Chapter I The Sharpest Thief in Stateville

The best thief I ever knew, in or out of prison, was
Gene O'Connor. He was doing his stealing when I first
knew him in Illinois' biggest and toughest penitentiary,
Stateville, near Joliet. A wheelbarrow was all the thievery
equipment he had; that and a lot of good will.
O'Connor was a little man—smaller than I am, which
is five feet six inches. He had an engaging grin and a dis-
arming manner, and he was thinking all the time. Escaping
was what he thought about mostly.
He was on a prison yard detail, which gave him the run
of the joint. He buzzed in and out of the storerooms, the
shops, the kitchen and the cell houses like a fly through a
window with the screen left out.
I was working in the kitchen as a steward and clerk,
and he would come around to mooch a cup of coffee, an
apple, a handful of raisins or whatever he could glom. He
hinted about escaping, but I didn't pay much heed. There
were 3,000 cons in Stateville, and all of them had crazy
ideas about going over the wall.
"You're too busy stealing in here to take time to escape,"
I told O'Connor. "You're doing better in stir than you
could on the outside."
Two or three times a week I would see him pushing his
wheelbarrow across the yard toward one or another of the
guard towers. He would be trundling a quarter of beef,
steaks, slabs of bacon, a 100-pound sack of sugar, or bags
of coffee.
He stole the stuff out of the storehouses and peddled it
to the guards in the towers.
Those towers are perched on top of the prison wall,
which is 33 feet high, of solid concrete and steel, and nine
feet thick at the base. Each guard up there has a cubicle to
sit in, with windows looking down on the yard and a
catwalk for exercise along the top of the wall.
The only square way to reach a tower is by an enclosed
stairway on the outside of the wall with a solid door kept
locked at the bottom.
When O'Connor reached the inside base of the wall at
one of the towers, he would call up to the man on duty.
The screw would lower a rope and Gene would tie on the
loot for the trip. Up would go beef, coffee, bacon or sugar.
The tower screws dropped a dollar or two for Gene now
and then, or mailed letters to his outside connections for
him. But mostly he was making friends and building up
good will.
The year was 1942 and the guards were old parties
brought in to replace younger men who left for the armed
services or for big-paying jobs in war plants. They prob-
ably never understood what a hell of a chance they were
taking with O'Connor. The damnedest prison break that
ever happened at Stateville was in the making.
Gene kept giving me reports about the jolly, larcenous
friends he was making in the towers, and the "influence"
he was building up. Wartime rationing was on and the
guards were getting big money—considering the starvation
wages paid in all prisons—by selling O'Connor's meats
and groceries in the Joliet and Chicago black markets.
"One old character up there is treating me like a son,"'
O'Connor told me. "I said to him this morning that I was
coming up to visit him some day. He told me to come right
ahead and bring my friends. He said he never shot anybody
in his life and he wasn't aiming to start now."
I didn't want to know about such things and I told
O'Connor so. Convicts have a saying that goes: "If three
guys know a secret, that makes four, counting the warden."
I didn't relish getting a rap as one of the three guys who
got word to the fourth.
Anyway, O'Connor kept on stealing everything that
wasn't nailed down, and some things that were. He got
away with it because we had a dull warden and a lot of
new guards. And he kept needling me to throw in with
him on the escape. I was a good candidate for a break, by
his standards.
First and foremost, I was under a sentence of 99 years.
I would have to serve a third of it, or 33 years, before even
being allowed to apply for parole. I had a minimum of 25
years left to go before parole, and I didn't want to stay
alive that long in prison—even if I could. So what did I
have to lose by going over the wall—or getting killed
Also, I had been railroaded to prison. I was innocent.
I had been convicted of a fake kidnaping that never hap-
pened. I had been sworn into prison on false testimony.
I was a fall guy for the Chicago Capone mob.
I was rotting in prison on the falsified testimony of a swin-
dler and ex-convict, John "Jake the Barber" Factor.
A distinguished former federal judge, the late John P.
Barnes, subsequently ruled that the kidnaping was a hoax.
I had been railroaded to prison under an unjust convic-
tion. Even so, I should have continued to be deaf when
Gene O'Connor talked to me. Instead, I was dumb—
stupid dumb.
He came to me one day in early summer, and he was
grinning with good news. I was in the kitchen and he was
pushing that silly wheelbarrow. It was half full of sand.
They were drilling a well in the yard and some of the sand
from the hole was going into the bottoms of decorative
tanks of goldfish in the big dining hall.
O'Connor sidled up to me and whispered: "We got
17two guns into the joint last night, Rog. Old Percy Campbell
carried 'em in wrapped up in the flag."
