William (12) Woodhurst at Nebraska State Penitentiary: 1875

Home Page Names Directory


The following anecdote, concerning Nebraska State Penitentiary warden William (12) Woodhurst and his wife Mary Adaline (nee Rogers), was discovered during a search for Woodhursts in RootsWeb. Two historical accounts follow it, the first of which comes from the work "Nebraska: The Land and the People" [Vol. 1, Ch. XVII, p.525], whilst the second comes from "The History of the State of Nebraska" [by A.T. Andreas, publ. Western Historical Company, Chicago, 1882; re-edited by Lucy Parminter].

An Incident in the History of Lincoln by Ortha C. Bell

On February 1, 1872, I arrived in Lincoln, the capital of the state. About the middle of January, 1875, the residents of Lincoln were greatly startled at seeing a man, shoeless and coatless, mounted on a horse without saddle or bridle, coming down Eleventh street at full speed, and crying at the top of his voice, "Mutiny at the pen!" The man proved to be a guard from the penitentiary heralding the news of this outbreak and calling for help. The prisoners had taken advantage of the absence of Warden Woodhurst, overpowered Deputy Warden C. J. Nobes, bound and gagged the guard. The leader, Quinn Bohanan, disrobed the deputy warden, exchanged his own for the clothing and hat of the deputy, and produced the effect of a beard with charcoal. This disguise was all so complete that the guards did not detect the ruse when the prisoners were marched through the yards, supposed to be in charge of the deputy. When on the inside of the prison they used the warden's family as hostages and took possession of the arsenal, and were soon in command of the situation.

The man on horseback had spread the news through the city in a very short time and soon hundreds of men with all kinds of guns had left their places of business and gone to the penitentiary, which they surrounded, holding the prisoners within the walls.

The governor wired for a detail from the regulars, stationed at Fort Omaha, and with all possible haste they were rushed to the scene. They were soon in charge of the situation, and negotiations were begun for a restoration of normal conditions, which result was attained in three days' time.

During all this time Warden Woodhurst was on the outside of the walls and his brave little wife, with their two small children, were on the inside. Mrs. Woodhurst used all the diplomacy at her command to save her own life and that of the two children. She and the children had served as shields to the prisoners, protecting them from the bullets of the soldiers on the firing line around the penitentiary.

The incident closed without loss of life to citizen or prisoner, but has left a lasting impression on the minds of those who were present.

Nebraska: The Land and the People

The warden of the penitentiary, H.C. Campbell, had died in August, 1873, and William Woodhurst had been appointed to succeed him. The new warden, the governor said, was a progressive man who had made a study of prison management, and the prison had never before been in such a commendable condition. The total expense of its maintenance for the two years 1873 and 1874 was $58,100.43, or an average of about $538 per prisoner per year. The system of convict labor by contract was in vogue, as the report shows the total amount of convict labor at 42 cents per day to be $4,343.64, or nearly $40 per prisoner per year. On this labor there was due from the contractor, unpaid, $3,418.45. Health conditions were good, and the chaplain reported favorably as to the moral improvement and reformatory tendency of inmates. There were, however, no cells, the convicts all occupying a single stockade room, a state of things involving elements of danger. Governor Furnas was opposed to the system of leased labor of convicts at mere nominal and speculative rates like 42 cents per day. He thought that convict labor might be made to yield the state triple what it then did, and still leave a balance for the convict or his family.

Within a few weeks from the date of the governor's message, there was a revolt among the convicts at the penitentiary, which led to an investigation by a special committee of five members. Two reports were returned February 20, 1875, the majority report, of three members, finding on the evidence that cruel and unusual punishments had been inflicted and that barbarous and inhuman practices had been resorted to in the management of the prisoners. The report recommended the discharge of the deputy warden and three of the guards. The minority report, of the other two members of the committee threw the blame chiefly on the warden, W. Woodhurst, and recommended that he be removed, and that certain modifications be made in the methods of punishment. Some of the witnesses testified that the prisoners were fed meat that was not fit to eat.

The penitentiary had been completed under the contract made by the state. It was a substantial structure, well ventilated and heated, and was regarded as perfectly secure. The daily average of convicts in the prison from November 30, 1874, to November 30, 1876, was sixty-three. The amount expended during the same time was $57,658.09. Warden Woodhurst had been removed on March 24, 1875, and L.F. Wyman appointed as his successor. The governor reported the management and discipline of the prison under Mr. Wyman's wardenship as being satisfactory, and asked the Senate to confirm his appointment.

