The morning of December 11, 1931 began cold and gray. For the past month an unusual amount of rainfall had added to the bone chilling cold.
By Kenneth M. LaMaster
Special to The Times
The morning of December 11, 1931 began cold and gray. For the past month an unusual amount of rainfall had added to the bone chilling cold. Many Leavenworth residents were up preparing for the day as usual, inmates at the United States Penitentiary were beginning their day as well.
Awakened by the guards at 5:30 a.m. inmates would make their beds, make their way to the mess hall for breakfast and then on to their assigned job. Many residents and inmates alike were unaware that both worlds inside and out were on a collision course, one that by days end would leave three dead, one severely wounded, and a manhunt that would come to a violent conclusion at Kansas City’s Union Station 18 month later.
At 9 a.m. breakfast was coming to an end at the United States Penitentiary where Warden Thomas B. White was preparing for his early morning meetings with inmates in his office. In the outer office E.H. Echtoldt, the institution’s business manager, was accompanied by J.E. Smith and E.L. Dugger, both typewriter repairmen.
Suddenly inmates Grover C. Durrill, William Green, Tom Underwood, George Curtis, Stanley Brown, Charles Berta, and Earl Thayer entered the office with two guards. The inmates immediately produced weapons that included a rifle, shotgun, several pistols, and dynamite. Warden White responded to the commotion in the outer office and was met with the command, “put your hands up!”
The seven desperate men using the hostages as human shields would make their way to the front gate and freedom. Once free, the inmates released all but Warden White. As they made their way across the lawn onto Metropolitan the alarm sounded, guards prepared to lockdown the institution and give chase, a thunderous roar of a near riot echoed throughout the walls. The manhunt had begun.
Within an hour it would total more than 1,000 local law enforcement, prison guards, an infantry unit from the fort, and anyone who could carry a gun who knew the local terrain. Relentlessly the posse gave chase, desperately the inmates attempted to put distance between them and their pursuers. Along the way they would steal cars, terrorize two rural school houses, take more hostages.
Three would make their final stand and engage their pursuers in a gun battle that would be reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Three others would be captured and returned to the institution, the last and oldest of the seven would elude capture for two more days before finally succumbing to the elements, exhaustion, and pneumonia.
For the past 30 years, I have researched every angle of the escape. Along the way I have amassed numerous articles, photos, eyewitness accounts, as well as 1,800 pages of FBI report. The conspiracy would include well known gangsters Frank Nash, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, lesser known criminals Thomas Holden, Frances Keating, and Harold Fontain.
The investigation would include well known law enforcement officers including Melvin Purvis, J. Edgar Hoover, F. Joseph Lackey, and Raymond Caffrey.
I am in the process of compiling all this information into a book titled Leavenworth Seven. The book unravels the events of that day plus tells of the conspiracy leading up to the escape. Now I am asking for your help. What I would like to include is the human element of those who were there that day. Knowing that 80 years have passed I know it is tough to find anyone who is still around. But maybe there is an ancestor of those who may remember the story, or maybe such as the case of Rose Haas Fritchen, anyone who may have written in a journal or recorded their story for their family’s history.
I am looking for the family members of anyone who was in the Glenn Valley or Possum Hollow Schools, relatives of Anna Meyer, Andrew Forgey, Deputy Sheriff Jimmy Irving, and Fritz Walkenbach, Federal Prison staff Raymond Alexander, William E. Brinson, William Suberkrupt, I.W. Mooney, Louis M. Kelly, J.H. Dempsey, Joseph Kressin, W.A. Haag, C.L. McCullough, T.C. Knowlton, and G.W. Cross. If there are any family members who know the stories or may have a photo of the aforementioned or a photo of the Masterson filling station that was located at the corner of 20th and Spruce I would like to include those in the storyline.
The story itself is quite compelling and complex. The conspiracy leading up to the escape. I have the answers to how the weapons were obtained, how they entered the institution, who all was involved and the aftermath. It is the tiny bits and pieces of the puzzle I would like to add more of a local human side to the story. The excitement of what it was like to be a posse member, the angst of being a hostage. Anything that adds a face to those locally who were involved.
Kenneth M. LaMaster is a local author and retired federal prison historian. Anyone who may have any information is asked to contact Mr. LaMaster at his residence 913-758-1051 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.