The great Carson City prison escape of 1871
October 9, 2008
I often wonder what warden and Nevada Lt. Gov. Frank Denver was thinking as he viewed 60 militiamen and field artillery soldiers as they moved up Warm Springs Road (Fifth Street) to the Nevada State Prison that March day in 1873. This is war!
But how did it all start? Let’s go back to the great escape of September 1871.
The Great Escape
Denver was the warden responsible for the largest escape of prisoners at that time in the west. The prison was built to house 112 inmates and 29 escaped. It resulted in the deaths of many locals and prisoners as well as the renaming of an area lake, stream and mountain. Denver himself was wounded in the hip.
On that Sunday the convicts quickly subdued the one guard left to put the men in their cells for the night. The noise of inmates breaking through the lath and plaster in assistant warden Zimmerman’s room woke the sleeping administrator. He then ran to where Denver, his wife Mary, and 6-year-old daughter were eating dinner and entertaining friends. Denver grabbed his Derringer and shot ringleader Frank Clifford. Denver was hit by a slingshot, knocking him to the ground. Inmates then entered the armory, taking Henry rifles, shotguns, several five and six shooters and up to 3,000 rounds of ammunition.
Of the 29 escapees, 22 went east, two went west and five went toward Empire City. Since Gov. Bradley was absent from Carson, his private secretary, Charles Belknap, took charge and telegraphed General Batterman in Virginia City. Batterman arrived with a guard on a special train within hours. Some historical accounts say hundreds arrived to help hunt down the criminals. The Carson Appeal ran an advertisement from the governor’s office offering rewards for the escapees virtually every day for months. Stories on the escape ran nationwide.
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“Rattlesnake Dick,” who had recently been paroled from prison to Virginia City, asked to be shadowed by police directly after the breakout because he was sure he would be implicated in the escape. Noted as a career criminal, Rattlesnake Dick, aka Richard Darling, esq., was let out some weeks before the escape. It was obvious to many he was fully aware of the plan.
Four prisoners were caught, and $900 in reward paid, when they were found on the Walker Lake Road. The names of the prisoners were Frank Clifford, E. B Parsons, J.E. Chapman and George Roth. Indians reported two more strange men in the vicinity.
Billy Poor, a 23-year-old Pony Express rider, was found some 200 yards from Sulfur Springs with a gunshot to the head. It is thought those captured shot Poor in an attempt to keep news of the escape from reaching towns ahead of them.
Several days later a San Francisco detective caught a man in Gates saloon in Los Angeles. A second man was held in jail awaiting transport to Carson City.
Then there was the story of Irishman Thomas Ryan, who was arrested by detectives Seelinger and Stone, who had just returned to bed at the Empire Lodging House in San Francisco. He said he was given up by a man he’d seen somewhere else.
A few of the escapees were found within walking distance of Virginia City, hiding out in a cave and stealing vegetables from local gardens.
The most famous of the escapees were caught and lynched after a shootout at Monte Diablo Canyon near Monte Diablo Lake, now known as Convict Creek and Convict Lake. The saga is recounted in “Murders at Convict Lake” by George Williams III.
Of the 29 who escaped, 18 were returned. Historic records show 11 escaped and were never found.
The escape led to further conflict, in 1873, when the Legislature, intent on avoiding a repeat of the escape, determined that the warden’s job should be professional, rather than one given to the lieutenant governor. Denver wasn’t about to give up the position that easily.
The Prison War
Denver had admittedly gotten himself into a pickle. His guards were on the wall, ready to repel the ordered taking of the prison by then-Gov. Lewis Rice “Old Broadhorns” Bradley. He had served as a politician in California before moving to Nevada. During his terms the state capitol building was constructed and fenced, presumably, to keep the animals from grazing the grounds, a real problem in early Nevada.
Denver had refused to admit the Prisons Board comprised of the governor, the secretary of state and attorney general to the prison after Bradley signed the bill making the warden’s position appointive. That’s where the problem comes in.
On March 13, Denver forcibly evicted, Mr Linn, who was to take his place. Linn had arrived at the prison with Attorney General Buckner to give Denver his walking papers.
“Anyhow, the State Prison is the source and scene of no little botheration and vexation to the minds of several worthy gentlemen,” wrote the Appeal, “who, we hope, will straighten things out and set them at rights before they get so irretrievably at loggerheads as to make bad matters worse. Mr. Linn still continues to reside near the Prison – that is to say at the Warm Springs Hotel.”
On the 14th the field artillery arrived along with men from the National Guard, Emmet Guard, Sarsfield Guard, and Montgomery Guard. Major General Van Bokkelen is then charged with putting P.C. Hyman, Denver’s successor, in charge of the prison.
In the Appeal that day:
The Movements of the Army. The Lambent Flame of War!
The lurid fires of civil strife which are about to light the horizon and lend a ghastly luster to a flow of blood which threatens to soak the very earth and incarnadine the rivers and the sea and the warm springs will be lighted upon the hitherto peaceful peat bed which surrounds the Penitentiary today. … we wouldn’t be in Frank Denver’s place for anything short of a suit of new clothes and five-gallon demijohn of whiskey. Moreover, we wouldn’t be a Spring chicken, nor a stray pig, nor a turkey gobbler, nor a clean shirt, nor a square meal in this dreadful emergency for anything we can think of. What a terrible time our noble soldiers will have in the trenches! … We wish this cruel war was over!
But Denver quickly changed his mind about the fight.
On receiving the summons, Denver was quoted in the Nevada Appeal as saying: “Under military, necessity, and from the fact that you have a superior force in numbers, and that if I should stand by my rights by meeting force with force, innocent blood might be shed, and the convicts escape, I hereby surrender to you as commander of the military force.”
Denver later sued the state for $8,000 for back pay, which was denied by the Nevada Supreme Court. He later moved to San Francisco. Accounts have him passing away in California and buried in Lone Mountain Cemetery, presumably in San Francisco, as the cemetery here does not have a record of his burial.
P.C. Hyman, the first paid warden, built a rather successful boot industry at the prison, putting the state in the black for the first time for that part of government.
• Trent Dolan is the son of Bill Dolan, who wrote a column for the Nevada Appeal from 1947 until his death in 2006.