Incendiary Commentary

Carl Panzram Mugshot By 1915, the 23-year old Panzram "had the look of the road in his clothes." Prison, violence and roustabouting had hardened him into a silent, strange-eyed man with broad-muscled shoulders and a hairline that was already beginning to recede.

Using the name "Jefferson Baldwin," he was arrested in Oregon for stealing some jewelry, a watch, and $130 in cash. He copped a plea to the watch, in return for a dismissal of the other charges. But the state reneged on their side of the deal and gave him a maximum sentence. Panzram reacted in character.

He "tore loose all the radiators and steam pipes, smashed all the electric wiring, took the cook stove, all the dishes, all the food, all the blankets, mattresses and clothing, all the furniture, benches, tables, chairs, books and everything that was loose or could be torn loose or that would burn. Then I piled it all up and set fire to it."

This incendiary commentary on the judicial process netted Panzram seven years in the state pen under the regime of the infamous Warden Harry Minto. Though prison reform movements had long since succeeded in banning beating and firehosing prisoners, Oregon had somehow managed to defy all nationally-recognized standards for the civilized treatment of prisoners.

Inmates of the Oregon State Penitentiary were compelled to remain silent at all times, walking lockstep with one hand firmly on the shoulder of the man in front, eyes submissively drawn down. Moving out of line or talking instantly drew a clubbing from the guards.

In 1915, the most common effort to reform an inmate of this Gulag was handcuffing him and hoisting him onto a pillar by his cuffs for an extended lashing with a cat-o'-nine-tails. But there were creative variations on the theme. He could be prescribed "a dose of salts" - a brutal whipping while being held down by a handful of other prisoners. If he got jumpy, he might be have to be restrained with "the jacket" - a variety of straitjacket that almost completely cut off his circulation. Or if that wasn't enough to settle him down, they might move him to "the restraint machine" - a cold, damp concrete floor where the naked prisoner would stand cuffed behind his back to the iron-barred door for eight hours at a time. The really hard cases required a bit more aggressive form of rehabilitation: "the hummingbird" - a sadistic combination of steel, wire, sponge, water... and a little electricity.

Panzram was undaunted. The first to be issued a "hornet suit" of red and black stripes, he wore the ostentatious uniform of the troublemaker with pride, and strove to live up to the expectations that distinction placed upon him in the minds of his fellow cons. He attempted again and again to escape, and was stripped, flogged and thrown in the Hole more often than not.

Panzram masterminded one escape involving a prisoner named Otto Hooker, and in that jailbreak Warden Minto was shot dead by Hooker, who got away. When John Minto came to take the place of his slain brother Harry as the new warden, he took a personal interest in reforming Carl Panzram.

Panzram undoubtedly took some heat from the warden, but he kept to his reformation program. He stole some lemon extract and brewed it up, got all the cons drunk, caused a riot, and burned down most of the prison workshops. This jolly little bonfire did not go unnoticed, and netted him bread-&-water in the Hole for sixty days. Another trip to the Hole became necessary after the prison's flax mill suddenly burst into flame. It was said that it was the way Panzram roared from the Hole that particularly irked Warden Minto.

After another escape attempt, Panzram and another prisoner were stripped, chained, and firehosed. "At the end, I was out and hanging by my arms. When I came to, I was near blind, all swelled up, black and blue all over the front of my body, my privates as big as those of a jackass." Panzram describes how he was rehabilitated by this experience. "Many a man has paid for what those men did to me that Sunday morning. Maybe that hose did wash a lot of dirt off the outside of me, but it also washed a hell of a lot of dirt inside me too."

The injuries sustained by Panzram and the other inmate were so severe, Warden Minto was fired. His replacement was Charles Murphy - a liberal humanitarian, of all things. Panzram didn't get it. "I thought he must be a punk or some kind of fruit. But damned if that wasn't wrong."

The next time Panzram was caught sawing his bars, Murphy asked how many times this inmate had tried to escape (eight), and how many times he had been severely punished (eight). Observing that experience wasn't teaching Panzram much, Murphy put him on a special regime of extra rations and reading material.

When Murphy heard Panzram boasting of being the worst con in the prison, he astonished everyone by offering to open the prison gates and let Panzram go anywhere he wanted, so long as he'd agree to come back at suppertime. When Panzram took him up on the deal, he had no intention of ever returning, but found himself coming back for supper nonetheless. And when Warden Murphy let the cons form a marching band, Panzram carried the flag.

He was responding to the humane treatment to some extent, but after two short months, he got drunk, overstayed his leave while rejoicing in the arms of a pretty nurse, and then hopped a freight train. After shooting the sheriff of a small farming town, he was captured and brought back to prison in chains.

Warden Murphy, humiliated and enraged over his star prisoner's defection from his innovative program, reverted to type. Panzram got "the restraint machine" for eight hours a day, three days in a row. Murphy wrote to the judge who presided over the trials for the crimes Panzram had committed while on escape, "I know for certain I will never trust him again, but what steps to take towards reformation, I do not know. I am inclined to think it is hopeless."


Reform School | A Little Sodomy | Incendiary Commentary
The Murder Business | Rob 'Em, Rape 'Em, Kill 'Em | Panzram in Prison

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