Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Montana State Prison’s Most Unusual Inmate

Paul Eitner was perhaps the Montana State Prison’s most colorful character. He was a German immigrant who worked as a porter at a Miles City saloon and lived in a local boarding house. One evening in January 1918, Eitner picked up his .38 revolver, strode down the hall and fired three times at a fellow lodger. The man died three days later. Eitner’s motive was never clear. At the last moment in court, he changed his plea from self-defense to guilty, hoping for leniency. The judge was not sympathetic and gave him a life sentence. Eitner was assigned to the state sanitarium at Galen to look after the prison’s flock of turkeys. He was thus employed until 1932 when he sold the all the birds to a passing farmer for twenty-five cents each. This incident earned him the nickname “Turkey Pete.” Eitner believed he had diamond mines and an imaginary fortune. Inmates printed “Eitner Enterprises” on checks in the prison shop, and he gave away millions of pretend dollars. He was mascot to the prison band and acted as manager of the boxing team, shadow boxing his way through every match. The prison board denied him parole a number of times believing Eitner could not adjust to the outside. In his later years, his prominent nose seemed to grow longer. Its extreme length made lighting his cigarettes potentially dangerous.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 78-57
Paul “Turkey Pete” Eitner died in 1967 at the age of eighty-nine after serving forty-nine years in the state prison. Many mourned his passing and attended his funeral in the prison theatre, the only funeral ever held within the prison walls. His empty cell, #1 in the 1912 cell house, was never reassigned.

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