CALUMET ROOTS with Archibald McKinlay
Seventy years ago come Sept. 26, 10 -- count 'em, 10! -- desperate convicts broke out of Michigan City state prison. It was the most daring prison break in Indiana history. And it was financed by John Dillinger, a recent Michigan City prison alumnus, who was credited with robbing 27 banks in the 60 days before the break -- almost a bank every other day. No event I can think of gave birth to so many major news stories.
1. Interstate Antagonism. Dayton, Ohio, police declined to send Indiana State Police a map and letters seized by Dayton police at the home of Mary Longbreak, sister of James Jenkins, a lifer who was one of the men who shot their way out of prison. Mary also happened to be John Dillinger's squeeze-of-the-moment. "If we had had the map and letters, I believe we could have stopped the prison break," said Capt. Matt Leach of Gary, head of the Indiana State Police. "Practically all the men who escaped were members of the Dillinger gang."
2. Coded Missives. One of the letters to Mary Longbreak was in code and read as follows: "Advise John (Dillinger) Julius (bank bandit Samuel Tolstein of Fort Wayne) has orders to buy up Johns, White & Co., in connection with Dales and Monte Deals (bank robberies at Dalesville and Montipeller). Go to Plant City immediately. (City where loot was hidden). Return Rays's fee. He's in crock. If possible, send Blu I.A.C." Then: "Mary, the minute you get this, tell John. Then get word to your bro......If you ever showed any speed, do it now....."
3. The Thwarted Turncoat. The mother of handsome Harry Pierpont, reputed "brains" of the Dillinger gang, a notion not discouraged by Pierpont whose voracious ego was bottomless, brought to the state police a letter smuggled out of prison. It was written by her Harry. It read in part: "I understand you want So-and-So (a member of the gang) and J. Dillinger. If you want them bad enough to meet my terms, I can locate them for you. My proposition is this: obtain permission to take me out of here for a few days, send a man with me wherever I go. I know where I can contact these boys through mutual friends. If I fail to find in 10 days bring me back. If I do I am to get permanent parole. This deal all to be kept quiet even from prison officials or nothing doing. I'll set the play up so no fireworks at pinch. Understand. I do not know where they are staying. But I do know where they stop every few days. I also know Goldstein's part and another two that you would like to know. I am not
talking here at all unless you show good faith. My record is on file at the clemency board's office. The party who gives you this knows nothing." Fearing a table-turning-trick, Al G. Feeney, state commissioner of public safety and former Notre Dame All American footballer, rejected the offer.
4. Spoilsmanship. The political outs charged that the prison break was made possible by changes in personnel under the spoils system. Wayne Coy, Gov. Paul V. McNutt's secretary in charge of penal affairs, advanced a counter theory: that the old guard group had sabotaged the prison process. McNutt had ousted former Warden Walter Daly, a 25-year veteran of prison work, and appointed Louis Kunkel, Michigan City politician, to the wardenship. Under the direction of Pleas Greenlee, patronage secretary of the McNutt regime, half or more of the guards and other prison employees were replaced by deserving Democrats, a shocking concept to Hoosiers but a way of life in the Calumet Region. Alas, Warden Kunkel experienced considerable difficulty after taking the post. A prisoner hid in an automobile and got through the gates. Prisoners working on the farms walked away almost weekly. On Sept. 21, three revolvers and 16 cartridges that had been tossed over the prison walls were discovered in the
prison yard. Warden Kunkel asked for better flood lighting.
5. Fact vs. fiction. State Police Capt. Matt Leach of Gary telegraphed a complaint to the Federal Radio Commission concerning a broadcast over the new Columbia (Broadcasting) System. It was about a pitched battle between escaped Michigan City convicts and forces of the law. Station WIND, Gary, was the originating outlet for the broadcast. The complaint followed the arrest of Steve Trumbull of Columbia who was in charge of five broadcasters who gave a vivid account of a battle going on in the woods eight miles south of Chesterton. "Here we are folks," the newscaster said, "right on the scene of a gigantic manhunt. The troops are tramping through the field on the trail of the convicts. Listen closely, folks, listen to that deadly patter of lead." Guns barked, people groaned, eerie police sirens screeched. After the broadcast, Leach had the five operators arrested and their equipment seized.
Of the five stories, the complaint about the broadcast may have been the most important. Leach complained that the broadcast was a hoax that interfered with the work of police and caused needless anxiety among persons living in the vicinity. The newscast did indeed cause a furor in four Midwestern states. But WIND flatly refused to retract the broadcast, claiming that nothing false was put on the air. "We never announced that a battle was being fought," Trumbull said. "There was absolutely no fakery at all. Police advanced into dense woods, firing shots into thickets to drive out any convicts that might have been there." Nevertheless, Cook County Sheriff William D. Meyering assembled 50 deputies on the stateline to halt the convicts. Indeed, Gov. McNutt himself, after hearing the broadcast, immediately informed Leach.
And you thought there was something new about mixing entertainment and news.