My first interest in this crime came when I was a sheriff. One of my interns, a young man named Ron Boden (who became a veteran deputy sheriff), did some research into Lancaster County’s only known lynching, in 1884. I found a reference in the biography of the sheriff at the time, Sam Melick, to the murder of the Nebraska Penitentiary and subsequent prison break. Melick was appointed temporary warden after the murder and instituted a number of reforms.
Several years later, a colleague, Sgt. Geoff Marti, lent me a wonderful book, “Last Posse” by Gale Christianson, which tells the story of the 1912 prison break in bloody, haunting, and glorious detail.
To make a long story shorter, convict Shorty Gray and his accomplice of fatally shooting Warden James Delahunty, a deputy warden and a sentry on Wednesday, March 13, 1912. Then, they break in – right into the teeth of a brutal Nebraska spring blizzard. Over the next few days, a detachment of troops was in pursuit. During the chase, the escapees managed to rob a young farmer along with his party and a carriage. As the troops captured, a gunfight broke out and the hostage was shot dead in the exchange, along with two of the three who escaped.
There were many locals in the Gretna-Springfield vicinity who were angry about the death of their native son, and a controversy broke out over the law enforcement tactics that led to his death. ta. Lancaster County Sheriff Gus Hyers is undaunted by the investigation, though it seems to me a century later, the fog of war has led to the tragedy.
Christianon, a history professor at Indiana State University who passed away earlier this year, recorded the following on the page:
“For anyone living west of Mississippi in 1912, the biggest news of that fateful year was a violent escape from a Nebraska penitentiary planned and executed by a trio of robbers. infamous and safe hype.”
Bigger news about half a continent than a shipwreck Titanic that same year would no doubt consider this prison break as one of Lincoln’s most notorious crimes in history.