A Christmas Escape
On Christmas Eve in 1917, bandits Dewey Stout and Otto “Hickory” Harris donned masks and burst into Watson’s Drug Store at the corner of 8th Street and Sampson Avenue. Brandishing revolvers, the robbers demanded money from Elsie Watson, who was writing an order behind the counter. Thinking the duo a hoax, Elsie laughingly replied “What’s the joke?”
“It’s no joke, give us your money,” Harris bellowed as he raised his revolver to her head. Elsie pointed to the cash register, which Stout then attempted to open. Elsie reached down for her pen, scaring Harris who fired a shot. The bullet passed safely through her hair and lodged into a back wall. Frightened, the thieves ran off with about $10. The whole ordeal was witnessed by two boys and everyone escaped unharmed.
Within the hour, police arrested Harris at Herschell Stipp’s wholesale liquor store nearby and Stout was nabbed by Anderson police Christmas morning as he stepped off the interurban. Both men had long rap sheets, including convictions for burglary and assault.
Harris was taken to the Delaware County Jail where he shared a cell with John Wilkinson, an habitual Muncie chicken thief and Edward McCoy, a convicted murderer of the first degree.
Five months prior, McCoy walked into a South Walnut Street saloon with a group of women as two men were exiting, one of whom was Frank Butler, a “houseman” at the Hotel Delaware. Butler allegedly said something foul to the women and McCoy shot and killed him in the alley. After his conviction, McCoy was sentenced to life imprisonment and temporarily locked up in Muncie before his relocation to Michigan City.
That Christmas day of 1917, the three cellmates enjoyed the holiday in jail. The Muncie Evening Press reported that thirty-two “Jail prisoners are faring well today” and enjoyed a meal that included “roast beef, browned potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, dressing, celery, cold slaw, pumpkin pie, and coffee.” The choir from Grace Episcopal Church visited and sang holiday medleys to the delight of the incarcerated. Relatives stopped by with gifts for imprisoned loved ones.
However, later that night, McCoy, Harris, and Wilkinson cut through the iron lock on their cell door, using foot-long hand saws.
Creeping along the jail corridor like Old Saint Nick, the trio sawed through the second floor window to easily fit. Wrapping their blankets tightly around, they snuck out the window and swung to the ground. Upon reaching the street free of police forces, the criminals departed in differing courses.
After discovering the escape, police warned citizens that “each prisoner (was) a desperate character” and that “ authorities everywhere have been warned to be on the alert in their search for the men and to be prepared for a battle in effecting an apprehension.” Farmers were told to check barns and outhouses.
A grand jury convened to investigate, but found nil regarding their whereabouts. Police later discovered that friend Walter Hudson had smuggled in saws for McCoy.
A year and a half later in April 1919, chicken thief John Wilkinson was arrested by Anderson police for stealing coal and was sent to the Indiana State Farm in Greencastle. For seventeen months, Wilkinson had been hiding with his wife in Smithfield. He served thirty days at the Farm and then disappears from history.
In that same spring of 1919, a James “Shug” McCarty was arrested in Terre Haute for murdering his wife. It was rumored that McCarty led a auto-theft gang, which included Charles Duffy of Indianapolis and our daring jail runaway, Edward McCoy. Muncie police issued a $250 award for evidence of McCoy’s whereabouts.
On May 14, 1919, McCoy, who was going by the name James Reed, was on a joy ride near Vicksburg, Louisiana with a woman named Myrtle Swink and her chauffeur. After taking a sharp turn, the car rolled down a steep embankment into the Yazoo Canal. McCoy escaped, but Swink and her chauffeur drowned to death.
When McCoy arrived with the bodies in Alexandria, Louisiana via train, he was arrested and extradited back to Indiana. Upon arriving, he was incarcerated briefly at the Delaware County Jail before being sent to Michigan City to serve out his life sentence for Frank Butler’s murder. He was paroled in 1934 and died a year later of a heart attack.
As for Otto “Hickory” Harris, after the escape he joined the army and served with the American Expeditionary Force in France during the First World War. Harris served in the 32nd Division, known to us as the “Red Arrow Division.” Harris claimed he was gassed twice and likely fought in the Battle of the Marne, the Battle of the Oise, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He died in 1964 and is buried in Jay County