Condemned murderer Thomas Blanck escapes from the King County Jail on March 17, 1895.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 5/12/2010
  • Essay 9391

On March 17, 1895, notorious desperado Thomas Blanck (1870-1895) engineers a mass escape from the King County Jail, using an imitation handgun carved from pieces of wood. In October 1894, he had been convicted in King County Superior Court of the murder of bartender Charles H. Bridwell and sentenced to hang on December 7, but the case was appealed and his execution stayed. Blanck is granted folk-hero status when the press dubs him the "Jesse James of the Pacific Northwest" for the ruthlessness with which he kills and his ability to escape from the law. By his own admission, Blanck killed five or more people and wounded at least 20. He ranged from British Columbia through Washington, Oregon, California, and Montana, robbing stage coaches, banks, hotels, saloons and individuals, and shooting anyone who resisted or got in his way. Four days after the jailbreak, a King County Sheriff's posse will spot Blanck near Kent and he will be killed in a gun battle.

Sentenced to Hang

Thomas Blanck had been convicted of the first-degree murder of Charles H. Bridwell on October 18 and sentenced on October 20, 1894 to hang. The defense was allowed 30 days to appeal the verdict and death sentence and November 20 was the deadline. On that day, Blanck's attorneys, John Fairfield and Daniel T. Cross, served notice on the King County Prosecutor's Office, legally giving the defense an additional five days in which to file the appeal in Superior Court. Prosecutor John F. Miller immediately filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, believing the deadline had expired on November 18. The case was subsequently referred to the Washington State Supreme Court for a decision and Blanck's execution date was stayed.

On December 10, the state Supreme Court denied the prosecution's dismissal motion and granted the defense the opportunity to argue the appeal in court. Blanck, who had been feigning indifference, seemed pleased. After the execution was canceled, he was moved from the isolation cell back into the steel tank. For the next several weeks, Blanck seemingly sat quietly, behaving like a model prisoner. But he told his cell mate, condemned murderer Henry Creamer, he was going to escape or die trying. His plan was simple: catch the jailer off-guard, grab his gun, kill him, and then flee.

Reporters, who often spoke with Blanck, knew the reprieve merely gave him more time to effect an escape. "There is no one who realizes this more than Jailer Monroe the necessity of keeping a sharp watch on Tom Blanck, for Blanck would wade through blood to obtain his liberty. Once outside the jail and in possession of a gun, there are few men in this county who would care to have anything to do with him" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Blanck spent his time observing the habits of the jailers, befriending the other prisoners, and scavenging pieces of wood and other useful items. And while everyone was asleep, he secretly crafted a replica of one of his favorite guns, a .44 caliber Smith and Wesson Double Action Revolver. Using a knife made from a steel shank in his shoe, Blanck whittled and shaped the pieces, then smoothed them with pieces of broken glass. The model was held together with match sticks, thread, chewing gum and soap, and blackened with a mixture of grease and soot. To add authenticity, Blanck fabricated realistic bullets from pieces of tobacco-packet tinfoil and inserted them into the face of the cylinder. Having painstakingly worked on the project for three months, he was now ready to implement his escape plan.

Breaking Out

At 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 17, 1895, night jailer Jeremiah "Jerry" Yerbury, age 39, left the jailer's office and approached the pass-through in the steel tank to deliver a nightly dose of medicine to a prisoner. Blanck pulled the imitation gun from under his shirt, stuck it through the bars and told the jailer to surrender or be immediately killed. Waving the gun at Yerbury, he ordered the jailer to approach the bars and turn around. After some pleading, Yerbury complied. Reaching through bars, Blanck tied a length of clothesline to Yerbury's left upper arm and told him to unlock the cell-block doors, which he did. With help from prisoner Frank Hart, he frisked the jailer, took his .38 caliber Colt's Model 1889 New Navy Revolver, the jail keys, all his money -- 30 cents -- and his gray fedora hat.

Then he tied Yerberry up and locked him in a cell. Blanck then invited all prisoners who desired their freedom to follow him. Out of 21 prisoners, 11 chose to stay behind and 10 accompanied Blanck outside the courthouse. Among the prisoners who remained were condemned murderers Charles H. Nordstrom (hanged in 1902) and Henry Creamer (pardoned in 1909). Two of the escapees, James Murphy and William A. Wilcox, both convicted murderers, ran four blocks to Seattle Police Headquarters in Seattle City Hall (known as Katzenjammer Castle), located at 3rd Avenue and Jefferson Street, and gave the alarm.

