My first inkling about this crime came when I was the chief deputy sheriff. One of my interns, a young man named Ron Boden (who became a veteran deputy sheriff), had been doing some research on Lancaster County’s only known lynching, in 1884. I came across a reference in the biography of the sheriff at the time, Sam Melick, to the murder of the Nebraska Penitentiary warden and subsequent prison break. Melick had been appointed interim warden after the murder and instituted several reforms.
Several years later, a colleague, Sgt. Geoff Marti, loaned me a great book, Gale Christianson’s “Last Posse,” that told the story of the 1912 prison break in gory, haunting and glorious detail.
To make a long story short, convict Shorty Gray and his co-conspirators shot and killed Warden James Delahunty, a deputy warden and a guard on Wednesday, March 13, 1912. They then made their break — right into the teeth of a brutal Nebraska spring blizzard. Over the course to the next few days, a posse pursued. During the pursuit, the escapees carjacked a young farmer with his team and wagon. As the posse closed in, a gunfight broke out and the hostage was shot and killed in the exchange, along with two of the three escapees.
There was plenty of anger among the locals in the Gretna-Springfield vicinity about the death of their native son, and a controversy raged over the law enforcement tactics that brought about his demise. Lancaster County Sheriff Gus Hyers was not unsullied by the inquiry, although it appears from my prospect a century later that the fog of war led to the tragedy.
Christianson, a professor of history at Indiana State University who died earlier this year, notes the following on the flyleaf:
“For anyone living west of the Mississippi in 1912, the biggest news that fateful year was a violent escape from the Nebraska state penitentiary planned and carried out by a trio of notorious robbers and safe blowers.”
Bigger news on half the continent than the sinking of the Titanic during the same year would certainly qualify this murder-escape as one of the most infamous Lincoln crimes in history.