Saturday, June 3, 2023

Escape from the Death-House.

The death-house of Sing Sing Prison, on the Hudson River in New York State, was a separate building attached to the south end of the main prison. It housed up to eight condemned men in 8’x10’ cells along the south wall in groups of four separated by a corridor. The cells were 8 feet high with iron bars on the front and brick partitions between the cells and on the top, with space between the top of the cell and the roof of the building.

At the south end of the corridor was a lean-to building called the death-cell, which housed the electric chair. Sing Sing installed the electric chair in 1891, and on July 7 of that year, four condemned murderers were electrocuted. The chair sat idle for nearly two years, but in April 1893, the death-house had five inmates awaiting execution— Carlyle W. Harris, John L. Osmond, Michael Geoghegan, Frank Rohle, and Thomas Pallister.

A 24-hour death watch was maintained in front of the cells to make sure there were no suicides or escapes. Keepers took shifts, so there was always at least one man on duty, and two more were stationed outside the death-house. At about 7:00, the night of April 20, 1893, Thomas Pallister told the man on duty, Keeper Hulse, that he had been sick and hadn’t eaten all day. He asked Hulse to warm up a plate of meat and potatoes for him. Hulse complied and warmed the plate on the stove.

When Hulse opened the cell door to hand him the food, Pallister threw a handful of pepper into his eyes. He had saved the pepper, a pinch at a time, from his meals. Temporarily blinded, Hulse could not defend himself, and Pallister knocked him down. He took Hulse’s keys and revolver, then locked him in the cell. He then unlocked Rohle’s cell.

Pointing the revolver at Hulse’s head, Pallister said, “It’s your life or mine, and at the first sound from you, I will blow out your brains.”

Pallister took Hulse’s shoes and hat, tearing the word “Keeper” off of the hat. Death-house prisoners wore dark clothes rather than the stripes worn by the rest of the prison population, so there was no need to change clothes.

They waited for the arrival of Keeper Murphy, the other death-watch guard, then overpowered him and locked him in Rohle’s cell. Then they unlocked the cells of Harris, Osmond, and Geoghegan, but they refused to leave. Carlyle Harris was especially adamant about staying. He believed he would be proven innocent and saw no value in escaping. 

Pallister and Rohle climbed to the top of the cells and broke the skylight in the roof with an iron bar. They climbed outside then jumped off the roof of the one-story building. 

It had been a stormy night, with heavy winds and pounding rain, so no guards were on watch outside. The men stole a prison rowboat and rowed down the Hudson River.

The escape was not discovered until 5:40 the next morning when morning death-watch keepers arrived. They released Hulse and Murphy, then raised the alarm. When they briefed Warden Brown on what had happened, he ordered a massive search for the escaped murderers.

New York State Detective James Jackson was brought in to lead the search. He had twenty years experience working for Sing Sing, capturing fugitives. Jackson telegraphed all the towns on both sides of the Hudson with detailed descriptions of the escaped prisoners. A reward of $250 for each man was offered for their capture. Jackson was optimistic that the men would be caught.

In New York City, where both Rohle and Pallister committed their murders, the police thought the escape story was “fishy.” They questioned whether Pallister could save enough pepper from dinner to throw in a man’s face, and whether it would still be potent after so much time. They pointed out that Rohle’s brother had recently returned from Europe with $14,000 the brothers had inherited, and he had met with Rohle’s attorney. The police implied that someone may have bribed the keepers.

Warden Brown and Principal Keeper Connaughton denied the possibility of any collusion between the prisoners and the keepers. However, rules were broken, so they supended and later fired Hulse and Murphy, as well as keepers Glynn and Maher who were supposed to be stationed outside that night.

On April 22, two days after the escape, searchers found the stolen rowboat upturned on the shore near Tarrytown. Detective Jackson believed that the prisoners agreed to separate to prevent capture.

Warden Brown believed that the prisoners were still in the vicinity of the prison, but sightings of the fugitives were coming from all over. Two railroad workers saw three men board a train about 3 miles east of Sing Sing, they jumped off at Brewaters and disappeared. A “mysterious schooner” left her mooring near the prison the night of the escape and was seen speeding past Yonkers toward New York City. The Evening World reported that the prisoners had been captured in a freight car in Patterson, New Jersey. They were seen emerging from a barn in Mount Washington, New Hampshire. Men answering their descriptions were seen near the Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts. None of these sightings proved true.