The History of the State of Nebraska

Nebraska State Penitentiary

The act providing for the building of the State penitentiary, on the site south of Lincoln, donated for that purpose by Capt. W.T. Donavan and Mr. Hilton, passed March 4, 1870. W.W. Abbey, W.W. Wilson and F. Tlemplin were appointed prison inspectors, to attend to selling the 34,000 acres of land granted by the government for prison purposes and to superintend the building. $5,000 was appropriated for the erection of a temporary prison, to be completed by the 28th of April. This building stands now within the enclosure. Perkins & Hallowell were the contractors.

The inspectors proceeded to advertise for plans and specifications for the State penitentiary, fixing the following June as the time for opening. The designs of William H. Foster of Des Moines, Iowa, were adopted, as being the best suited to the demands of such an institution, and upon these plans proposals were advertised for, which resulted in the acceptance of those of W.H.B. Stout, of Washington County, Neb., and J.M. Jamison, of Des Moines, Iowa. The contract price was $312,000. Messrs. Stout and Jamison completed the penitentiary, to the extent of the state contract, in the fall of 1876. The quarries of Saltello, located about twelve miles south of Lincoln, furnished the material for the walls, a hard magnesian limestone. The external appearance of this building is very imposing, at once suggesting to the observer the use for which it was intended. It is a very substantial structure, well heated and ventilated, considered perfectly secure and at present has capacity for 320 prisoners.

Mr. Stout has the contract for 240 additional cells, accommodating 480 prisoners, for which he is to receive the labor of the prisoners for twelve years. It is to be hoped that this State, furnishing so many and such ample means of obtaining a livelihood, will never have to use more cells than the prison now contains. The cells formerly had only separate, but now have double locks. The cells are in rows of forty each, and by means of a lever at one end the keeper is enabled to lock at once the whole row. This greatly diminishes the chances for escape, and the dangers to the keeper of being attacked while on the round locking each door. A wall about twenty-five feet in height, surmounted at intervals by watch towers, encloses nearly three acres at the rear of the building. Within this enclosure are the work shops of the institution, where the several occupations are followed.

The number of prisoners at the opening was eighteen, who had been kept in county jails up to that time.

Henry Campbell was the first warden of the penitentiary and was succeeded by William Woodhurst.

C.J. Nobes, the present warden, came here from the Illinois State penitentiary, at Joliet, in 1874, as deputy warden, which position he held until August, 1880, when on the resignation of H.C. Dawson, he was promoted to the position of warden. When he first came to the prison, there were 42 convicts; there are at present 271. The labor of the convicts has aided in building the prison thus far, and is employed still to complete it; after which it is thought that the labor will nearly sustain the expenses of the institution.

Mr. Stout has the contract for boarding the prisoners for six years, from October 1, 1877.

The discipline of the prison is considered as remarkable for its short existence. It is lenient, yet severe enough to produce possible good and regular habits, and not so severe as to cause dissatisfaction and revolt. The small amount of sickness and few deaths are evidences that the sanitary requirements are carefully provided for and observed.

About 4 o'clock p. m., of January 11, 1875, the only notable mutiny broke out among the prisoners. The instigator of the trouble was McWaters, who succeeded in enlisting with him Bohanan, Worrell, McKenna, C.W. Thompson, Gerry and Elder. Just before the afternoon round of the deputy warden, C.J. Nobes, they surprised and overpowered the guard in the workshop. On entering the shop, not knowing the state of affairs, the deputy too was seized, overcome, bound, robbed of his keys and stripped of his clothes, McWaters putting them on. Nobes was left in care of three of the mutineers, while the others, armed with iron crow-bars, started for the main building. Blacking the sides of his face to represent the warden's whiskers, McWaters marched the four up to the main door in usual prison regulation style, so that the door guard thought it was the warden with a file of men, and opened the door; as soon as the door swung open, they rushed up stairs, making the guard a prisoner, and proceeded to break open the armory and seize guns and ammunition. Fortunately, the deputy succeeded in loosening his cords unobserved by his captors, and suddenly seizing a hoe that lay within reach, by a few rapid blows, compelled the convicts to flee. Whereupon they joined their companions in the main building.

