Joseph Ellsworth Holmes was a career criminal serving a twenty year sentence for being the “dinner-time burglar”. His great escape in 1951 elevated him to celebrity status overnight.
Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: January 4, 2014
And now for today’s story titled Tunnel Joe Holmes, which took place on Sunday February 18th of 1951 at 9:15 in the morning. The exact location is the Maryland Penitentiary prison cell #119, which contained inmate number 32565 – one Joseph Ellsworth Holmes – a habitual criminal who had been in and out of either the reformatory or jail since he was nine years old.
Up until this point, Holmes was known to the people of Baltimore as the “dinner-time burglar”, a nickname he had picked up because he had been breaking into the mansions of highly-paid executives and doctors during – you guessed it – the dinner hour – and robbing them. Once caught, the judge could not believe the length of his criminal record and gave him twenty years in the slammer.
Which is why we are here, as I had said, at prison cell #119 at 9:15 in the morning. To get this guy out of bed. This was the job of cell house officer George Gearhart. But Holmes appeared to be sound asleep. So, Gearhart unlocked the cell door and prodded Holmes only to find out that the supposed human body under that blanket was really just a pillow. Holmes had vanished.
But where could he have gone? This was, after all, a fairly modern prison by early 1950’s standards and escape was assumed nearly impossible. Gearhart looked around and suddenly his foot happened to stumble upon a slightly uneven lip on the slate floor under the cot. He flipped the bed up and realized that the 2” (or 5 cm) thick slate slab had been fashioned into a trap door and hinged to the wall.
When he flipped the massive hunk of metamorphosed clay up, he was shocked to discover a hole dug down deeply into the cell’s 10” (25 cm) thick concrete floor. I was unable to locate the dimensions of this hole in any document, but judging from the pictures in the press at the time, I would estimate it to be no more than 30” (about ¾ of a meter) in diameter.
At first, prison officials were unsure if Holmes had escaped or not. They knew that it was a long distance to get out of the prison and more than likely he was still in the tunnel. So, they decided to send a gopher in to be sure.
That lucky guy was a prison guard named Arthur Newsome. But Newsome was too big of a guy to fit through that tiny hole that Joe Holmes had chiseled through the concrete floor of that cell. Newsome took off his clothes, but that didn’t help. They had to wait until someone came and chiseled the concrete opening wider so he could fit through.
Eventually, Newsome did squeeze down into that hole and things just got worse. He had entered a small chamber that was tall enough to stand up in, assuming that you enjoy standing in several feet of muddy sludge. Yet, it was clear that a lot of work and thought had gone into the excavation of this tunnel. Old shirts and pants had been mudpacked against the walls to prevent a cave-in.
A shoulder-wide tunnel angled downward from this muddy chamber. Why downward? Very simple – Holmes somehow knew that he had to dig under the footing of the prison’s 5’ (1.5 meter) thick outer walls.
Once Newsome bottomed out, there was a sudden 80° upward climb, bringing him up from a depth of 26 feet (about 8 meters), to the surface. He poked his head out through a small hole in the grassy surface and realized that he had cleared the waterless moat that surrounded the entire penitentiary. All that separated him from the rest of the world was a picket fence.
It was now clear that Joe Holmes was gone. Prison officials were in such disbelief that they waited five and half hours to let the Baltimore City police know that the escape had occurred. Assuming that Joe Holmes had left many hours before the escape was discovered, he was clearly long gone.
It didn’t take long for the press to pick up on this story and Joe Holmes was no longer the Dinner-time Burglar. He was now the “Ground Hog”, “The Human Mole” and the one name that stuck with him for the rest of his life – a name given him by the Baltimore Afro-American – he was now Tunnel Joe Holmes.
Prison officials had multiple excuses as to how this could have happened. The number of guards had been cut in the last budget. The prison was built in 1899, so its concrete floor wasn’t reinforced with steel, nor was it thick enough. A leaking storm sewer eroded all of the soil under the cell away. My favorite, being a geologist, is that a natural fault line ran under the cell and caused the tunnel to be formed. Right…
While elected officials may have publicly decried Tunnel Joe, the press elevated him to hero status. Here was a guy that was the eldest of eleven children that had been given no chance to succeed in the world, yet he was able to use his ingenuity to engineer an amazing escape. If he had just been given a proper education and pointed in the right direction when younger, his life would have turned out much differently.