The Warden received a postal card on April 28, purporting to be from Rohle and Pallister:

Dear Warden Brown: -

Dear, dear, dear Sir (you are very dear).

I see you are trying to catch us, but you may as well give it up because you could never do it. Hulse and Murphy were not bribed as some people say, but some people say more than their prayers. I am going to Germany, Goodby, old sport. We will send you a New Year’s card from Germany. You yourself know that no one can catch us.



The mystery took a new turn on May 10 when three fishermen found the body of Frank Rohle floating in the Hudson River near Rockland, directly opposite Sing Sing. His skull had been crushed, and he was shot in the side of the head. The body was badly decomposed, but Detective Jackson was able to identify him as Rohle by a picture of Rohle’s mother and other objects found in his pockets.

Detective Jackson speculated that Rohle and Pallister had an altercation and Pallister shot Rohle and dumped his body overboard. Pallister’s attorney, Ambrose H. Purdy, claimed that his client did not kill Rohle; river pirates shot him then took Pallister aboard their ship bound for some foreign port. Rohle’s attorney, E. Townsend Goldberg, stoutly maintained that the body found in the river was not Rohle. In any case, the prison officials thought Pallister got away safely and gave up the river search.

On May 16, fishermen found a second body floating in the Hudson. This body, too, was badly decomposed, but Prison officials identified it as Thomas Pallister by distinctive tattoos on his arm and the contents of his pockets. He had been shot in the face, just under the left eye.

A coroner’s jury determined that Pallister had been killed by a person or persons unknown, but outside of court, there were many theories as to what happened that stormy night. Jackson now believed that the men had decided that they could not get away and preferred death to capture. He believed that, by agreement, Rohle shot Pallister and then himself. The fracture of Rohle’s skull happened after death when he struck the boat or a rock. Another theory said that the men were angry with each other and fired simultaneously, killing both. Or maybe they tried to board the “mysterious schooner” and were murdered by the crew.

Another school of thought said that the prison was hiding the truth. Prison guards had shot and killed both men. The most extreme conspiracy theory said that the prison had put two completely different bodies into the Hudson to hide the fact that the prisoners were still at large. The New York Tribune dismissed this theory by saying Sing Sing authorities were not that smart:

If there had been a deep conspiracy on the part of the prison authorities to hoodwink the public into believing that the two men were dead, it would have required a remarkable brain to engineer it all, and every one who has had anything to do with Warden Brown or the two keepers, knows that they are not men of sufficient mental cailbre to carry out a scheme which would require so much detail, such great shrewdness and executive ability.

The most widely accepted theory said that Pallister crushed Rohle’s skull with an iron rod, then shot him. Then Pallister, who had tried to kill himself while a prisoner in New York City, was seized again by “suicidal mania” and shot himself. In the end, though, the coroner’s jury verdict was probably the most accurate.

 “Both Taken,” evening world., April 22, 1893.
“Condemned Convicts Escape,” Evening capital journal., April 21, 1893.
“Doomed Men Escape,” evening world., April 21, 1893.
“Escaped,” Buffalo Evening News, April 21, 1893.
Explore the History of the Notable Sing Sing Prison 
“Give Up the Search,” evening world., May 12, 1893.
List of People Executed in New York 
“Murder the Only Plausible Theory,” The New York Herald, May 18, 1893.
“Murderer Roehle Found ,” Buffalo Evening News, May 10, 1893.
“Murderers May Be in the Mountains,” New York Herald, April 28, 1893.
“Murders Esccape,” Evening Bulletin, April 22, 1893.
“Pallister,” evening world., May 16, 1893.
“Pallister Fake Now,” Jersey City news., May 16, 1893.
“Pallister Is Dead, Too,” New-York Tribune., May 17, 1893.
“Rohle Slain,” The evening world, May 10, 1893.
“Will Not Find Pallister's Body,” New York Herald, May 13, 1893.


Post a Comment