History

On the Lam: Recent Prison Breaks Echo Past Escapes

April 23, 2024 | by David Owen Bell

After four prison breaks last year and two escapes from custody so far this year, Philadelphia holds its collective breath every time a convict or suspect is at large. Looking back, the city has a long history of jailbreaks, with Eastern State Penitentiary holding the unofficial record. During its 142 years of operation, the facility saw more than 100 attempts and a total of 59 escapes, including the infamous 12-man break in 1945 through a 99-foot long tunnel that took more than a year to dig and just minutes for six of the inmates to be caught after they popped out of a hole on Fairmount Avenue. All 12 eventually were caught.

A Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper clipping from 1923 reporting a jailbreak at Eastern State Penitentiary. | Image: Newspapers.com

Arguably the most notorious, the 1945 tunnel break, wasn’t the first or last attempt at Eastern State Penitentiary, or Cherry Hill as it was once known. Whether by tunnel, bed sheet, ladder, or sewer, the desire among convicts to escape its walls proved persistent over the decades. Staff of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site reckons that four escapees were never recaptured.

The honor of the first successful escape from Eastern State Penitentiary goes to Bernard Teese in 1838. Teese had one year left on a three-year sentence for horse theft when he opened the door of his cell and made his way over the outside wall, never to be seen again.

In 1866, with five years remaining on his sentence for second-degree murder, Patrick Lafferty donned a suit belonging to another inmate scheduled for release and walked out the front gate. According to historians at Easter State Penitentiary, “The warden dispatched officers to search for Lafferty throughout the city and adjacent districts without success.”

Convicted of second-degree murder, Timothy Boyle also managed a successful break. “A drayman was carting away some hogsheads with rubbish,” reported the Wilkes-Barre Daily Record Times on January 3, 1878. “In one of these the prisoner managed to conceal himself and was carted beyond the confines of the prison, making good his escape.”

With five other inmates, Leo Callahan used smuggled guns to overpower guards, then scaled the east wall with a ladder and slipped down the other side by rope—all in broad daylight on July 14, 1923. “His five accomplices were all eventually recaptured — including one who made it as far as Honolulu, Hawaii—but Callahan was…never found,” Eastern State Penitentiary historians explained.

Escapes that ended in failure or quick recapture include James Gordon, who rode out under a load of hot ashes from the prison heating plant (1925), inmates who tried to swim out through the sewer line (1934 and 1936), would-be wall scalers (1908, 1914, and 1933), tunnel diggers (1924, 1926, 1940, and 1948), and amateur rope-makers who cobbled together rags (1951) or shoelaces (1954). Four alumni of the 1945 tunnel escape stand out for also busting out of Philadelphia County Prison at Holmesburg.

Slick Willie

An FBI wanted poster for notorious prison escapee William “Slick Willy” Sutton. | Image courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Born in Brooklyn, New York on June 30, 1901, William Francis Sutton was a nationally known bank robber, often posing as a messenger, mailman, or maintenance man. “Willie Sutton acquired two nicknames, ‘The Actor’ and ‘Slick Willie,’ for his ingenuity in executing robberies in various disguises,” according to records held by the FBI. “Fond of expensive clothes, Sutton was described as being an immaculate dresser. Although he was a bank robber, Sutton had the reputation of a gentleman; in fact, people present at his robberies stated he was quite polite.”

By late 1932, he had been incarcerated in and escaped from Sing Sing Prison in New York State. Within two months, Sutton was targeting Philadelphia banks and jewelry stores. On January 15, 1934, he held up the Corn Exchange Bank and Trust Company branch at 60th street, only to be arrested the following month at an apartment in West Philadelphia. Sutton admitted to the robbery and was sentenced to 25-50 years in Eastern State Penitentiary.

In 1936, Sutton and William “Gunshot” Bishie unsuccessfully attempted to escape through the prison’s sewer line. They made it to the entrance, but were unable to break through a concrete barrier. “There were three great obstacles to escape at Eastern State,” Sutton told Quentin Reynolds, the author of his 1953 biography, I, Willie Sutton. “First, the walls of stone and bars of steel; second, the alertness of the guards; and third, the danger from inmates who, trying to curry favor with parole boards, would turn you in if they got wind of your attempt.”

