Helena, MT High Low
It’s fun reading the comments on the first post and finding out how many of you have actually gone on this tour.
In 1919, Warden Conley's personal friend William A. Clark, one of Butte’s Copper Kings, donated $10,000 for the construction of a first in US Prison history—a prison theater completed in March 1920. It had seating for 1,000 people in leather-covered seats and catered to prisoners and members of the community alike. It hosted concerts, plays, prizefights, movies, and more. For Conley, it became an instant disciplinary tool; unruly inmates were denied access to the theater. The theater was destroyed by an unknown arsonist on 3 December 1975.
Floyd Powell took control of the prison in August 1958. He managed to instill some reforms before, in 1959, a riot kept the prison and the town of Deer Lodge on edge for thirty-six hours. The riot started on 16 April 1959 and was the longest and bloodiest riot at the facility. Instigated by a pair of inmates, Jerry Myles and Lee Smart, the riot would claim the lives of three people (including the Deputy Warden), wound several others, and keep the facility under inmate control for thirty-six hours. It ended in the early hours of 18 April 1959 when National Guard troops stormed the facility.
At about 4:45 a.m. on 18 April 1959, Bill Rose of the National Guard fired a World War II bazooka at the southwest tower of Cellblock 1. You can still see some of the damage to the cellblock.
When the riot ended, Jerry Myles and Lee Smart died in a murder-suicide, when Myles shot Smart and then turned the gun on himself.
Warden Frank Conley at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge kept hounds trained to track escapees. They were enclosed in a high fence inside the prison walls. In 1902, prisoner Thomas O’Brien was assigned as stable boss of the large barn outside the prison walls. O’Brien claimed he had veterinary training, and so he was able to get medicine for the animals. He worked for two weeks with George, the warden’s prize Thoroughbred racehorse. When the time was right, O’Brien obtained some opium, supposedly to treat one of the animals, and used it to put Warden Conley’s bloodhounds into a deep sleep. He then calmly saddled George and rode off toward the prison ranches. The guards assumed that he was on some legitimate errand. Officials later found the saddle and bridle hanging in a tree and George loose in a pasture. O’Brien was on the lam for eighteen days, then gave himself up. In route back to Deer Lodge, the prison escort treated O’Brien to breakfast and a cigar. Once back in prison, Warden Conley shook O’Brien’s hand and commended him for surrendering. Less than a year later, the governor pardoned him.
Another escape attempt took place on March 8, 1908, when George Rock and W. A. Hayes attacked Warden Frank Conley and his chief deputy, James Robinson. Conley shot both Rock and Hayes, hitting Rock in the head and Hayes twice, once through each lung. These shots should have been fatal, but the two men were not to be stopped. The two prisoners were still able to fatally slit Robinson’s throat with a pocketknife and slash Conley so severely it took 103 stitches to close the wounds.
Conley carefully nursed Rock and Hayes so that they would be healthy when, convicted of murder, both were hanged in the prison yard as an example to the other men.
Conley oversaw both of the executions (Rock on June 16,1908 and Hayes on April 2, 1909). The men were hanged using the upright jerker method, which used a 300 lb weight to jerk the sentenced man from his feet. This method was supposed to snap the neck, but it failed in both instances. Rock and Hayes were the only two men to be executed within the prison walls.
From these episodes, it seems that being the Deputy Warden is more dangerous than being the Warden.
We really enjoyed the tour but I wish we had been there when they had a tour guide. It’s the stories about the prison and inmates that really make for a good tour. I took notes along the way and found some of this information on line.