I was shocked and scared. Guns in a prison are like a
firebug in a high octane gasoline refinery. I backed off
from Gene and told him to keep the hell away from me.
There was no reason for me to be thinking seriously
about a break at that time. I had something going for me,
and I wasn't hopeless. Not even desperate. I figured I had
some percentage on my side.
John P. Lally, a Chicago Daily News writer, had made
up his mind that I was innocent. He was one of the first
of many to realize the truth. He worked day and night on
my case, digging up evidence. He had visited me a few
months before with this message: "Rog, you never will
spend another Christmas in this place."
One of Lally's Daily News co-workers, William Gor-
man, had written a long magazine story on my case. I had
read the story. It was a good one, and it showed my in-
nocence. When it was published, Gorman and I figured,
public opinion wouldn't allow me to remain in prison any
longer. I had the greatest possible confidence in the article.
After O'Connor dropped the word about the guns and
left me, I stood in the kitchen doorway for quite a while.
It was the first really fine day of early summer.
Acres and acres of flowers were blooming in the prison
yard, where Warden Joseph E. Ragen had had them
planted before the politicians got rid of him, temporarily
—and I, Roger Touhy, got him back. In Joliet, down
the road a piece, the pretty girls would be out in their
sleeveless, summer dresses.
It was the kind of day when convicts, all 3,000 of us
in Stateville, began to get restless. Nature makes guys that
way in the spring, I guess.
I was thinking of my wife, Clara, the little brunette I
had courted by telegraph when we both were youngsters
working opposite ends of a Morse wire for Western Union
in Chicago. Our two sons now were high-school age. They
weren't having it easy, I knew. This was my eighth year
away from them; a hell of a long eternity when you meas-
ure it on a penitentiary calendar.
18As I stood there in the doorway, birds were singing
from every direction, from the flower beds, the shrubbery,
and from trees in the yard. There were thousands of birds
in Stateville, and more every year because the cons fed
and protected them.
We envied them, too, and sometimes our feelings got
pretty close to hatred. A bird can go over those 33-foot
walls faster than a tower screw's rifle can follow and be miles
away in minutes. The cons protected the birds, and any
hungry cat caught sneaking up on a robin or a bluejay
could expect a kick in the tail in Stateville.
Still—with the temptations of birds, family, springtime
and all—I had no thought of joining Gene O'Connor. I
had faith in Gorman and his magazine story. I remembered
the promise that I'd be out by Christmas.
All through the hot summer and into the fall, O'Connor
needled me. The two guns were hidden somewhere in the
prison, he kept saying. The break couldn't miss. Basil
Banghart was going along. The old tower screw wouldn't
Gene's news bulletin about Banghart impressed me.
Basil was a shrewd, fast-thinking con. Everybody called
him "The Owl" for two reasons. He had big, slow-blinking
eyes, and he was wise. He wouldn't go on a break unless
the gamble was a good one. I had met him for the first time
in Stateville.
The Owl had been sentenced to 99 years for the Fac-
tor kidnap fake, as I had. He was a resourceful and cou-
rageous man. He could run a locomotive or fly an airplane,
and he was better than a green hand at opening up an
armored mail truck or persuading a bank guard not to
step on the robbery alarm button.
O'Connor was no slouch, either. He had beat Stateville
twice on breaks. Once he got into the powerhouse at
night, pulled a switch that doused every light in the prison,
got a ladder from the carpenters' shop, and whisked over
the wall in darkness. Another time he had himself nailed
inside a furniture crate being shipped to Joliet, and rode
through the gates in a truck.
"This is going to be a high-class break, with no dummies
allowed in the group," O'Connor assured me. Some-
times he talked like those Ivy League Madison Avenue
boys who started getting into Stateville after they lowered the entrance requirements to include Phi Beta Kappa
men. He also explained the exact way in which the two
guns had been smuggled in.
Percy Campbell was an old trusty who pottered around
outside the main gate, tending the flower beds, watering
the grass, sweeping the walks and tidying up the visitors'
parking area. He also had the job of carrying in the Amer-
ican flag at sundown every day.
The guns were left at the base of the flagpole one night
and Percy carried them in next evening, wrapped up in
Old Glory. He got a grand total of thirty bucks for this
errand. Whatever his other talents might have been, Camp-
bell was an amateur at collective bargaining. I guess
Percy did it mainly for meanness. He had put in 17 years
on a one-to-life term, and he should have been paroled
long before.
I was an unwilling listener while Gene talked, but that
was all. O'Connor wanted me along so bad that his urging
got to be a nuisance. I had friends and political connec-
tions on the outside. I could raise money and arrange for
hideouts, he figured. I just shook my head "no" and
And then the bad news began hitting me.
