind ya.”
“We’ll let you know like we said we would. It’ll be a couple hours though, ok, there’s still work to do before we’re through.”
Terry patted both men on the cheek and then removed the cut-out for them, after which they crawled through, pushing the blankets ahead as they squeezed through for what they hoped was the final time. They began work immediately and it was just after two a.m. when they quietly removed the last bar and Williams tentatively stuck his head out the window to check the area immediately surrounding their point of escape. All was clear so the men made their blanket-rope, secured it and prepared to lower it out the window. Williams pulled on Leo’s sleeve at this point and nodded his head back in the direction of the cell.
“Yeah, you go ahead and tell him then. Make sure he knows to wait ten minutes so we can get clear down below,” Leo said.
One minute later the tattered edge of a blue prison blanket peeked out of the second story window and was slowly followed by four more blankets, all of which were carefully tied together. Leo’s leg then appeared and over the course of the next minute he quietly descended to the ground. Williams followed and, although he almost lost his grip twice, successfully joined his partner. The men exchanged smiles and an exuberant handshake before creeping off into the darkness. Twenty minutes later Leo had stolen a vehicle and the two fugitives were making their way out of town.
Back in the jail, things did not go according to plan. Big Black Terry had actually waited a full fifteen minutes before starting to go through the hole, only to discover that his large body would not fit. After several attempts he gave up, threw the cut-out across the cell area and sat down in front of the hole. One brave inmate approached him only to be met with Terry simple challenge.
“If’n I ain’t goin’ through, ain’t any one of you goin’ unless ya go through me first.”
No one cared to take him up on that offer and he stayed there until six-thirty a.m. when it was time for the morning head count. The prisoners did not try to hide anything at that point, with the first one to step up to the door simply stating, “You all got two boys running loose right now.”
Several minutes later the prison guards and deputies had verified that claim, viewed the escape path and had started to look for Leo and Williams.
…to be continued
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.
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.”
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
Leo was happy to see Williams step through the door because it meant that his time emptying out the latrine buckets was over. Six days of that duty had been enough. Unknown to him at the time was the fact that this person was a criminal of a similar type to himself although Williams had a more extensive criminal record than Leo. They also were fated to be linked through a notorious incident in Minnesota criminal history. John F. Williams, aka Joseph Francis Hendricks, also presented a bit of a contradiction in terms of other people’s perception of him. He was variously described as, “troubled but pleasant,” “a very dangerous character,” and “young and not looking the desperate part of a criminal.” His most recent arrest, the one which brought him to the Stearns County Jail, had been in Anoka. That warrant had been for suspicion of robbing the Saint Michael’s State Bank and “planning other crimes,” charges for which he had entered a not guilty plea. When he first walked into the community cell, Leo had immediately caught Williams attention due to the commotion he continued to raise about the conditions of the jail. Once Leo finally stopped haranguing about this in the general direction of the closed metal door he wandered over to the window and stood there looking out. Several minutes later Williams observed that he was now doing a close inspection of the window and the wall surrounding it, which prompted him to go aver and ask what Leo was thinking of doing.
“What’s it to you?” Leo snapped back.
“Easy bud, just making conversation I suppose. John by the way,” Willams replied sticking out his hand.
Leo looked at it but did not offer to shake. Instead he turned his attention back to the window. “I was just hoping to find a way out of this place, that’s all.”
“You think this is it?” Willams asked.
“Hardly,” Leo replied, “I believe it is reinforced behind this wall and besides it’s too damn visible to the guards. They don’t look through that little peephole in the door too often but when they do, this is right in their view. Even if I wanted to risk it I would need a couple saws and I ain’t got no way to get them right now.”
“You not from around here?”
“No, not, well, not recently anyway. Not for a long time.”
Williams reached up and attempted to shake the bars. “That’s pretty thick and sturdy. You even think it’s possible to cut them?”
“Of course it is, well, at least I could. You don’t know it but I’m an engineer, these things are possible if you know what you’re doing. Still, it’s too visible like I said. Too bad though, I’d like to get outta here.” Leo turned and took a step before Williams grabbed his elbow.
“You’re probably right, it’s too visible. Now, you don’t know me either bud, but I’m in good around these parts. You keep thinking with that smart brain of yours and if you figure something out, you let me know, ok? I could get you some things you might need, you just gotta take me outta here with you. Deal?”
Leo looked at Williams for a few seconds and then replied. “I’ll think about it.”
Nothing much happened the next day and then, during the afternoon of the twenty-seventh, three guards stepped through the door. Leo was leaning up against a wall about halfway down the corridor and wondered exactly what was about to happen. Up to this point in his incarceration there had never been a guard inside of the temporary cell. He quickly looked to see if any of them were armed but they had taken the precaution of removing their firearms prior to entering. Leo figured there was also a few extra officers on the other side of that door ready to come in and assist if anything got out go hand. Most of the prisoners ignored what was going on although Leo, Williams and a few others kept on eye on them as they walked down the hallway and stopped next to a door. As two of the officers turned and faced toward the prisoners, the other one removed the padlock and opened the door.
This action took place almost directly across from where Leo was standing. The door was only open for a few seconds as the deputy stepped inside and then closed it, but in that brief glimpse he saw that the room inside had a window. It was barred also but sparked an idea in Leo’s mind which he started to mull over. Three minutes later the guard remerged with a file box and the door was again secured, the trio of officers then exiting the temporary cell area. About an hour later Williams wandered over and sat next to Leo, who had taken a seat on one of the wooden benches and been sitting there silently since the guards had left.
“You alright there?” he asked, to which Leo made no reply. “Hey bud, you ok?”
“Hmm, yes, yes,” was the only answer he received, Leo continuing to stare toward the secured office door which had so recently been opened.
“Well, you’re thinkin’ a somethin’ I’m sure of it. You gonna tell me about it?” Williams asked.
Leo stayed silent for another ten minutes or so but then spoke. “You really think you can get some tools in here for me?”
“What’s the plan? You tell me that first.”
Leo then explained his idea to Williams, which began with cutting a small, low hole in the corridor wall outside the office that had been opened by the guards. This opening needed to only be large enough for him to low crawl through at night, and the piece that was cut out of the wall would need to be carefully preserved. That piece would be used to hide the hole both as he worked within the office on his plan and of course during the daytime hours. That work inside the office would consist of cutting through the bars of the window, making it possible to escape from the jail. They would need some cooperation from the other prisoners but Leo was confident he could get them to assist.
“So, can you get me some tools, some saw blades?” he asked Williams again.
“Sure I can but like I said, you need to take me with you. And when we’re out, well, you gotta rob a bank with me, ok?”
Leo did not hesitate. “That’s a deal. And I know just the bank.”
…to be continued
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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