Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Prison Escape

Warden Frank Conley at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge kept fearsome full-blooded hounds trained to track escapees. They were enclosed in a high fence inside the prison walls. In 1902, prisoner Thomas O’Brien foiled these hounds in a spectacular getaway. O’Brien, who claimed he was innocent of grand larceny, had served half of his five-year sentence. He was a trustworthy prisoner who had some freedom in his assigned job as stable boss of the large barn outside the prison walls. O’Brien claimed he had veterinary training, and so he obtained medicines for the animals. He had worked for two weeks conditioning George Tighe, the warden’s prize Thoroughbred racehorse. When the time was right, O’Brien obtained some opium, supposedly to treat one of the animals, and used it to put Warden Conley’s bloodhounds into a deep slumber. He then calmly saddled George and rode off toward the prison ranches. The guards assumed that he was on some legitimate errand. As the distance between them grew greater, O’Brien coaxed the horse into his fastest run and went the other way. The hounds were of no use. Officials later found the saddle and bridle hanging in a tree and George loose in a pasture. O’Brien was on the lam for eighteen days, then gave himself up. En route back to Deer Lodge, the prison escort treated O’Brien to breakfast and a cigar. Once back in prison, Warden Conley shook O’Brien’s hand and commended him for surrendering. Perhaps O’Brien really was innocent. Less than a year later, the governor pardoned him.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives

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