OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Arkansas jails have history of great — and failed — escapes

We have few jailbreaks in Arkansas, but that was not the case during most of our history. While inmates still manage a break out occasionally, the chances of success are slight, compared to Arkansas prior to modern jail technology and administration.

An informal survey of Arkansas jail breaks turns up not only an amazing number of successful attempts, but a wide variety of circumstances surrounding the breaks. Escapes sometimes resulted in injuries and deaths, but usually the escapees were unarmed; most had no intention of confronting anyone -- and a few even left farewell notes.

I do not know when the first jail break took place in what is today Arkansas. The earliest reported in the Arkansas Gazette occurred Sept. 3, 1821, when Isaac E. Robinson -- being held for assault -- escaped from the Arkansas County jail in Arkansas Post. He employed an escape technique commonly used in antebellum Arkansas when most jails were simple log structures: Using "a common pocket knife," he cut off the end of a rotted floor board.

The same newspaper account reported that on the Wednesday following Isaac Robinson's escape, an accused horse thief used a file to escape the leg irons the sheriff had begun using since a hole in the floor made confinement unlikely.

Another early jail break occurred at Arkansas Post in December 1823, when an indicted murderer named John R. Dunbar -- "a notorious scoundrel" -- disguised himself in his wife's clothing "and passed [by] the jailer with his child in his arms without exciting suspicion." Contrary to policy, Dunbar's wife and child had spent the previous night with her husband.

Alert readers will note that the casual nature of jail administration contributed significantly to jail breaks throughout our history. In 1903, just before Christmas, an inmate recently convicted of forgery and awaiting transfer to the state prison escaped from the Sebastian County jail by deceiving the jailer. The prisoner convinced another inmate to answer for him during roll call at bedtime, giving the escapee all night to flee.

In July 1882, three prisoners escaped from the Jackson County jail in Jacksonport by overpowering the guard after throwing snuff in the jailer's face. Another Jackson County inmate who escaped in 1876 was reported to be serving time for "practicing Mormonism." Jackson County was something of a leader in jailbreaks, calculated to number 115 escapes or attempted escapes between 1866 and 1986.

Sometimes jailers would simply forget to lock the doors. A surprising number of jailers had quarters inside or adjacent to jails. Married jailers housed their families in their quarters, and often wives helped out with cooking meals for prisoners. Such was the case in Blytheville in September 1944, when two prisoners walked out a kitchen door left open by the jailer's wife.

Some of the most amazing escapes were made by juveniles. Arkansas did not create a juvenile justice system until well into the 20th century, so offending children were jailed along with adults.

In Little Rock in October 1905, a 15-year-old "rather small boy" being held in the Little Rock city jail for public drunkenness managed to escape through the small portal in the jail door through which food was served.

But the king of young escape artists was a tiny 9-year-old Black child named Jules Jeter. Jules was probably homeless and perhaps an orphan. He practiced small-time thievery in Hot Springs and Little Rock. According to a Hot Springs newspaper, the youngster "had a great talent for oratory" and was often able to convince judges to suspend his sentences. He had already escaped two jails by the time he was arrested in Little Rock in January 1920, charged with multiple thefts and robberies.

Jules weighed 50 pounds, so when his day in court arrived, his small size allowed him to slip unnoticed out of a second floor courtroom whereupon he "got astride the banister, slid to the bottom floor, and vanished from city hall ..."

Occasionally inmates used fire in their escape attempts. In 1907, two boys who had been jailed in Fort Smith for stealing 15 hats burned a hole in the jail wall and came close to escaping. The newspaper account stated the fire had burned through the wall, and the young inmates "were only waiting for [the hole] to get large enough for them to crawl through."

While it might sound unbelievable, inmates in the Arkansas state prison known as "the Walls" located west of Little Rock where the state Capitol is today burned down the prison not once but twice.

As historian Michael Pierce has written, in August 1846 "inmates captured two armed guards and quickly took control of the inside of the prison. After guards and loyal convicts shut the outside gates, some of those trying to escape set the buildings and workshops ablaze in hopes that the gates would open to allow fire fighters to enter." Only one prisoner made it beyond the walls, but he was quickly killed.

The fire totally destroyed the prison, and work began on a replacement. In March 1850, just before the new prison was completed, inmates again burned down the structure in a failed escape attempt.

As was the case with burning the state prison, most escape attempts failed, and inmates were recaptured quickly. A good example of this occurred at the Pulaski County jail in April 1879 when seven prisoners managed to cut through metal bars, overpower the jailer, and flee the building.

Upon reaching Broadway, Thomas Davis, who was awaiting trial for murder and who was armed with the jailer's revolver, exchanged gunshots with pursuers. He jumped on a nearby ice cream wagon, "but the horse was tricky and wouldn't pull," so at Broadway and 12th Street he "captured a horse, but the animal was lame, and [Davis] was again compelled to take to his heels." Having fruitlessly emptied his revolver, Davis was soon captured.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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