My first idea of this crime came when I was Deputy Chief Sheriff. One of my interns, a young man named Ron Boden (who became a veteran Deputy Sheriff), had researched the only known lynching in Lancaster County, in 1884. I came across a reference in the biography of the then sheriff, Sam Melick, to the murder of the Nebraska Penitentiary Director and the ensuing prison break. Melick had been appointed acting director after the murder and instituted several reforms.
Several years later, a colleague, Sgt. Geoff Marti, loaned me an excellent book, “Last Posse” by Gale Christianson, which told the story of the 1912 prison escape in gory, haunting and glorious detail.
Long story short, convict Shorty Gray and his co-conspirators took down Warden James Delahunty, a deputy warden and guard on Wednesday March 13, 1912. They then made their breakthrough – straight into the teeth of a brutal Nebraska blizzard of spring. Over the next few days, a gang sued. During the pursuit, the escapees hijacked a young farmer with his team and cart. As the group got closer, a shootout erupted and the hostage was shot dead during the exchange, along with two of the three escapees.
There was a great deal of anger among residents of the Gretna-Springfield area over the death of their native son, and controversy raged over the law enforcement tactics that resulted in his demise. Lancaster County Sheriff Gus Hyers was not spared by the investigation, although it emerges from my perspective a century later that the fog of war led to tragedy.
Christianson, professor of history at Indiana State University who died earlier this year, notes the following on the cover page:
“For anyone living west of the Mississippi in 1912, the biggest news of that fateful year was a violent escape from the Nebraska State Penitentiary planned and carried out by a trio of notorious thieves and security blowers. “
Bigger news on half the continent than the sinking of the Titanic in the same year would certainly qualify this murder breakout as one of the most infamous Lincoln crimes in history.