Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thriller Thursday - attempted breakout at the Nebraska State Penitentiary

In recent months, one of my new found family treasures was an album of photographs that belonged to my grandmother, Ruby Pecht Petersen Baker. The photos were from her first marriage to Otto Petersen and included photographs of my father as a baby and toddler. So I've dated the photographs to be from the mid 1920s.

Among the photos of many family members and friends - the majority of whom are not known to me, were three photo postcards that seemed out of place in this collection of images of family gatherings.

Dummy Gun
Used by Fred Brown
In Attempted Outbreak
The text on this card reads: "Dummy Gun" Used by Fred Brown "The Chain Man" in attempted outbreak September 28, 1925. Nebraska State Prison.

Further research tells me that Fred Brown was a "notorious Omaha kidnapper" and that he and another prisoner of the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Roy Smith, attempted to break out of prison on September 28, 1925. Brown and a prison guard were killed. Smith and another guard were wounded. In earlier crimes, Brown's aliases were Gus Grimes and Ernest Bush.

Source: Lincoln Star, Lincoln, Nebraska, September 29, 1925, page 1.

The next photo postcard in my grandmother's album is one of Nebraska's electric chair. Between 1879 and 1913, convicted murderers who were sentenced to death in Nebraska were hanged. The first use of the electric chair in Nebraska was on December 20, 1920 when Allison Cole was executed. In all, 15 people have been executed in Nebraska's electric chair, including notorious mass murderer Charles Starkweather.

On February 8, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court declared electrocution as "cruel and unusual punishment." On May 28, 2009, the state legislature adopted lethal injection as its method of execution.

Source: Wikipedia

Nebraska State Penitentiary
Lincoln, Nebraska

The third and final photo postcard of this series in my grandmother's album is of the administration building at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

The Lincoln Star
Lincoln, Nebraska
September 29, 1925
This post is not intended to solicit a discussion of the use of capital punishment. My curiosity centers around why my grandmother included these photo postcards in an album of family photographs. She was twenty years old and she and Otto Petersen were newlyweds, having been married less than one year at the time of this incident. Ten months after this incident, her first child, my father, would be born. At this time, I know of no known connection between the attempted prison break and my family. Perhaps it was just a representation of my grandmother's curiosity about a significant news event of the time.


  1. Very interesting that she saved these, and the postcards provided a different type of topic to write about. I remember Charles Starkweather, both the murders and his death.

  2. Barbara - I also have memories of Starkweather being on the run in 1958. This is when my family first started locking our doors. I also think that a loaded shotgun may have been handy. Although that may be a clouded memory since my family hunted for sport and knew enough about gun safety that I don't think they would have left a loaded gun around with a child in the house. I do remember everyone living in terror until he was captured.

  3. My grandfather was the sheriff in Gage County during the Charlie Starkweather era. I remember him driving north toward Lincoln to aid in the search. Scary times!

    Suzie (born in Beatrice)

  4. Interesting things to find in the photo album. Probably were of interest to her at this time. It was the 1920's and all the gangster news. I lived in Northern Minnesota. Our scary guy was Ed Gein.