Prisoner dug his way out of the state pen Escape: Over a period of 20 months in 1949-1951, 'Tunnel Joe' Holmes created a passage to freedom.

Remember When

March 09, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In the annals of Maryland prison escapes, "Tunnel Joe" Holmes ranks right up there with Houdini.

He still holds the distinction of being the only resident of the Maryland Penitentiary to ever dig his way to freedom.

On July 8, 1949, when Holmes was in the eighth year of a 20-year sentence for burglary, he decided to dig for his freedom, as he feared that his long imprisonment would cause him to "blow up -- as he'd seen others do in nearby cells," said The Sun.

He started hacking away at the slate floor of his cell under his cot.

After 20 months of steady labor, he completed a narrow, muddy tube 70 feet long that carried him 26 feet down and under the prison's walls to a grassy plot near East Eager and Forrest streets, from which he made his escape.

Holmes' tunnel, which was only wide enough for a small man to wiggle through, was a well-conceived and executed construction project.

Using a stick with a nail attached to the end, Tunnel Joe began boring holes in the slate floor of his cell.

After 40 days, he completed the task and fashioned a trapdoor, which he disguised from the guards who regularly inspected his cell.

After-hours labor

His work on the tunnel commenced with the nightly radio broadcasts played over the prison's public-address system.

After placing a dummy on his cot, Tunnel Joe would strip to his underwear and shirt and then wiggle into the shaft and begin digging. He worked at least four hours every day.

In the dank and soggy darkness, with only a homemade kerosene lantern set into a niche for illumination, he slowly clawed the moist earth with his hands and a crude shovel, a small piece of metal attached to a stick.

He carefully packed the dirt in hand-sewn bags which he brought to the surface and flushed away in his toilet.

When water began seeping into the tunnel, he designed a drain, which measured 9 feet deep by 6 feet wide, and, in addition to his regular digging, disposed of 140 gallons of water nightly.

Buttresses for the tunnel were fabricated from cloth bags that he carefully filled with dirt and set into the earth.

Col. Edwin T. Swenson, warden at the penitentiary, called it "the most fantastic escape I've ever heard of."

"He grudgingly admitted," reported The Sun, "that his ex-charge must have been 'an engineer. The guards tell me he was always neat and clean.' "

Holmes, who had only a fifth-grade education, was first sentenced to the City Jail in 1928 for breaking and entering, and at 19 was sentenced to 30 months in the pen.

By 1939, he had earned the name of the "Dinner-Time" burglar, who favored breaking into the Roland Park and Guilford mansions of affluent executives and successful Hopkins physicians during the dinner hour.

He was sentenced to 20 years in 1941 after robbing Dr. John B. Whitehead, industrial executive John R. Shea and West Cold Spring Lane bon vivant and famed Hopkins surgeon Hugh Hampton Young.

"The morning before the escape, he completed the entire project, leaving a thin layer of topsoil on the lawn above, but poking a small peephole through to see the outside," said The Sun. "He saw the night light, and above him, framed in the tiny peephole, the stars. That gave him a great deal of satisfaction."

In the early hours of Feb. 18, 1951, Holmes packed his civilian clothes and $152 he had saved from numbers bets and scurried through the tunnel, completing the transit in 45 minutes.

Once outside, he quickly changed from his muddy underclothes into dry pants and shirt, and then charged and cleared the 7-foot picket fence near the warden's house and dropped into Eager Street.

Home again

His perambulations took him to Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia, Pa., and New Haven, Conn., before he returned to Baltimore several weeks later to catch a ship to a foreign port.

He was apprehended by police during a Howard Street shootout in a bowling alley after he pulled a $5 holdup of Mrs. John W. Garrett's cook on Mount Vernon Place.

"When, on Feb. 18, the news came that Joseph Holmes had tunneled 70 feet to freedom, the fantastic fact itself was enough to sets heads shaking in wonderment. Now Holmes is back, recaptured after a stupid petty robbery," said an editorial in The Sun. "He has told his story. But instead of reducing the affair to a rational, understandable level, his story only heightens the sense of amazement."

Judge Eugene O'Dunne of the Supreme Court of Baltimore City called Holmes "a gold mine of distorted ability. I perceive great possibilities in this man.

"Perhaps it might be well for him to be recaptured then there might conceivably be a pardon, decorations for ingenuity and two years' back pay, with overtime for the labor Holmes performed Saturdays and Sundays," he said.

At the pen, Swenson banned all copies of The Sun, which contained detailed stories of Holmes' escape.

"That diagram was too good," he declared. "It would have been enough to make engineers out of a lot of characters we've got in here. They might have been digging all over the place."

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