First it was Lally, of the Chicago Daily News. He died
of cancer of the throat. Not only had I lost a good friend,
but one of my last two legal chances to get out of Stateville
was gone. I had some outside people send flowers to
John's funeral. That was all I could do.
John died without ever telling anybody what evidence
he had found: why he was so certain I never would spend
another Christmas in prison. He wanted his story to be
exclusive and, like any good newspaperman, he kept but-
toned up.
Chance No. 2 blew up when Gorman came to see me.
I knew at once that something had gone wrong. He was
carrying a large brown envelope, and his face was long.
"I'd rather be kicked all the way back to Chicago than tell
20you this, Rog," he said. He dumped the contents of the
envelope in front of me. Magazine rejection slips, dozens
of them.
"No magazine will take the story," Gorman said. I read
a few of the slips. Some of the editors wrote that they were
interested only in articles with a war angle. Others said
that the story of my doublecross was too fantastic, that
readers wouldn't believe it. One editor commented coldly
that all prison inmates claimed to be innocent and that
most of them were trying to get their alibis into print.
I mumbled my thanks to Gorman for all of his wasted
work. I stumbled back to my cell. I was seeing through a
sort of haze. My last hope was gone. The United States
Supreme Court earlier had turned me down for a hearing.
I wasn't a man any more. I was a dead thing.
I stayed awake until dawn in my cell, thinking. I was
without hope. I was buried alive in prison and I would
die there. I couldn't see a light ahead anywhere. Nothing
but darkness and loneliness and desperation.
The world had forgotten me, after eight years. I was
a nothing. Well, there was one way I could focus public
attention on my misery. I could escape. I would be caught,
of course, but the break would show my terrible situation.
What cockeyed thinking that was. The only thing I
could do by going over the wall would be to destroy almost
every chance I might have for decent justice at some fu-
ture time. But a man in my spot isn't reasonable, of course.
My mental attitude was a mess, I later came to realize.
I hadn't seen my wife, Clara, for four years, but I
couldn't forget her last visit. It had been an ordeal rather
than the usual delight. She had worn a white hat and gloves
and a dark tailored suit, I remembered. It might be a long
time before I saw her again, and maybe never.
At that time, in 1938, I had been disconsolate. I had
figured that I couldn't be a drag on Clara and our two sons
for all of their lives. So I had given her a direct order for
the first time in our 18 years of marriage:
"Take all the money you can raise and go to Florida.
Change your name. Take the kids with you, of course.
21Start them out in a new school down there under new
names. This is something you must do.
"I'll be in prison for a long time. I want you to make a
fresh start for all of us in Florida."
I gave her the names of a couple of people she could
trust completely in Chicago and in Miami. They would
help her get started in this new life. I would send word to
her and the boys through the contacts, and get messages
from her.
Her eyes filled with tears, but she didn't cry and she didn't
ask a lot of questions, either. Giving her that order was
the most difficult thing I ever did. But it had to be done,
I thought.
She had only one question to ask as she sat across the
long table in the visiting room, forbidden by the rules to
so much as reach across and touch my hand for a goodbye.
"When should the boys and I leave for Florida?" she
wanted to know. I told her right away, the next day, if it
was possible.
The visit was over, and when I looked back from the
door, she was staring at me. I think she was crying, but
somehow she put on a smile.
Anyway, after my last hope collapsed in 1942,1 decided
to throw in on the escape. I was thankful then that Clara
and the boys were out of the way, living in obscurity under
the name of Turner in the Florida town of Deland.
Once I was over the wall, or killed trying to get there,
the publicity would be monstrous, with newspaper head-
lines the size of boxcars. I didn't want my wife and kids
hounded by the police or the FBI, I wouldn't be able to
see my family, anyway. They would be watched, if the
law could, find them. Their mail and telephone would be
checked. I would have to avoid them like yellow fever
wherever they were—Chicago or Florida or the other side
of the world.
After making up my mind to go AWOL, I passed Gene
O'Connor in the yard and told him: "I'm going with you."
He didn't seem a bit surprised then, or later, in the
kitchen, when he gave me a rundown on the program. He
pointed to one of the guard towers and said that was where
22we would go over the wall. He set the time for one p.m. on
October sixth.
"The screw up there is the old guy who says he won't
shoot anybody," Gene said. "I'll promise him the day be-
fore the break to bring him some meat and groceries. That
way he'll be sure to have his car beside the wall outside,
to take home the stuff. We're using his car."
