Desperate Men Make a Desperate Plan
The Nevada State Prison in Carson City was the residence of a cadre of unsavory characters in 1871. Nearly 70 men were serving sentences ranging from murder to train robbery to arson, rape, assault and burglary. These were not nice men. To no one’s surprise, they didn’t want to be there. The talk of escape was constantly on their lips. On September 3, several of the more desperate figured it was time for a break. All they needed was a plan.
Leandor Morton and Frank Clifford were selected to plan the escape. Morton was in jail for train robbery back in December. He was suspected in the deaths of two U.S. Cavalry soldiers, whose bodies were never found. When arrested Lea was wearing the gloves of one of those men. He was lucky not to have been charged with murder as well. Morton asked that Frank Clifford work with him. Early on Clifford had chosen a life of crime. He frequently ended up in jail. But, he never stayed long. He was considered to be one of the best escape artists on the west coast. Lea thought him a natural to help plan the escape. The reason Clifford was in prison this time was for stage robbery.
The basis of their plan was gaining access to the prison roof. To reach the roof, they would cut a hole in the ceiling above their jail cells. This had to be done so no trace of the work would be noticed by the guards during periodic checks. Once in the ceiling, part of the wall would also be dug out to get access to the roof. From there, they would break through to the second floor of the prison which housed the Warden’s family, the Assistant Warden, an office and the armory. After dropping into the room below, they would break open the armory. With weapons in hand, they would fight their way downstairs, out into the yard and through the main gate. At that point, they would simply overpower any remaining guards and head for the Carson River.
Work began a week later. By Sunday the 17, preparations were complete. That morning, as usual, the nearly 70 prisoners were taken to the dining hall for their breakfast. They knew the routine. They will stay all day. Some will play cards or checkers. Others will talk about old and better times. Word was spread amongst select prisoners that 6 pm was the time for action. A signal was to be given by Pat Hurley. He was to rattle his leg chains and drop his iron ball to the floor. Those that knew what was coming tried to remain as calm as possible. They tried to nonchalantly eat their evening meal, but the adrenaline was flowing.
Two hundred miles to the south, just outside Benton Hot Springs in Mono County, California, Robert Morrison and his fiancé, Sarah Devine shared a kiss. The late fall afternoon was quickly cooling off. The two lovers snuggled close together. Morrison was the successful proprietor of the Benton General Store. She was a Pennsylvania native.
She had come to Benton to be near her brother, Henry. Henry came west to seek his fortune as a miner, but had since gone to work as a clerk in Morrison’s store. They both realized it was time to head to town following what had become a regular Sunday afternoon affair. Bob enjoyed sharing his knowledge of this high desert region with Sarah. Usually they settled back in one of the hot springs for which the area was known. But this Sunday, he took her to the Crags, a series of interesting geological rock formations not too far from Benton. Nineteen year old Sarah was still a bit of a tom-boy. With 125 pounds spread over her 5’6” frame, she posed a striking figure. Her long Irish reddish brown hair, freckles and sparkling green eyes accentuated her beautiful face. Her skin was smooth and radiant. But Bob was really impressed that her beauty was not just skin deep. She had a good heart and a deep passion.
“Hey,” he chuckled to himself, “she was a great cook too.” Bob noted he gained a few pounds since they began hanging out together. Today they shared a wonderful picnic. As the wagon wound its way down the steep incline, they looked forward to the evening ahead. Henry Devine, Sarah’s brother, was having a dinner party in their honor to announce their upcoming wedding.
In the bustling mining town of Aurora about 15 miles from Bodie, the Poor family was feeling anything but that. Today they had been enjoying a long awaited reunion with their son William. His dad was the proprietor of a local hotel in Aurora and his mom kept busy raising his brothers and sisters. Billy, as his friends called him, had been living in California. He was thrilled when he received a recent letter from his dad telling about him a job that was opening up with family friend. Billy Wilson operated both stage and mail routes in western Nevada and was looking for a rider that he could rely on to cover an important mail route.
Young Billy was an excellent horseman. He was ready to try something else. He’d move on to a new life of excitement in the “wild west.” Billy was excited. He really looked forward to his first trip for Wilson on Tuesday.
Meanwhile back at the prison, the Captain of the Guard Volney Rollins, called to the prisoners to get ready to return to their cells. As Rollins turned the key in the lock, many prisoners, waited, as if spring loaded, for the signal that was to given. It did not come. Rollins started to swing the heavy iron door open. He stepped back. There was a momentary pause. Some of them thought “What now”? Never at a loss for action, Morton decided to take the lead and got the game underway by yelling:
“Now, let’s go now. Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Suddenly all hell broke loose. John Squires forcefully opened the iron door. He seized Rollins and threw him to the sawdust covered floor. Others flowed through the open door like water escaping through a hole in a dam.
Seeing Squires with Rollins, fellow prisoner William Russell pulled Rollins’ head by the hair. Squires grabbed a bottle and swung it at the Captain’s head. He broke the bottle over his head. Blood rushed the three and a half inch gash left by the blow. Rollins’ misfortunes were just beginning. Almost simultaneously, he was struck just over the left eye with a slung-shot, cutting his face to the bone. Now bleeding profusely, the man, wounded badly, but not mortally, sunk to the floor.
Other convicts saw Rollins covered with blood and sawdust, lying helplessly and still on the floor. As they rushed in for the kill, convict Pat Hurley dragged Rollins into a cell, locked the door and threw in the key. This move more than likely saved his life.