The plan of the mutineers was to get possession of citizens' clothes and of arms, kill the guard in the southwest turret, and at the opportune moment, just before dark, make their escape through the board wall at the southwest. But the escape of the deputy and the vigilance of the guards in the eastern turrets, brought guns to bear on the door before they were ready for departure and thus frustrated their plans, shutting them up as prisoners. Mr. Ayers, who was posted in the northeast tower, saw the mutineers as they filed out of the old prison and marched over to the main building. But as McWaters had disguised himself as the deputy warden, and as the reinforced convicts marched in the usual manner, each with his right hand on the shoulder of his file leader, he did not notice anything wrong, supposing the deputy was taking them over there for some special purpose. But when the alarm was given, and he perceived the main building was in the hands of the convicts, he stepped down from the tower, took position behind the fence, brought his carbine to bear on the door, and when the desperadoes appeared to make a rush for the gate, fired four shots at them in quick succession, which drove them back to the building.

Mr. Woodhurst, the warden, and two of the guards were in the hands of the mutineers. As the people from Lincoln began to arrive and approached to within gunshot of the north windows, Mrs. Woodhurst appeared at one of them and waved her hand, crying out: "Keep back ! keep back !" Just before dark she appeared at another window, in the chapel, near the main entrance, and said that the plan of the mutineers was to put the imprisoned guards before them and make a rush to escape through the board wall by the south gate. This information was doubtless the means of frustrating their plan, as it was not carried out. In both instances she quickly disappeared from the window by orders from her captors. These communications contained no solicitation for herself, but concerned only the safety of others and the responsibility she felt for the institution with which she was associated.

A part of the original plan was to shoot the guard in the southwest tower, near the main gateway; this was carried out, but fortunately the shot made from a window in the main building only took effect in the knee. Julius Grosjean, a guard, received the only material injury in the revolt. Several attempts were made to leave the main building, but as soon as any one appeared at the door a volley from the guards would cause a retreat. Citizens, with all the guns and revolvers procurable, hastily repaired to the penitentiary to the rescue of the officers, and to guard the building. A little before 1 o'clock the next morning, Company I, Twenty-third United States Infantry, arrived from Omaha, under command of Maj. Randall, and at once proceeded to guard the walls until morning. After the arrival of the soldiers, but before they were in position, firing commenced from the windows which was vigorously returned by the guards and citizens. Becoming more desperate several of the mutineers appeared in the yard, but the prompt and rapid firing from the turrets and the exterior compelled them to retire to a less conspicuous position within the building, when the firing ceased. The rest of the prisoners remained quietly with two guards in the workshop, yet it was more from compulsion than willingness on their part.

They were disheartened by the failure of this last effort to escape and no other attempt was made; but numerous plans were discussed during the night. One was to force the imprisoned guards out before them, in prison garb, and, in the confusion, to make good their escape. Another was to rush out with Mrs. Woodhurst in front, thinking that the fear of killing her would protect them. But this was merely mentioned and abandoned, as the prisoners respected her highly. Her influence over them was very great.

They were not aware of the presence of troops till morning, when their courage suddenly lost its color. The hours of the night, with its intense suspense, wore slowly away. Grave fears held possession of the citizens until about 6 o'clock, when to the intense joy and relief to all, Mrs. Woodhurst again appeared at the southwest window of the chapel. Especially comforting was her appearance to her husband and two sons, who were out of the building at the commencement, and consequently could not go to her relief. She assured them of her safety, and that she thought the mutineers would soon surrender to her, but to her alone.

The troops, who were nearly all Indian fighters and celebrated shots in the army, in the meantime were making preparations to assault the building from the south, force open the door and face the conspirators in their fort, compelling submission at all hazards. But before the attempt was made, McWaters and the others laid aside their arms and agreed to surrender to Mrs. Woodhurst, stipulating against excessive punishment. It was a grand sight to see those desperate men, but a few hours before determined to risk life against the chance of obtaining their liberty, and willing to take a hundred lives if need be, to secure a few more years of their wild liberty, now led by a single woman, who, while at their mercy, had so fearlessly demanded their submission. But without the least appearance of self consciousness the brave woman delivered, modestly, her prisoners into the hands of law. Upon the arrival of Mr. Woodhurst, McWaters said: "Warden, there is no use of mincing matters. You are an old prison officer and know how it is, I have no ill will towards you. You have treated me well, but I am like other men - I want my liberty, I thought I saw a chance to gain it and I improved it. I got the better of you at first, but the fates are against me. I lost my chance, you have now the advantage and I give up and surrender."

