Echoes From The Past: Trying to get out of the Truckee jail
Among Truckee’s most popular local legends is that there have been many tries but few successful escapes from the old Truckee jail.
One such attempt occurred during the first decade of the twentieth century when Truckee’s elected constable, Augustus F. Schlumpf, was exonerated in the death of a man who died in a foiled breakout attempt.
An early newspaper account provided details concerning the death of a man named Fred King on July 5, 1909. It was reported that King was a waiter who was “accidentally” killed by Constable Schlumpf during an attempted jailbreak.
It is not clear whether King was merely a bystander or had conspired with two prisoners being held in the calaboose at the time, or if he was there merely to bring trays of food to the cells for the prisoners, as was the local custom at time.
What is known is that a man named Dan Crowley had been jailed for armed robbery and was the ringleader of the thwarted bust-out. Somehow, he had obtained a revolver, which later accounts say was hammerless and with which he made the mistake of threatening Constable Schlumpf.
It was well known at the time that Schlumpf was an absolutely fearless and formidable man, being described as weighing more than 225 pounds and constructed nearly as stout as the stone walls of the old jailhouse itself. Moreover, he was always “heeled” with his own 45-caliber revolver.
Shortly after sundown that evening, Schlumpf had allowed King into the lower cell area with two trays of food. Within minutes, the prisoners began making a commotion to which the constable promptly responded. Upon seeing that Crowley was armed and brazenly waving a pistol, Schlumpf quickly drew his weapon and fired. The bullet passed through Crowley’s shoulder and hit King, who was standing behind, killing him instantly.
The coroner’s jury brought in a verdict that “King came to his death from an accidental shot fired by Constable Schlumpf while discharging his duties,” thus relieving him of all blame in the affair.
Two days later, Crowley and his cohort, Frank Wilson, were given preliminary hearings on the robbery charge, placed under $3,000 bond each and were “taken below” to the tanks of the county jail in Nevada City where their charges were further compounded by the jail break charges.
Crowley and Wilson were accused of boldly holding up Stephan Stocis at the rear of Johnny Fay’s Saloon on the night of July 3, relieving him of $15 and a gold watch, in front of two eyewitnesses. The ever-diligent constable promptly caught the pair and had them under lock and key within 20 minutes.
A month later, in superior court, the Crowley and Wilson received a continuance when their attorney, George Finnegan, put them on the stand and allowed them to explain that they had not been informed of their rights at the preliminary hearing in Truckee justice court and that other legal formalities had been ignored. When this issue came to a hearing, their lies were revealed and they now faced perjury charges.
The unlucky pair were then brought to court for their attempt to murder Schlumpf during the jailbreak. District Attorney Thomas S. Ford agreed to push that charge if they were convicted of robbery, so the assault on the officer was continued until after the robbery trial was out of the way.
The robbery trial opened on September 14, 1909. Beside Stocis, eyewitnesses George Markson and George Englehart positively identified the two men who held up, beat up and robbed the victim in the alley. The defense was one of denial and the alibi was that these were “honest, hard-working men” who were en-route to jobs on the Spring Garden Tunnel, and they had merely stopped over in the Truckee saloon for a few drinks and a little gambling.
They complained of “rough handling” by Constable Schlumpf at the time of their arrest and when the constable was called to testify at their trial, they asked the judge to have the officer disarm himself, alleging that he had threatened to shoot one of the defendants on the stand if he dared to testify in a derogatory manner about Schlumpf.
Astonished by this underhanded maneuver, the constable voluntarily surrendered his revolver to the bailiff while in the courtroom.
It took the jury only 13 minutes to convict two scoundrels as charged. Crowley was sentenced to 20 years in Folsom State Prison. Wilson drew 15 years at San Quentin for armed robbery.
The Truckee-Donner Historical Society invites the public to visit the Old Jail Museum on Jibboom Street which is open each weekend from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. all summer until Labor Day. This is a one-of-a-kind Wild West jailhouse, constructed in 1874 and filled with interesting exhibits and relics from different eras in Truckee’s history.
“Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at email@example.com.
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