Jailbreak!

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The hero in my current work in progress is in jail and needs to escape or he’ll soon be keeping company with the daisies.  The question is how? As usual, whenever I have a plotting problem I hit the books. Much to my surprise my research showed that escaping jail was no big deal in the Old West.

There was a good reason for this. Jails were often built in a hurry and were flimsy affairs. Adding to the problem, towns didn’t have the money to hire jail guards. One California jail was so poorly built that prisoners were put on their honor not to escape.

The way prisoners escaped varied and, in some cases, were even laughable. Dynamite was used on occasion, but was seldom necessary. Some prisoners simply walked out of unlocked cells. Others, like a man in a Yuma jail, wiggled the bars loose in a window.

AG jailArroyo Grande’s wooden jail house was the object of scorn and breaking out was somewhat of a town joke. On several occasions prisoners skipped town taking along the iron chains that were meant to hold them prisoners.

Roy Bean (yes, that Roy Bean) supposedly escaped a San Diego hoosegow by using a jackknife to cut through soft mortar. Bean went from escapee to the colorful judge known as The Law West of the Pecos.

Ten men escaped the Tombstone jail while the guards were having supper. They simply dug a hole in the wall and jumped fifteen feet to the ground.

Billy the Kid escaped from the Silver City prison through a chimney.

San Francisco’s first jail was a flimsy log structure built around 1846. John Henry Brown, editor of the California Star, wrote in ACTUAL EXPERIENCE OF AN EYE-WITNESS, FROM 1845 TO 1850: “One night a man, by name of Pete, from Oregon, was put in the Calaboose, for having cut the hair off the tails of five horses and shaved the stumps. As Leavensworth (the Alcalde) did not send him his breakfast, he called on Leavensworth at his office, with the door of the Calaboose on his back, and told him if his breakfast was not sent up in half an hour we would take French leave. Leavensworth sent his breakfast.”

jail treeWickenburg, Arizona didn’t have a jailhouse. Instead, prisoners were chained to a large Mesquite tree until they could be transported out of town. No one ever escaped the tree. However, so many prisoners were once chained to the boughs, there was no room for more.

Out of necessity one criminal was tied to a nearby log. He got sick of waiting, so he picked up the log and walked to the closest saloon.

One woman escaped jail with nothing more than her feminine wiles. After stagecoach robber Pearl Hart slipped out of Sheriff Wakefield’s supposedly secure jail, she boasted “he fell in love with me.”

Jailbreaks were so prevalent that New Mexico governor Lionel Sheldon declared that “escapes are as easily made as from a paper bandbox.”

Not all jailbreaks were successful, of course, and some escapees were either shot dead or caught a few days later. But many did manage to get away. Out of those who were caught, some went on to escape again and again.

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Margaret Brownley
Margaret has published more than 40 books and is a N.Y. Times Bestselling author and past Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist. She writes historical novels set--where else?--in the Old West! A Match Made in Texas is available for pre-order now. Margaret's stories also appear in the 12 Brides of Christmas, Pioneer Christmas and Second Chance at Star Inn collections. Not bad for someone who flunked 8th grade English. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.
Updated: September 20, 2015 — 6:58 am

20 Comments

  1. Very interesting. I couldn’t help but laugh at the one who got chained to the log and got tired of picked up the log and went to the saloon.

  2. Hi Janine, that made me laugh, too. I also laughed at prisoners being put on their honor not to escape. I wonder how that worked out?

  3. Interesting stuff, Margaret. Who knew it would be so easy to escape. Love the story about the guy with the door on his back who went down to complain about breakfast. Great stuff!

    1. Hi Karen, yes, I was surprised by what I uncovered. I liked that story, too, and thought it interesting that the term “French leave” was used back then.

  4. Margaret, this is great stuff! I have a WIP in which the hero is tied to a tree, and here I thought I was making that up. 😀

    Who knew jailbreaks were so common? The guy who took the door with him to demand breakfast is hilarious!

    Thanks for sharing your research. 🙂

  5. Hi Kathleen, can’t wait to find out how your hero escapes! I have a scene in my WIP that I feared was too far fetched. Then lo and behold an almost identical situation actually happened to someone. Sometimes you just have to shake your head.

  6. how interesting your post was,,my uncle was sheriff for a few years and i found that the being chained to a tree was so interesting,i wasnt aware of this,,thanks for the great post

  7. Hi Vickie, I guess if you don’t have a jailhouse, a tree would have to do. Can you imagine being chained to a tree in the winter?

  8. Most people don’t know that jails back then were not much but 4 walls and a door not what we see today or even 25 years ago. I laugh everytime i read about guys and some gals who escaped from a jail way back when. Thanks for the read. To think some areas had nothing at all.

    1. You’re right, Kim. It’s not something we normally think about. I know I didn’t.

  9. That was a fun read! Now I can hardly wait to find out how your hero escapes.

    My Grandfather was a lawman back in the early 1900s. My grandmother often told of how she helped out. There was no place to put a women so they locked her in their wash house. Other times the men were locked in the ice house. Grandma and the kids were jailers.

    1. Connie, I love this! What a great family story you have! Thank you for sharing.

  10. Wow, funny and crazy stories!

  11. Margaret, what a great blog. I found it so interesting. Thanks for the information. Big hugs, Phyliss

    1. Hugs back to you, too, Phyliss!

  12. What wonderful information, Margaret. I can’t imagine being chained to a tree. Hate to think it happening even to a poor dog.Connie J’s comment is cracking me up, too. Thanks for the great post. xoxox

  13. Hi Tanya, Yes Connie’s comments made me laugh, too. I think I’d rather be chained to a tree than locked in ice house. Take care,

    Hugs!

  14. Great, Margaret! Thank you for sharing!

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