By August 1941, Sutton had created a lifelike plaster bust and a hand designed to fool guards into thinking he was in his bunk. The plan was to exit his cell through a skylight, then make it over the wall using a homemade rope, but prison officials discovered the scheme. The bust and hand turned up 77 years later on an episode of the PBS program, Antiques Road Show—in the possession of the grandson of a former prison official—where it was appraised to have a value of $2,500-3,500.

Sutton’s next attempt was the 1945 tunnel break that he later took full credit for planning and leading, although multiple sources contradict him. “The end cell on the Seventh Block on the ground floor was occupied by a forger named Clarence Kliney. I cultivated him for some time, listened to him for weeks, and decided he’d risk anything to escape,” Sutton told Reynolds. “I broached the subject cautiously, and found Kliney to be an easy listener. He wanted out. He was my first recruit. I recruited six additional men, all as recklessly desperate as Kliney.”

Kliney

Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst in custody in 1945. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Clarence Klinedinst was a career criminal serving time at Eastern State for burglary, larceny, forgery, and a parole violation when he approached two fellow inmates, James “Botchie” Van Sant and Frederick “Saint” Tenuto about his plan to dig his way out, according to Joe Corvi, a convicted burglar who did time in Graterford Prison and Eastern State Penitentiary. A native of South Philly, Corvi kept in touch with Kliney and Van Sant over the years and described the tunnel break in great detail in his memoir, Breaching the Walls.

A skilled mason and plasterer, Kliney crafted and camouflaged a false panel in the side wall of his cell that would mark the beginning of the tunnel. He and his roommate, William Russell, along with Van Sant and Tenuto, took turns digging. Eventually, the team recruited Bob McKnight, Horace “Bow Wow” Bowers, Vic Symansky, and David “Pop” Aikens. When it came to engineering and shoring the tunnel, “Kliney was the only person who knew how to do the work [and] undoubtedly spent more time than anybody on the job,” claimed Corvi.

When the team learned that Sutton might have had heard about the tunnel, they dispatched Bowers, Van Sant, and Tenuto to make sure he kept his mouth shut. “On the morning of April 3, 1945, after a year of hard labor, the men entered the tunnel for the last time,” wrote Corvi. “For Sutton, who was invited after all, it was the first time.” Kliney was first out of the tunnel, followed by Van Sant and Tenuto. Sutton was nabbed within minutes of seeing daylight. It would take weeks to capture Botchie and the Saint.

The Saint

An FBI wanted poster for Frederick “The Saint” Tenuto. | Image courtesy of Eastern State Historic Site

Born in Philadelphia on January 20, 1915, Frederick J. Tenuto’s first escape was from Saint John’s Home for Boys when he was 11 years old. His brief stay there resulted in his nickname, according to Corvi. “Between 1931 and 1940, Tenuto was arrested eight times for various robberies, holdups, and a kidnapping.”

In 1940, Tenuto was convicted of second degree murder, and, after a short time at Eastern State Penitentiary, was transferred to Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, where he met up with Botchie, an acquaintance from their time in Holmesburg Prison. The night of September 6, 1941, they undid the bolts on the windows in their cells and made it over the wall. Hitting the ground on the other side, Botchie injured himself. They made it to a road, but Botchie wasn’t able to continue. They agreed that he would hide in the bushes while Tenuto went on alone, promising to steal a car and come back for him.

Within a couple of days, two patrol officers spotted Tenuto walking along Germantown Pike, north of Chestnut Hill, on his way to Philadelphia. Taken into custody without a fight, he would be reunited with Botchie at Eastern State Penitentiary and face a minimum of 25 more years in jail.

Botchie

A wanted poster for James “Botchie” Van Sant. | Image courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Philadelphia native James “Botchie” Van Sant logged his first jail break from Holmesburg Prison in the 1930s. Serving 10-20 years for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon at a taxi company, one day he climbed aboard a truck bound for the prison farm, jumped off when the truck slowed, and made his way across town.

