The Ohio Penitentiary saw many prisoners escorted into the confines of its stone walls with chains around their ankles, keeping them segregated from the rest of the world. The prison held those who committed crimes as petty as theft or as egregious as cold-blooded murder responsible for their deeds by making the guilty pay penance for their wrong-doings. The men, and women, who called this place “home” were not faceless beings but real people with interesting stories of their own.
Prisoner George How became a local “celebrity” after he was incarcerated for forging an order of 25-cents worth of tobacco. Entering into a brand new prison, How found out about a $100 reward for any prisoner who could break out of this inescapable fortress. It took him 24 hours. Now on the run, bloodhounds were dispatched to track and catch up to the escaped convict. The dogs did eventually find How, and the unlikely group became best friends. He soon sold the dogs, however, to a local farmer to fund his escape to Michigan. How would eventually be captured in Michigan where he demanded he be given his $100 reward for accomplishing the task put forth. How was denied his money and later sued the county for his rightful earnings. The suit was also denied, and he was given the limit of the law, serving the next 10 years in the Ohio Penitentiary.
Have you ever heard the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin? How about the Pied Piper of the Ohio Penitentiary? Prisoner Morgan McSweeney, convicted of killing a man in Washington County in 1898, was a gentle giant in prison. Described as a “medieval hermit,” he spent his time with his rodent companions in the depths of The Pen while watching the wheels and pistons in the steam pump room. McSweeney gave names to many of his whiskered friends, fed them, and let them come and go as they pleased. It was estimated that he entertained over 200 rats at once with his peculiar whistle and had them so tame that they would “perch on his shoulder, delve into his pockets, and indulge in other familiar antics.”
If you have ever seen the movie “Inside Man,” you would know that one of the main characters, a bank robber, makes his escape by (Spoiler Alert!) walking out the front door. In 1893, that’s exactly how two prisoners escaped the Ohio Penitentiary. Charles Meyers, a pickpocket, and Thomas Wing, a burglar, climbed through the roof and broke into the warden’s apartment. Once inside, they both put on suits belonging to the man charged with keeping the guilty inside the prison walls. Now disguised, they were assumed to just be visitors, and the pair walked right out the front gate passed the guards. It didn’t take long for someone to realize that the two had gone missing and were re-captured “after a lively chase of ten miles.”
Cupid’s arrow can strike anyone and anytime, even in the Ohio Penitentiary. In 1873, Thomas Miles, serving a 2-year sentence for burglary in Licking County, entered the Ohio Penitentiary with Ann McFarland who had been convicted of being Miles’ accomplice. After several months, Ann had started making inquiries to the guards about Thomas and his well-being. Ann soon revealed her secret that she was, in fact, innocent and purposefully had herself convicted in order to remain close her lover, Thomas, during his incarceration. On January 31, 1875, the day that the two prisoners were granted their release, a wedding was held in the prison chapel joining Thomas Miles and Ann McFarland (whose actual name turned out to be Nancy Jane Scott) in holy matrimony. The guards even pitched in and bought the bride a wedding dress.The Ohio Penitentiary also had its fair share of women prisoners. One of their biggest “celebrities” was Ms. Cassie Chadwick, guilty of seven counts of forgery and seven counts of conspiracy. Cassie Chadwick was actually one her of many aliases. She was born Elizabeth Bigley, a resident of Ontario, Canada, and quickly entered a life of crime by committing her first act of forgery at the age of 14. She was let off with a warning, but her criminal appetite could not be satisfied. She was again arrested at the age of 22, but pleaded insanity and was let go. She then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where she would eventually be arrested for forgery again. She would not escape without penalty this time, serving three years in the Ohio Penitentiary before being pardoned by Gov. William McKinley in 1891. After release, she changed her name to “Cassie Hoover” before marrying Dr. Leroy Chadwick. In 1897 she embarked on her crime that would make her infamous. She tricked several Cleveland area banks into thinking that she was the illegitimate daughter of rich industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and was loaned between $10 and $20 million dollars. She was finally exposed as a fraud in 1904 and sent to prison in 1906. She arrived with trunks filled with clothes, jewelry, furniture, and photos, which was allowed due to her celebrity status. She did not last long in prison, suffering from a nervous breakdown that left her blind. She died on her birthday in 1907.
These are just a small sampling of the intriguing stories of Ohio Penitentiary prisoners. All of these stories, and many more, can be found in Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’ digital newspaper database, as well as on Ohio Memory!
Kevin Latta, Quality Control Technician, NDNP-OH