Police officers rushed to the jail, released Yerbury, and took a prisoner headcount. Newly elected King County Sheriff Aaron T. Van de Vanter (1859-1907) notified all the towns surrounding Seattle about the breakout and wired a list of the escapees and their descriptions across the state. He sent deputies in all directions to organize posses and enlisted the help of former Sheriff James H. Woolery (1851-1925) to direct search operations around and east of Lake Washington. Seattle Police Chief Bolton Rogers sent a cadre of police officers to guard the Seattle waterfront. Since Blanck apparently had some familiarity with Tacoma, special deputies were enlisted to guard every wagon road, railroad track, bridge, and trail south of Seattle.

Playing Cat and Mouse

Just past midnight on Monday, March 18, Deputies Michael Kelly and Thomas Burkman were guarding the Northern Pacific railroad crossing approximately half a mile south of Black River Junction when they saw two suspects approaching. When ordered to surrender, one fugitive threw up his hands and the other plunged into the underbrush. The deputies captured escapee Servius Rutan, who immediately named Blanck as his companion. Now that it was clear Blanck was definitely heading south, Sheriff Van de Vanter concentrated on guarding the territory between Seattle and Tacoma. A special train was dispatched, delivering special deputies to stations at Black River, Renton, Orillia, O'Brien, Kent, and Auburn. By 4:00 p.m., three escapees had been captured south of Seattle, but Blanck, with a $500 reward on his head, remained elusive.

For the next three days, Blanck continued playing cat-and-mouse with Sheriff's posses, never getting more than 13 miles from Seattle. He hid in the dense woods and begged food at farmhouses where it was unlikely news of his escape had been received. During this time, more than 100 men were searching for Blanck and with every reported sighting the circle grew tighter. Meanwhile Sheriffs Van de Vanter and Woolery traveled the region on horseback, following leads and repositioning the pickets.

The Shootout

At about 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 21, Blanck appeared at the farmhouse of James S. Nelson, one mile east of Orillia, and asked for food. Nelson recognized him immediately from a picture Sheriff Van der Vanter had shown him earlier. After feeding the fugitive, Nelson hastened to the Orillia train depot and wired Kent that Blanck was in the area and probably headed south. Two special deputies, John Shepich, age 43, and Robert Crow, age 21, armed themselves with .44-40 caliber Winchester lever-action rifles, each holding 10 cartridges, and started walking north along the Northern Pacific tracks toward O'Brien Junction. A mile-and-a-quarter north of Kent, they spotted a stranger approximately 300 yards away, walking on the tracks directly toward them.

When the distance closed to 30 feet, the deputies recognized Blanck, raised their rifles and Shepich ordered him to throw up his hands. Ignoring the command, the Blanck continued advancing toward the deputies, drew Yerbury's revolver from his pocket and fired. Shepich had his left arm raised, holding the rifle, and the bullet glanced off his forearm and struck him in the shoulder, breaking his collarbone. Shepich, unaware he had been badly wounded, returned fire. Blanck quickly moved off the tracks toward the east embankment and fired another round at Shepich, but missed. Crow commenced firing his Winchester and the fugitive shot twice in his direction, but bullets went wide. As gunfire from the deputies continued, Blanck fired his last round, plunged 40 feet down the embankment, and headed for a nearby marsh, hoping to hide in the reeds.

Once the shooting subsided, Shepich suddenly realized he had been hit and said to Crow, "My God, Bob, I'm done for!" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Just then special deputy Charles Newell arrived at the scene carrying a shotgun and Shepich told him to drive the fugitive from his hiding place. When Shepich ordered Blanck to surrender, he slowly emerged from the marsh and trudged toward the embankment, hands in the air. Shepich cautioned the deputies to watch out for a second gun and Crow and Newell, misunderstanding, commenced firing. Blanck dropped to the ground and started crawling toward the marsh. Crow shot him two more times from the top of the embankment. Hearing the gunfire, other deputies rushed to the scene and Thomas Crow, Robert's brother, climbed down the embankment and announced Blanck was dead.

Shepich was placed on a railroad handcar and brought to Kent for medical attention. Blanck's body was loaded onto another handcar and taken to the Kent train depot, where the whole town was awaiting its arrival. The body was carried into the waiting room and placed on a bench to await the arrival of Sheriff Van de Vanter from Auburn on the train. Blanck's body was placed in the baggage car and taken to Seattle where thousands of people were waiting for the 7:30 p.m. train to arrive. Underestimating the turnout, Chief Rogers sent a patrol wagon with only 12 officers to keep the crowd under control. When Sheriff Van de Vanter slid open the baggage-car door, the mob shouted and cheered. Blanck's body was immediately stowed in a coffin, carried to a waiting hearse, and taken to the E. R. Butterworth and Sons Mortuary, 1425 2nd  Avenue, for a postmortem examination. Hundreds of people were on hand to view the remains, including Detective Edward Cudihee and Officer John Corbett who had originally captured the fugitive at the Bay View House in Belltown.