Hero or not, Tunnel Joe Holmes was still an escapee from prison. The police followed up on all reported sightings, all of which turned out to be false. They checked with his parents, his sister, a former girlfriend, friends, and any other lead they could think of but the trail went cold.
Then, two weeks later, on March 3rd, there was a report of a robbery. A 64-year-old woman named Mary Ruiz had been walking home from work at 7:50 PM when a man in a brown coat and a tan hat pulled a gun on her and stole her pocketbook containing $5. She immediately ran to a nearby store and contacted police.
Just a few minutes later, police officer Frank Plunkett spotted a man that fit the description of the suspect, jumped out of his patrol car, and grabbed him by the arm. The suspect pressed a .32 caliber revolver into his stomach and fired twice, but nothing happened. The gun had misfired both times.
The suspect took off and Plunkett took chase, eventually being joined up by two other officers. Multiple gunshots were exchanged with the suspect before he tired and gave himself up. The suspect admitted that he was Joe Holmes.
Needless to say, Tunnel Joe was now in a big heap of trouble. He was charged with escaping from prison, possession of a deadly weapon, armed robbery, and trying to kill a policeman. He initially plead guilty to all charges excluding the last one, but by the time of his trial Holmes’s lawyers had him change his plea to being guilty of only the escape from the penitentiary.
It took the jury only fifteen minutes to reach a decision. Tunnel Joe Holmes was guilty on all charges. The judge sentenced him to five years each for the escape and robbery, to be served concurrently, and that was to be followed by an additional fifteen years for his assault on Officer Plunkett. And he still had ten years left for his dinner-time burglaries, so he was really being sentenced to thirty years in the slammer, allowing him to be released in 1981.
Between the time of his arrest, his questioning by the grand jury, and the trial, many details of his escape emerged. Here’s a general overview of how it happened, although the dates and amount of time that it took varied with different retellings.
Tunnel Joe claimed that when a new warden was hired and clamped down on prisoner privileges, he became so outraged that he knew that he had to escape.
He claimed that all he had was a couple of drill bits and a thick stick with a nail in one end that he used to drill small holes into the slate. One by one, he drilled hole after hole for forty days until he had completed a large enough oval to form a door. The hinges were added shortly after that. It was later learned that he paid someone $7 to steal a drill for him, so this part of the story appears greatly exaggerated.
Once through the slate floor, he used a piece of iron and a hammer to chisel through the concrete floor. Clearly, this makes a tremendous amount of noise, so he wrapped the steel in a cloth to muffle the sound and only pounded away between 5:30 and 8 or 9 PM – the hours when the prison’s radio was being played for entertainment. Mark another five months on the calendar to accomplish that feat.
Now that he was through the floor, it was just a matter of removing a lot of soil. So that his prison clothes would not get soiled, he worked in his underwear, carried the dirt up in a handmade cloth bag, and flushed it down the toilet. For illumination, he fashioned a kerosene lamp from a small bottle with a wick punched through its cap.
Eleven months after he started, Tunnel Joe made a small opening through at the surface – just enough to see where he was. The next morning, he made his escape emerging from the hole at 1:15 AM. He simply pulled his clean clothes out of a bag, got dressed, and hopped over the fence to freedom.
It is unclear where he went after his escape. Holmes claimed to have gone to Philadelphia and since he was unable to find work there, came back to Baltimore. But some suggest that he never left the city in the first place. Others say he came back to enjoy the sudden fame that he had achieved, while others suggest that he didn’t know how to live on the outside without the rules and structure of prison. What happened during those two weeks will probably never be known.
Back in prison, Tunnel Joe became a bit of a hero and initially did not give up his bid for freedom. A July 3rd 1953 search of his cell turned up a number of weapons and he was suspected as being the mastermind behind a mass exodus of prisoners planned for the next day. On October 3rd of that same year, prison officials said that Tunnel Joe was at it once again – they found a 10-foot (3-meters) rope that he had fashioned from strips of bed sheets.
But Tunnel Joe was going nowhere and grew into a harmless old man. The victim of a stroke, Holmes dragged his right foot as he walked and held his right hand in a claw. He was paroled on October 27th of 1970 and went to live with his sister. His health continued to deteriorate until he passed away at the University of Maryland hospital on April 17, 1973 at the age of 61.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.