O'Connor explained exactly what I had to do, and it
didn't sound too tough. But not easy, either.
October sixth was three days away, the longest three
days I ever lived. I ate and pretended to sleep and acted
like I was interested in the radio broadcasts. And all the
time the only thing on my mind was how a rifle bullet
from one of the guard towers would feel drilling into my
Then, with only ten minutes notice, O'Connor called
everything off for another three days. The new date, Oc-
tober ninth, was the one he had in mind all along. I had
jittered for three days for nothing.
I asked him the reason for the fake date and time, and
he explained. It had been a pretty clever idea, at that—he
had been testing the security of the plan.
"Suppose somebody had stooled to the warden that the
break was coming off on the sixth," he said. "The warden
would have cancelled all days off for the screws, and I
would know he was wise. Then I could have nosed around,
found out who talked too much, dealt him out of the break
and made a scheme to use the guns later in some other
Gene could have been a great commanding general or
an international spy, if he hadn't preferred being a thief.
I asked him then for the first time who was going on
the break and he told me—Banghart, Eddie Darlak, Mart-
lick Nelson, Ed Stewart and St. Clair Mclnerney, plus the
two of us. Ours were names that were to hit the headlines
for nearly three months.
Eddie Darlak was a Chicago man doing 199 years for
murder in a cop-killing conviction. I knew him slightly.
He had to go with us, Gene said, because his brother had
delivered the guns to the flagpole. That sounded okay;
23and I was in favor of "The Owl" being with us, of course.
Nelson, Stewart and Mclnerney meant nothing to me,
but I might have seen them around Stateville. It was im-
possible to know 3,000 men, all dressed the same way,
and without identifying marks such as mustaches, or pref-
erences in neckties.
A short time after lunch on the big day, I was standing
at the back door of the kitchen, following out Gene's
plan. A truck came rolling along on the daily round, picking
up garbage to be hauled to the prison hog farm outside
the wall. I was trembling like a kid on the way to the
woodshed for a whipping.
I walked up beside the driver and asked him for the
truck keys. He looked at me like I was crazy—and he
wasn't far wrong. "Give me the goddam keys," I told
him, and it surprised me to hear my voice and realize I
was yelling. He pointed to the truck's instrument panel; the
keys were hanging from the ignition switch. I pushed and
pulled him out of the cab.
The driver said later that I waved a big scissors from
the tailor shop at him. That wasn't true, but I didn't blame
him for saying it. He might have got hooked on a phony
aiding-and-abetting-to-escape charge if he hadn't told a
real good story.
I drove the truck along, slowly and carefully, getting the
feel of driving after eight years. There was a steel mesh
cyclone fence running across that part of the yard and I
had to get through a gate where a con was on duty.
After about 75 yards, I approached the gate and beeped
the horn. The gate swung open at once. The inmate waved
me on and closed the gate. To him, this was just the
garbage truck making a routine run.
I stepped on the gas a little. Straight ahead of me was
the mechanical store, a building with a vehicle ramp lead-
ing down under it. The prison coal supply and a lot of
equipment was there. I made a U-turn and backed the
truck down the ramp.
O'Connor, Banghart, Darlak and the other three were
waiting for me. So, it seemed to me at first, was about half
24the rest of Stateville's population, although there really
were only about 300 cons crowded around.
Two of our guys—Darlak and Banghart, I think—
were holding guns, and they had a complication. A guard
and a staff lieutenant were down in that passageway under
the building. They were standing with their hands at their
sides and their faces were white. We were no more scared
than they were, really, and for good reason: many a guard
held as a hostage has been killed in a prison break.
Somebody handed me one of the guns, a .45. The others
loaded a heavy ladder in two extension sections onto the
back of the truck. We put the lieutenant and the guard on
top to act as ballast and hold down the ladders. I climbed
up with them.
Stewart was behind the wheel of the truck and I heard
the starter grind a couple of times. The engine didn't start.
I jumped off the back of the truck and took Stewart's place.
It still wouldn't turn over and I hollered: "The goddam
thing is stuck on center! Push it, you guys."
Those convicts down there with us grabbed the truck in
every place there was a handhold. They pushed it and
rocked it, anxious to help. The motor came off dead center
and started at last with a roar.
I drove up the runway and aimed the truck at the tower
where the old father-and-son screw was on duty. It seemed
to me that we were going 90 miles an hour, bucketing
across the yard. The convicts who had helped start the truck
cheered and waved to us. Two 50-gallon oil drums, for
garbage, were on the truck. I hit a big bump and those
drums shot out across the yard like depth charges from a
Navy destroyer. It was a crazy trip, and things were going
to get crazier.