The Great February Escape

While most of us want to stay inside on cold, snowy February days, there are those who don’t mind the weather as long as they are able to get out in the fresh air.

That is apparently how six prisoners felt on February 18, 1869, when they broke out of the Scott County Jail in the middle of a blustery winter day.

Turns out, it was not that hard to do.

The six men included Benjamin F. Newell, who was awaiting trial for counterfeiting;  Michael Clancy, who was awaiting trial for murder; Michael McCoy who had pled guilty to assault with intent to rob; John Harvey, who had pled guilty to larceny and burglary; Elisha Buckner, a horse thief; and Pat McCann, who was waiting to be tried for larceny.

The men had watched the jailer and staff and had learned their daily routines. They knew on this particular Thursday, the staff would be especially busy next door at the courthouse, where several trials were going on at once.

Despite the snow and cold, the six men made their move.

A description of the jail can be found in a March 28, 1855, advertisement in the Davenport Daily Gazette for construction bids. The jail was to be built of stone with a size of forty-two by fifty-two feet containing twenty rooms.

Fifteen of those rooms were for the prisoners; the remaining five were for the jailer—generally the Sheriff—who would live at the jail with his family.  The jailer’s wife was expected to cook for the prisoners along with doing their laundry.

Davenport Daily Gazette March 28, 1855

This bid does not mention how many floors the jail had, but we are able to glean that information from Mr. William Ott, who reported the escape. Mr. Ott’s commented in the Davenport Daily Gazette on February 19, 1869, that he thought the men originally were talking to the female prisoners on the second floor of the jail.

The jail was located near the corner of Ripley and Fifth Streets next to the courthouse. The front of the building housed the parlor, or waiting room, for the jail on one side and the jailer’s parlor on the other side. A long hall ran down the middle to the jail area.

A thick stone wall made of rubble stone about twenty-one inches thick separated the jail from the front section. Behind the thick wall was a large room with an indoor privy at one end and jail cells along the back wall.

Sometime in the morning of February 18th the prisoners began to dig into the wall dividing the jail from the jailer’s parlor. Using pieces of metal found in the area, they dug until the afternoon. They took the rubble from the wall and dropped it down the privy at the opposite end of the room.

They finally broke through about 4:00 p.m.

The escape almost failed in the first few minutes when Michael McCoy got stuck trying to get through the hole. It took a great deal of shoving and pulling by his friends to get him through.

The men crawled into the jailer’s parlor and spotted a jug of alcohol. They apparently refreshed themselves and handed the jug through the hole for the eight male prisoners who had decided not to risk daring escape; most had been arrested for petty offenses and did not wish to get in more trouble.

The intrepid criminals crawled out a parlor window and then hopped the back fence to the sidewalk, which is where Mr. Ott spotted them. Once he realized it was an escape he ran to the courthouse to alert the Sheriff.

According to the Davenport Daily Gazette and the Daily Democrat,  the courthouse erupted upon the news and men ran to saddle their horses to find the escapees.

Mr. McCann and Mr. Buckner were caught soon after their escape. They had both headed out to the prairie (now the Locust Street area) in separate directions, but were easy to track in the snow.

Mr. Clancy and Mr. McCoy stuck together and headed to Buffalo, Iowa. They spent the night in a barn there before being caught the next day.

As for Mr. Newell and Mr. Harvey, it was rumored they headed toward the Mississippi River—but as far as our resources tell us,  no trace of them was ever found.

The Daily Democrat  reported on February 19th that “The place where they got out was a very weak spot…”   This seems to be an understatement. Though no further condition reports were made, we can only guess that the wall was strengthened after this incident—or possibly the prisoners were given more supervision, even on busy days!

(posted by Amy D.)

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