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Writing History & Mysteries

When I'm not delving into historical research, I'm planning a character's demise.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

E is for ESCAPING form County Jail

In the late 1800s crime was on the rise in Wyoming County, NY. To try and curb the outbreak the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution during their 1891 annual meeting. It is stated in the proclamation, “The crimes of burglary and larceny have become alarmingly frequent in many of the towns of our county, and the perpetrators thereof having been in many instances uncommonly successful in escaping.”

Escaping indeed. ...


Wyoming County Times
December 17, 1891


… Frank Redner, alias George Dunn of Albion, was indicted for burglary in 3rd degree, and petit larceny, for entering the store of Bliss & Kendall at Bliss on Nov. 11th, 1891, and taking goods in the amount of $12. The same indictment was found against Charles McDonnell of Rochester, who was with Redner in the Bliss burglary, and both were captured near Gainesville. McDonnell is only about 18 years of age and this is the first time he has been arrested for a crime, though his companion Redner, or Dunn, has a bad record.

   An indictment was found against Charles Robinson, who gives his place of residence as Springfield, Mass., for burglary in 3rd degree and grand larceny in 2nd degree, for entering the store of Duane D. Horning at Castile on Oct. 19th, 1891, and stealing goods to the amount of $35. …


Frank Redner (aka George Dunn), Charles McDonnell and Charles Robinson entered a plea of guilty at arraignment. Charles had already been cooling his heels in the county lock up since his arrest on October 23rd.

During the first week of January 1892, Sheriff Day discovered that Charles Robinson (sometimes reported as James) and Frank Redner had been working on their escape from the county jail. The two men had fashioned saws from steel shanks removed from their shoes. They had made pretty good work of cutting through the lower floor at the north end of the building. The prisoners were removed to a more secure location where they could be watched more closely.

On January 11th Frank Redner and Charles McDonnell were sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory, and Charles Robinson was sent to the state prison for three years. Despite their near escape, it does not appear anything was done to repair the jail.

A short time later on January 28th, several North Java businesses were burglarized all on the same night. The thief or thieves entered M. H. Kavanaugh’s store by removing a pane of glass from a back window. Only $7.00 in change was found to be taken. The post office, in the same building, was robbed of all the mail and $4.00 in pennies. The store of C. E. Rybery on the other side of the street was broke into by prying out the casing of a back window. There was no money so instead the perpetrator/s stole a couple of suits. Next hit was Mason & Crane hardware store where $12 in change and a box of cigars were stolen. The last place was P. A. Gaffney’s grocery store where nothing was gained. It didn’t take long for the police to make an arrest.
Wyoming County Times
Feb 11, 1892

   We are glad to state that the man that burglarized several stores last week reported by us, has been caught. It now appears that the night before the raid he rode up from Johnsonsburgh with A. Roche of this place. The next day he, Constable Roche went to Attica and found that a man bearing his description had taken the cars at the station on the first morning train and had paid for his ticket in pennies and small change. However they did not get any other clue to his whereabouts until Wednesday when the said individual got off a Lehigh Valley car, he was arrested on suspicion and locked up in the cooler, until a dispatch was sent to Roche to come down and identify him, which he did and brought the chap up to North Java with him.

On examination it was found that the first warrant issued from Attica would have the preference, so he sent to Attica in care of constable Roche and accompanied by E. R. Fox deputy sheriff.

   While they were about the examination and Roche had charge of the prisoner, Deputy Sheriff Fox went into the cell where the prisoner had been confined and found hid in the mattress of the bed a chisel used by the prisoner to pry off the casings of the windows of the stores, also a fine meerschaum pipe identified as the property of C. H. Crain of the firm of Mason & Crane hardware store, also a package of letters which he had got from an office in Allegany county, N.Y. It appears to be a fact that they have got the rogue.

   As he gives so many names it is impossible to tell which is the right one or where he hails from. He was committed to jail to await the action of the Grand Jury.


On February 12, the man, now identified as James Collins, who robbed the stores in North Java was taken from the county jail in Warsaw.  He was described in the Wyoming County Times as, “5 feet 8 inches tall, weighs about 160 pounds and is about 45 years old. He has a light complexion, dark eyes, hair and mustache, and the bridge of his nose is sunken.”

He was transported to Rochester, NY to appear before United States Commissioner Gilbert. Turns out Collins had robbed the post office at Alfred Center in Allegany County as well. No doubt he was to appear before the commissioner because robbing a post office was a federal offense, even then. Sheriff E. R. Fox also went to Rochester, and testified about the stolen letters found in Collins’ cell. The commissioner decided Collins should be held for the Grand Jury. He was returned to Wyoming County to hear the other charges against him.

