Cummins Prison Break of 1940
The Cummins prison break on the morning of September 2, 1940, which was Labor Day, involved the escape of thirty-six white men from Cummins Unit (often referred to as Cummins prison farm), the largest of the three prison units in the state. The escape is the largest in Arkansas history. All the men were ultimately captured or killed by authorities. Four of the escapees were executed in Louisiana in 1941 for the murder of a deputy the day after they broke out of Cummins; these men claimed they escaped because of the horrible conditions at the prison farm. Despite an investigation into conditions at the prison, no serious attempt at reform was initiated.
The 1940 escape was the first major prison break in Arkansas since a 1931 break at the Tucker prison farm. The incident at Cummins took place at Headquarters Camp No. 7, which housed 329 convicts. On Labor Day morning, 134 men had assembled for work on the “long line,” picking crops. Twelve armed “trusties,” fellow inmates who were in charge of maintaining daily operations and enforcing discipline, worked as guards over the prisoners. At the time, the vast majority of guards at Cummins were trusties. The escape began when four trusty guards and four other prisoners disarmed guards in a pea field. In the process, a scuffle broke out. Claude Martin—a forty-two-year-old trusty serving a life sentence for first-degree murder—raised his gun against one of the escapees. But before he could fire, he was killed by a shotgun blast.
The escapees drove the guards and other prisoners (called rank men) into the woods, robbing them of money, tobacco, guns, and ammunition. After leaving the woods, the prisoners split up in different directions. On September 3, authorities closed in on Raymond Harrell (twenty-five years old) and James Scott (twenty-one years old), who had holed up in an abandoned shack near Douglas (Lincoln County), an unincorporated community not far from Cummins, near the Arkansas River. Harrell and Scott opened fire on the authorities approaching their hideout. In the shootout, both prisoners were killed.
Some escapees managed to flee Arkansas entirely. The day after the prison break, six men drove down to Louisiana, taking several high school students as captives. In Columbia, Louisiana, in Caldwell Parish, the prisoners stopped to fix a tire on their car. Posse leader Frank Gartman—a car salesman recently deputized to track down the prisoners—was shot and killed after approaching the car. A gunfight ensued, wherein dozens of shots were fired, but no one was injured. In the gun battle, authorities seized two prisoners: Leon Johnson and William Magby. The students who had been kidnaped escaped unharmed.
On September 4, the remaining four men involved in the shooting of Gartman—William Heard, William Landers, William Meharg, and Floyd Boyce—were captured by Louisiana police. Boyce was captured in Vicksburg, Mississippi, while trying to cross a bridge. At the time, he was with fellow inmate Bruce Fowler, who was shot and killed by police during Boyce’s capture. Inmate Frank Conley, a thirty-four-year-old from Faulkner County, was also killed in Louisiana that day by a posse.
By November, all of the escapees had either been captured, killed by authorities, or returned to Cummins farm. One, twenty-five-year-old Samuel Otis Hankins, returned on his own. Billie Jepson, age sixteen, was captured, only to escape again a few weeks later and be recaptured in Houston, Texas. Frank Wilson, a thirty-five-year-old from Pike County, doing time for robbery and kidnapping, had made it as far as Los Angeles, California, before police tracked him down. Another managed to get to Kansas City, Missouri. Most of the men, however, never made it beyond Arkansas. Two were captured in a truck full of watermelons near Dumas (Desha County). Others were captured in various counties.
On May 11, 1941, the last of the prisoners returned to Cummins was seventeen-year-old Willis E. Peek, who had been captured in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The thirty-six escapees ranged in age from sixteen to forty-seven, though all but six of them were either in their twenties or thirties, which reflected the demographic of white men at Cummins. Most of the escapees had been convicted of burglary or theft. One was in prison for “carnal abuse.” The prison break led to a total of ten inmates killed: one trusty guard at the prison, and the rest after the escape, with four hanged in Louisiana on March 7, 1941, for their crimes. The condemned men—Heard, Landers, Meharg, and Boyce—were the last men executed by hanging in that state; after their hanging, electrocution became the preferred method for executing prisoners in Louisiana.
For additional information:
“36 Flee From Convict Farm, Guard Killed.” Arkansas Gazette, September 3, 1940, pp. 1, 6.
Crosley, Clyde. Unfolding Misconceptions: The Arkansas State Penitentiary, 1836–1986. Arlington: Liberal Arts Press, 1986.
Foster, Burk. “Louisiana’s Last Hanging: No Way to Win in Crime.” The Angolite, (November/December 2001): 34–36.
“Labor Day Prison Break, 9-2-1940.” Arkansas Department of Correction. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ardeptcorrection/albums/72157626838870367 (accessed June 1, 2018).
Lee Family Digital Archive, Stratford Hall
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