Preparing and Kissing the Corpse

The autopsy, conducted by King County Coroner Dr. Oliver P. Askam and Dr. William C. Gibson, revealed Blanck had sustained seven gunshot wounds. Four of the wounds were in his back, three of which would have been fatal. The pathologists also reported the fugitive had contracted pneumonia during his four days on the run in the cold, wet Puget Sound weather and had been slowly dying.

On Friday afternoon, March 22, 1895, Coroner Askam held an inquest into the death of Thomas Blanck at the E. R. Butterworth Mortuary. Robert Crow testified the reason they shot at Blanck, after he emerged from the marsh, was they believed the he was carrying two guns and intended to open fire again. Shepich was under a doctor's care in Kent and unable to testify. The six-man jury quickly returned a verdict. The deputies had been acting under color of law and were justified in killing the fugitive. Further, it was Dr. Askam's opinion that the two deputies had done King County and the state of Washington a great service. In a later interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, George Howe, a former prisoner at the King County Jail, said: "Anyone knows with a moment's thought that if he (Blanck) had killed Shepich, he would have gotten his gun, removed the boy (Robert Crow) and gone down the track with two Winchester rifles, throwing death in all directions" ("Blanck Trusted Him").

Coroner Askam assigned Edgar R. Butterworth the task of embalming Blanck's corpse and preparing it for burial. For the next three days, the body was exhibited from 11:00 a.m. until closing at 9:00 p.m. in the viewing salon at the Butterworth Mortuary. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, at least 18,000 people filed past the bier on Friday alone. "The street in front of the undertaking rooms was crowded all day from early morn until evening, and so great was the pressure on the doors, despite the efforts of five policemen, that the public was admitted long before the intended time. Almost as many women as men took advantage of the opportunity to get a look at the greatest of Northwest criminals and one woman kissed him" ("Thousands View Body") Many who came brought flowers, which were placed in and around the coffin.

The Myth and the Man

The public continued to have a great curiosity about anything connected with Blanck. Two days after his death, Hyams, Paulson and Company, (men's clothes and furnishings), 800 Front Street, dressed a mannequin in the outfit Blanck was wearing when he was killed. The display included a life-sized portrait of the desperado and jailer Yerbury's revolver with the inscription "T. B. from Yerbury, March 17, 1895" carved on the grip. One month later, Blanck's replica revolver was put on display in Port Townsend, where he had once been arrested, to raise money for a church charity. One hundred and thirty people paid a nickel to view the artifact, netting the charity $6.50.

Blanck's funeral was held in the parlor at the Butterworth Mortuary on Monday, March 25, 1895. There was almost no one in attendance and the newspapers chose not to the report the event. A hearse hauled the coffin down to the Duwamish Cemetery (1876-1912), located on the grounds of the King County Infirmary and Poor Farm in Georgetown, where it was unceremoniously buried in a grave marked only with a concrete post bearing a registry number. The King County Board of Commissioners, later deciding to develop the property, closed the graveyard in 1912 and ordered all the bodies exhumed and cremated.

Personal information Blanck gave to reporters during interviews was often contradictory and mostly fabricated, which he readily admitted. Like most notorious badmen, he used many nicknames and aliases during his career, such as Crazy Mike, Slim Jim, Frank Hamilton, Tom Blake, Tom Moore, and James Brown. According to historian and author Mark Dugan, Blanck's legal name was Michael Hogan Jr. The eighth of 10 children, he was born in Schenectady, New York, on October 28, 1870, to Margaret Fox and Michael Hogan. He claimed to have received a grade school education, could read and write, and left home in 1889 to head West.

His Killings and Other Crimes

While languishing in the King County Jail, Blanck regaled Jailer Monroe, fellow prisoners, and newspaper reporters with stories about many of the heinous crimes he had committed. The stories were published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after his death. By his own admission, Blanck killed five or more people and wounded at least 20. Between 1890 and 1894, he ranged from British Columbia through Washington, Oregon, California, and Montana, robbing stage coaches, banks, hotels, saloons, and individuals, and shooting anyone who resisted or got in his way.

