Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil To Live, Part I

Escape From Oregon

Panzram as Jeff Baldwin 1915 (courtesy Bureau of Prisons)
Panzram as Jeff Baldwin
(courtesy Bureau of Prisons)

Wherever he went, Panzram stole for food, clothes, money and guns. For months during the year 1915, he traveled up and down the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, through Washington, Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota. Panzram was a veteran of the rails. On the night of June 1, 1915, he broke into a house in the town of Astoria, Oregon. He lifted a suit of clothes and other articles that weren't worth more than $20. He was later arrested when he tried to sell a stolen watch. He was indicted for Larceny in a Dwelling and later, after a promise by the local D.A. to go easy on him, pleaded guilty. He was sentenced, as "Jefferson Baldwin," to seven years at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

On June 24, 1915, he arrived at the prison and became inmate #7390. In the admission record, he listed his place of birth as Alabama and his occupation as "thief." On the same page, it was noted that he used two other names: Jefferson Davis and Jeff Rhodes. Guards immediately took notice of the prisoner's surly, uncooperative attitude. But they weren't concerned with uncooperative inmates. Salem prison was notorious in the northwest for punishing its prisoners by abuse and torture. The warden at that time was a tough, crude, former sheriff named Harry Minto, who believed whole-heartedly in keeping the inmates in line by force. Whipping, hosing, beatings, starvation and isolation were part and parcel of life at Salem.

Reward poster for Jeff <br /> Baldwin when he escaped <br /> from Oregon State Prison <br />
Reward poster for Jeff Baldwin
when he escaped from Oregon
State Prison
(Mark Gado's collection)

Minto endorsed the Auburn system by which prisoners would be punished even if they uttered one word out of line. They were frequently shackled to walls and hung from rafters for hours, sometimes days at a time. Inmates were whipped with the terrible "cat-o-nine-tails," a brutish device that caused appalling injury to a man's back. "I swore I would never do that seven years," Panzram said, "and I defied the warden and all his officers to make me. The warden swore I would do every damned day or he would kill me."

He got into trouble almost immediately for rule violations, and punishment became routine. Panzram's record of discipline shows that on January 1, 1916, he was hung "10 hours a day for two days for hammering, rising a disturbance in cell and cursing an officer." A month later, on February 27, he was hoisted up "12 hours at door for going on another tier from where he cells and having a dangerous weapon, a billie or a sap." He was later found to be in possession of a blackjack and thrown into the "dungeons" for three weeks with only bread and water. "They stripped us naked and chained us up to a door," he said, "and then turned the fire hose on us until we were black and blue and half blind."

But still, Panzram continued his combative behavior. He started several fires and burned down three buildings at different times. He spent 61 days in solitary where he groped around in the dark and ate cockroaches for food. In early 1917, Panzram helped another inmate, named Otto Hooker, escape from the prison. Hooker later shot and killed Warden Minto when he accidentally ran into the warden in a nearby town. The killing sparked a public outcry, and conditions at the Oregon State Penitentiary became even worse.

Oregon State Prison, Salem, today (Bureau of Prisons)
Oregon State Prison, Salem, today
(Bureau of Prisons)

By September 1917, Panzram's reputation was well known both inside the penitentiary and out. He had made several escape attempts by cutting through the bars in his cell. On September 18, 1917, he finally succeeded and escaped from the prison. He broke into a house in the town of Tangent stealing clothes, food, money and a loaded .38 caliber handgun. A few days later, a local cop recognized Panzram from a wanted poster and tried to arrest him. Panzram pulled out his gun and opened fire on the sheriff's deputy. "I fired and fought until my gun was empty of bullets and I was empty of courage," he later said. But he ran out of ammunition and was captured. On the way to the jail, Panzram tried to grab the cop's gun and a fierce struggle took place inside the police car. The rear windows were kicked out and several shots were fired through the roof as the men battled for the officer's handgun. Panzram was beaten bloody and unconscious. He was brought back to Salem and dumped into solitary. But not for long.

Incredibly, on May 12, 1918, Panzram escaped from Oregon Prison again. He sawed through the window bars using a hacksaw blade and jumped down off the prison walls. As frantic guards fired hundreds of rounds at the fleeing convict, Panzram made it into the woods and disappeared from sight. He later hopped a freight train heading east and left the Pacific Northwest forever. He changed his name to John O'Leary and shaved his mustache. Slowly, methodically, still burglarizing and burning churches along the way, Panzram headed for the East Coast.

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