Friends provided him with a place to hide, along with a gun and a little money. A few days later he was caught after robbing a liquor store and attempting to hijack a car. He was sentenced to 10-20 years for the crime, plus the remainder of the time he owed for the taxi company robbery and another crime in New York State. “He was now 31 years old, had spent the last 13 years in prison, and, by his own accounting, still owed society at least 32 years,” wrote Corvi. The year was 1940.

After his escape with Tenuto from Graterford Prison, it didn’t take long for a state trooper to find Botchie along the road near the prison. A Montgomery County judge sent him to Eastern State Penitentiary with 5-10 years added to his sentence.

On the lam after the 1945 tunnel break, Botchie and Tenuto holed up in an apartment above the Buckeye Club on S. 8th Street. With the help of ex-cons, they made their way to New York City, only to be captured in a restaurant after seven weeks on the run. “The cops walked in with guns and we walked out with toothpicks,” Botchie joked. Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall was playing on the jukebox. Tenuto and Botchie were the last of the tunnel 12 to be recaptured. Botchie was released from prison in 1959.

Years later, Van Sant confirmed Corvi’s version of the 1945 tunnel break. “Willie never turned a spade of dirt,” he told a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist in 1980. “We invited him the night before. He just went along for the ride. The hole was dug by me and three other guys: Freddie ‘The Saint’ Tenuto, Bill Russell, and a guy called Kliney Klinedinst.”

Holmesburg and Beyond

Holmesburg Prison today. | Photo: David Bell

By August 1945, Kliney, Tenuto, Slick Willie, and fellow tunnel alumnus Pop Aikens had been transferred to Holmesburg Prison to serve the remainder of their lengthy terms. Also locked up in Holmesburg Prison was Spencer Waldon, who was doing 15-20 years for robbery.

By early 1947, Tenuto and Waldon hatched an escape plan that hinged on smuggling a gun and a knife into the prison. On February 10, Tenuto faked an illness and overpowered a guard. Brandishing the knife, while Waldon wielded the .45 caliber gun, they forced two guards to hand over their uniforms. Dressed as guards, they obtained keys to the cells and released Kliney, Aikens, and Sutton.

Under the cover of a snow storm, the five convicts obtained a ladder, scaled the wall, and dropped down on the other side. Kliney, Aikens, and Waldon were caught within a couple of hours. Sutton and Tenuto got away. Once again, Slick Willie would take credit for planning and executing the escape, a claim disputed by Botchie. “The Saint and a guy named Spencer Waldon were the brains behind the break,” he said in the 1980 interview.

A photograph of Willie Sutton in court in 1952. | Image: United Press Photo via Ebay

In 1950, the FBI added Sutton to its list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. He would remain at large until 1952, when 24-year-old Arnold Schuster recognized him on the New York City subway. Sure that he had found the fugitive, Schuster followed him and called the police, who arrested Slick Willie while he was tinkering with his car. Concealing a .38 caliber revolver and $7,733 in cash in his pockets, the 51-year-old was taken into custody for the last time. He was given a sentence of life plus 135 years, sent to Attica State Prison, and paroled in 1969.

Publicly credited for Sutton’s capture, Schuster was murdered shortly after making a television appearance. Already on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list, Tenuto was a suspect in the killing, but was never captured. “I didn’t feel the slightest bitterness toward young Schuster,” Sutton told Reynolds in 1952. “In fact, I got a wry amusement out of the fact that I managed to keep away from the smartest manhunters in the country only to be nabbed by a nice-looking kid who wore suede shoes. Most men who escape from prison are eventually caught.”



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About the Author

David Owen Bell writes about marine navigation, ecology, and history.

6 Comments:

  1. Suzanne McA says:

    Dave – great job on this story. Written with wry amusement. Thanks, Suzanne

  2. Jessica says:

    What an interesting and timely article.

  3. Paul says:

    Excellent story!

  4. David Bell says:

    Thanks Suzanne and Jessica.

  5. David Bell says:

    Thanks Paul.

  6. Judith Hurley says:

    I’m reminded of Willie Sutton’s answer when a reporter asked him why he robbed banks: “That’s where the money is”.
    Thanks for the article.

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