On October 10, 1890, he shot and wounded Officer Peter Bruhn in Fairhaven (Bellingham) after committing a burglary. He was caught in Port Townsend and brought back to Whatcom County for trial, but escaped a short time later and fled to Canada. In January 1891, Blanck held up a stagecoach near Nelson, British Columbia, stole $4,300 in gold and silver, and killed the driver for resisting. He fled back to Washington and in February 1891 made an unsuccessful attempt at cracking the safe in the Bingham & Holbrook Bank at Woolley (now Sedro-Woolley) in Skagit County. Having met with limited success in Washington, Blanck decided to head south and ply his trade in California. He claimed to have been quite successful there as a highwayman and stole enough money and gold to enable him to return to New York for a time.

On April 10, 1894, Blanck shot and killed Officer John W. Flynn in Helena, Montana, while attempting to break into a safe in the Northern Pacific Railroad depot. On April 26, 1894, he shot and killed Northern Pacific Station Agent William H. Ogle in Belgrade, Montana, while attempting to crack the depot safe. On August 17, 1894, Blanck successfully robbed the Hotel Broadwater bar in Helena, Montana, managing not to shoot anyone. On September 7, 1894, Blanck shot and killed saloonkeeper Stephen Grosso during a robbery attempt in Meaderville, Montana. On September 13, 1894, Blanck robbed the Club Saloon in Marysville, Montana, of $175. With Montana lawmen hot on his trail, he apparently decided to give Washington another try and headed to Tacoma on the train. And the rest is history.

Although this incident was not included in Blanck's repertoire of crimes, on March 6, 1890, he unintentionally shot and killed his friend, James "Doc" Sweeney, at a poker game in Weiser, Idaho. He was using the nickname "Slim Jim" at the time and meant to kill another player, Judge N. M. Hanthorn, but the shot missed and struck Sweeney.

Blanck's reputation as one of the Old West's last desperadoes was eclipsed in 1902 by Harry Tracy (1877-1902). After escaping from the Oregon State Penitentiary, Tracy killed six men in a two-month period while on the run in Washington and battling with the law.

Sources: Clarence B. Bagley, The History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (Chicago, S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), 693-696; Thomas S. Duke, Celebrated Criminal Cases of America (San Francisco: The James H. Barry Company, 1910), 292-295; Mark Dugan, Cold Lead: The Life and Times of 1890s Killer Tom Blanck (Surrey B.C.: Hancock House, 2004); "A Great Jail Break," The Daily Olympian, March 18, 1895, p. 1; "No Trace of Blanck," Ibid., March 19, 1895, p. 1; "Blanck Still a Blank," Ibid., March 20, 1895, p. 1; "Killed Many Men," Ibid., March 23, 1895, p. 1; "Blanck Was Not Hanged," Tacoma Daily News, December 8, 1894, p. 1;"Parker Is Out," Ibid., March 18, 1895, p. 1; "A Bold Bad Man," Ibid., March 18, 1895, p. 1; "Blanck a Corpse," Ibid., March 22, 1895, p. 1; "Blanck's Pistol and Church Charity," Ibid., April 12, 1895, p. 1; "True Name of Thomas Blanck," Ibid., April 18, 1895, p. 1; "Will Blanck Appeal?," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 19, 1894, p. 8; "Fairfield Talks of Blanck," Ibid., November 20, 1894, p. 5; "His Nerve Gives Way," Ibid., November 21, 1894, p. 5; "Blanck Fears the Gallows," Ibid., December 7, 1894, p. 2; "Blanck Breathes More Freely," Ibid., December 8, 1894, p. 8; "Respite for Blanck," Ibid., December 11, 1894, p.5; "A Coward at Heart," Ibid., December 13, 1894, p. 5; "Tom Blanck Free," Ibid., Monday, March 18, 1895, p. 1; "Elusive Tom Blanck," Ibid.,, Tuesday, March 19, 1895, p. 1; "Search for Blanck," Ibid.,, Wednesday, March 20, 1895, p. 8; "The Hunt for Blanck," Ibid.,, Thursday, March 21, 1895, p. 8; "Blanck Is No More," Ibid.,, Friday, March 22, 1895, p. 1; "His Trail of Blood," Ibid.,, Saturday, March 23, 1895, p. 8. "The Convict's Hotel," Ibid., March 24, 1895, p. 6; "Poor Blanck's Soul," Ibid., March 25, 1895, p. 5; "Blanck Trusted Him," Ibid., March 29, 1895, p. 8; "Tom Blanck's Gun Nets $6.50," Ibid., April 25, 1895, p. 1.

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