In the Oyer and Terminer of Wyoming County held on May 11, 1892, three indictments were found against James Collins for burglary and petit larceny. James pled not guilty. His bail was set at $1000, which of course he could not pay.  He was taken back to the county jail in Warsaw to await trial. When it came around in November, James Collins changed his plea to guilty to the charge of burglary at North Java. He was sentenced on Thursday, November 17, to five years at Auburn Prison. He was once again returned to Wyoming County jail to awaited transport—but he wouldn’t wait long. Three days later he escaped.

Sheriff Day entered the cell on Sunday, November 20, expecting to see James Collins. The sheriff had made arrangements to move Collins the next day to Auburn Prison, but he wasn’t to be found. The sheriff had originally planned to move him Saturday but decided to wait because the prisoner was allegedly not feeling well. After his court appearance the previous Thursday he felt faint and complained of heart pain. He was given some medicine which he said made him feel better and Collins said he hoped he would feel better by Monday. Because of his alleged weakened condition Sheriff Day postponed his transport to Auburn Prison. Collins escaped alone in the wee hours of the morning.

Based on the complexity of his escape this must have been planned well ahead of his November 17th trial. No matter how long a term he was given he no doubt knew he was going to prison.

James Collins' cell was on the ground floor on the west side of the building. One account said he fashioned a long knife into a saw.  How he would have gotten a knife to begin with didn’t seem to be questioned. The account in the Wyoming County Times of November 24, 1892 said it was a saw stolen from Fred Lester while he was plastering the jail that Friday.

A push broom that had been lying outside his cell on Saturday morning came up missing. With the use of his makeshift tools he pried up the floor boards underneath his cot. It was either luck or knowledge from former jail guests that this was an area that had been worked before and never fixed properly. A previous prisoner had made extensive headway cutting through joists of 12” x 12” timbers to make a larger crawl area. Nothing was done to fix that other than to replace the floor boards over top. This is an entirely different side of the lower floor of the jail than Robinson and Redner began cutting through in January of the same year.

Collins then tunneled nine feet and dug through the foundation wall which the newspapers described as, “seven feet of poorly constructed concrete masonry.” He stored the rubble under his cot and mattress which hadn’t been checked since Tuesday when they gave him a new mattress.  All of this he managed in only four days.

After all his digging was done he tore the bedding into strips to form a rope.  This next part doesn’t quite make sense to me but, “…a rope, with which, after being fastened through a hole in the outside door of the east wall of the jail yard, he pulled himself to the top of the wall and jumped off.”

This was late November and there was snow on the ground at the time. His tracks were found the next morning leading from the wall surrounding the jail to the street. The missing push broom is found in the jail yard. The police assumed he procured it and used it to brush all the dirt of his clothes before he took off. A posse was sent out for his capture but to no avail. He had too much of a lead on them. Telegrams were sent throughout the county and major cities offering a $100 reward for his capture.

Sheriff Day had suspected Collins had tried to escape earlier as there were saw marks on the grate where he was confined, but the sheriff couldn’t prove it as no tool was found during a search. Regardless of the previous year’s county proclamation, nothing was done to keep the jail in repair and the prisoners in it. In fact, despite the many escapes, the construction of a new jail would not happen for another ten years. As or James Collins--he was never caught.


The previous story is an excerpt from a story I wrote for Historical Wyoming, a quarterly publication of the Wyoming County Historian's office where I am the Assistant County Historian. A bit longer than I would like, but I hope you enjoyed it. :)

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  1. history is a fascinating place to visit. :)


  2. Interesting stories and you have to admire the escapees' determination.

  3. That was really interesting.

    scruffy-duck.net // Welsh Bloggers

  4. That was a fascinating story. I never get tired of history.

  5. Fascinating story! Security has gotten a bit tighter in the last 120 years, hasn't it??

    Stopping by from the A to Z :)

  6. I love historical stories. Congrats on your publication and thanks for sharing. :)
    Jamie Dement (LadyJai)
    My A to Z Challenge
    Caring for My Veteran

  7. Visiting on the 7th day of the #Challenge. This is amazing information. Congratulations on a worthwhile blog. The presentation is excellent, focused, uncluttered. Know you are going to make new blogging friends this month. If you have time or interest, I am writing about gardening and related topics for the #atoZ. Come and visit.

  8. Fascinating huh? To say they were simpler times--it is well demonstrated in these articles! Good post, Cindy :-)

  9. Wow! Using accounts from the time, you make the story come alive. Thanks.


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