Leavenworth Penitentiary, the first federal penitentiary, was built in the late 1890s in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The first 400 inmates were processed in 1903, and is still operating as a medium-security prison today. The prison and its surrounding wall – which extends 35 feet above and below the ground – was officially completed in 1926. Inmates sometimes call the prison “the Big Top”, a nod to its huge dome.
The prison’s history has been punctuated with violence since before it officially opened. The prisoners from a nearby temporary jail were responsible for much of the initial construction, and several daring escapes took place in those early days.
A prison is, by nature, a wretched place filled with miserable people. Leavenworth has been home to several famous inmates including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Carl Pazram, Bugs Moran, and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz.
The celebrity these famous men enjoyed may have alleviated some of the misery of the place. For the many anonymous prisoners, no such cold comfort existed. Take, for instance, the case of Inmate 2190, aka Bob Clark.
At age 24, he was convicted of breaking and entering a post office in Oklahoma, and sentenced to five years of hard labor, plus a fine of $500 (equivalent to about $12,900, in today’s currency). Clark, who was originally from the Texas town of Tyler, entered Leavenworth Penitentiary on June 3, 1900. By fall of the same year, he’d had enough of the prison life. Clark joined forces with 23 other inmates to plan an escape. He was a ringleader when the gang broke out of Leavenworth on November 7, 1900.
Seventeen inmates were recaptured a week later, but Bob Clark remained on the loose until December 6, when he and another prisoner were recaptured. The punishment was only a slap on the wrist: another 34 days was tacked on to his sentence.
Bob Clark was not long in making the news again. This time he was part of a group of five men, plotting to kill the warden and a guard, taking over an armory, and intercepting a train load of prisoners. The group was caught when a fellow inmate exposed the plot, but not before a guard was killed — though no one knew who fired the fatal shot.
Now a confirmed and violent troublemaker, Clark wasn’t eligible for a light punishment this time. He was sentenced to life in prison for the guard’s murder. He was made a third class prisoner, which meant he was required to wear a striped prisoner’s uniform and shave his head.
His new sentence did not dampen Bob Clark’s longing to be back on the outside. By April of 1910, he was working in the prison’s carpentry shop. He and four other prisoners managed to hijack a train, when it entered the prison grounds with supplies. The inmates forced the engineer to ram through the prison gate, and fled across the prairie. Clark and another inmate peeled off of the group and ran into the woods, where they were recaptured.
On July 21, 1913, relief finally came in the unlikely form of President Woodrow Wilson. The president who had assummed office earlier in the year, intervened and commuted the sentences of Clark and three other prisoners who were serving life without parole.
This is as far as I’ve been able to trace Bob Clark. I wonder what became of him after he left prison. He was only 37 when he was released. I’d like to know if he was able to adjust to being on the outside or if he got in trouble again. For now, it’s a mystery.