Hearing the commotion below, the prisoners atop the roof went through the hole they had cut. They jumped down, ending up in Assistant Warden Zimmerman’s room. Clad in his sleeping garments, the man awoke to a frightful scene. Dressed in his bed clothes and completely defenseless, Zimmerman could not believe his good fortune that no one noticed him. He fled down the staircase and into the courtyard. Still upstairs, Morton, Jones, Clifford and Thomas Ryan led others to the armory. They broke in. For their efforts they were rewarded with two Henry rifles, two boxes of rifle cartridges, four double barreled shotguns and several six-shooters.
Jones and Morton each took a Henry and a box of cartridges. For good measure they also tucked a pistol in their pants. Thomas Flynn grabbed a revolver and some bullets. The shotguns and other pistols were grabbed up. Now armed with Henry rifles, Morton and Jones were very dangerous. They went downstairs to the prison’s main door. It was open. They saw someone running toward the Warm Springs Hotel. Some convicts were making a run for the sagebrush. It was dusk and the blowing wind had cut the visibility noticeably. They decided to wait a few minutes before venturing out.
Knowing a third Henry rifle was missing, Ryan figured it was in the Warden’s quarters. Leading a group of convicts, Ryan set out to get the weapon from Denver. He had no idea that it was out of service and in the warder’s office, waiting for repairs. Ryan stopped when he saw Denver and Dedman at the top of the stairs. Clifford was right behind him. With only his Derringer to defend himself, Denver pointed it at the convicts menacingly. The surge towards him didn’t stop. He fired and hit Clifford point blank. The others fell back. Clifford clutched his stomach.
Seeing Clifford go down, Ryan yelled for more men to assist them in getting the weapon from the warden. He urged them to rush the warden and Dedman. He wanted that extra Henry rifle. For some reason several fellow convicts blindly followed his orders with disastrous results. Denver had retreated to his bedroom where he grabbed a loaded revolver. Returning to the main room he saw Dedman has his hands full. The orderly had broken an oak chair into kindling and was using the largest piece to strike anyone that tried to come through the door.
Seeing that no progress was being made, Ryan was furious. He wanted control of that third Henry rifle. He was adamant in his resolve. He figured the convicts needed it to secure their freedom once they finally left the prison. He swore to those around him that Denver had it with him in his quarters.
“Throw down that Henry rifle warden,” yelled Ryan up to Denver. “Quit being stupid and throw it down. When you do, we’ll leave. No harm will come to you.”
Denver heard this request. He knew the rifle wasn’t with him. He last saw it in the office. He couldn’t meet Ryan’s request even if he wanted to. But he figured if he could stall the prisoners, help will soon come from outside the prison.
“No,” the warden replied.
“Shoot him, shoot the warden,” Ryan screamed. “Shoot him and we can walk up and get the Henry.”
Denver got hit in the hip and thrown back. Though wounded and in immense pain, he somehow got up. He planted himself just inside the door and stared right at Ryan, revolver in hand.
“If you want the damn rifle, why don’t you just come on up and get it,” chided the warden.
Ryan and the others left. In addition to his bullet wound, Denver suffered wounds caused by two slung-shot blows to the head. These scalp bleed wounds profusely. He most likely would have been killed if not for the assistance Dedman gave him. Dedman was covered with cuts, bruises and abrasions. He sat down on the floor physically drained.
In Benton Hot Springs, Henry Devine toasted the upcoming wedding of his sister Sarah to Bob Morrison. The three were among several friends gathered together for the formal announcement of the wedding plans. George Hightower, his wife Martha, along with James McLaughlin and his wife Mary, were among the prominent citizens of Benton Hot Springs in attendance.
Morrison, a native of New York, came to nearby Owensville around 1863. He partnered with some other men in a couple of early mining adventures. He had since expanded his holdings and now owned the Benton General Store. The 34 year-old was assigned the responsibility of regional Wells Fargo agent this past year. Sarah kept house for her brother, a task she would soon be doing for Robert or Bob as most folks called him.
Her first glimpse of Bob took place several months ago soon after she arrived in Benton. She saw a fine figure of a man at a distance on the steps in front of the General Store. She met him later in the week. Henry gave her a list and asked her to run to the store for him. As Sarah entered the store suddenly there he was. He was writing down an order for an older woman at the counter. The lady had chosen a selection of mail order household goods offered by FA Walker and Co. This tall, handsome man was soft spoken and appeared gentle. She liked that he appeared taller than she, about 5’11” and 160 pounds, she guessed. Bob was well put together. Sarah decided to look through some of the order books on hand while she waited her turn. She saw stoves offered by Rathbone and Kennedy as well as Potter and Co. The Singer Sewing Machine catalogue interested her too. She was looking through the Christmas presents offered in the James P. Walke book.
Suddenly she realized his attention. She nearly melted when she looked into his deep blue eyes.
“Good morning young lady. May I help you?”
She barely heard him speak. Sarah looked down and stumbled for words. She blushed a bright pink. Bob was equally taken with her.
“I need to buy a few things,” she blurted.
“Well you came to the right place,” he said teasing her, “we actually sell a few things.”
They both laughed and exchanged introductions. Their bond grew steadily every day. She was so proud of the man that would soon be her husband. They planned to have a big family. She loved children. She already had names picked out, Robert, of course, for the first boy. She was currently looking forward to her upcoming trip to Los Angeles to visit her relatives from Pennsylvania this next week. She was excited about her planned marriage to Bob, which would take place shortly after she returned near the end of the month. There was so much to do.