Thus ended one of the most exciting incidents in the history of the prison and a revolt, which for boldness of design and persistent effort in attempting its execution, has but few parallels in the annals of prison history.

The story of the heroism of Mrs. Mary A. Woodhurst is worthy of preservation. Left alone during that night of alarm, she manifested that rare quality of command which needs but to be asserted to be obeyed. Not only did she protect herself from harm, she even forced into subjection to her will, the desperate band of insurrectionary men, who feared her more than they did the officers, and who surrendered to her, while they still defied the representatives of the law.

At the time of the revolt, Mrs. Woodhurst was in her apartments, which were separated by but one room from the Warden's office. When the convicts hurried to the armory, Mrs. Woodhurst's attention was attracted by the confusion. Hastening to the office, she realized that a revolt had taken place, and that the arms of the prison were in the hands of rebellious prisoners. As she appeared at the door, she was decisively but courteously directed to return to her own apartments.

She at once repaired to a room opening from her own, with a northern exposure, from which she could see the northwest turret. She called to the guard and directed him to alarm the guards in the other turrets, who alone were then free, and prevent them from coming to the building, as one of them was then doing. This timely movement, besides, doubtless, saving the life of the guard, precipitated matters, and materially changed the situation, by the covering of the door with the carbines of the guards, thus defeating the plans of McWaters. This illustrates a presence of mind seldom met with in men, and more rarely in the gentler sex, whose lives are such as generally exclude them from startling situations. Yet it is the more commendable for its bravery. They were desperate men, and were determined to achieve their liberty at all hazards. But she faltered not, even while she realized that they had taken their lives in their hands to defeat the course of law.

Not long after this, she saw the conspirators level their guns at a number of citizens, who were the first to arrive at the prison. Hastily throwing up the window, and at the same moment demanding of the convicts not to fire, she called to the citizens to keep back. Then throwing herself on their guns, with a voice and gesture that must be heard and seen to be fully realized, cried out: "Don't you fire! Don't you dare to fire! As you prize everything, put down your guns." They did not fire. There was a power in that woman's voice and manner that overawed the brutal natures of those men, even in the frenzy of their undertaking. Their boldness in a base design was conquered by her courage in a just and honorable attempt to thwart its execution, and the rioters submitted to the demands of a woman. Shortly after this, as their attention was turned to something else, she got possession of their guns and ammunition, hiding and locking the former in her wardrobe, and effectively secreting the ammunition in a bucket of water. Missing their guns, they threateningly demanded her to return them, which she heroically refused to do, until they commenced to break in the door, when with discretion, she yielded to the superior force. At this juncture, McWaters swore at her, whereupon she said: "Mr. McWaters, all the rest of the boys have treated me like gentlemen, but this is not gentlemanly treatment, and you must stop it." He retorted that he had a wife at home as good as she was. Mrs. Woodhurst replied: "I pity the woman who has so ungentlemanly a husband."

After she had revealed from the window their design of rushing out with the guards before them, in prison garb, McWaters said: Mrs. Woodhurst, we can not have you deviling around in this manner. If you don't stop it we will put you forward, and rush out after. To which she responded: "No, you will not. You dare not do that. I dare you to do that." McWaters replied: "You are the pluckiest woman I ever saw. I admire your pluck. It just suits me."

She passed the night, after 10 o'clock, in her own room, taking with her Kate McNamara, a poor, nearly blind female convict. They were unwilling for her to have a light, but she lighted two. These were blown out and hidden while she was momentarily absent, but she immediately procured others, and kept them burning during the night.

Early in the morning, she went down to them and said: "Now boys, you may kill me and you may kill the guards you have under your control, and you can hold out here for some time. But, in the end, there is only one alternative, you must surrender or die ! and you had better surrender."

This had the effect of deciding their course, for they could see that her statement contained the whole truth, and that her last suggestion was the best hope for them. They consequently agreed to surrender to her, and to no one else. It was a befitting surrender, for she was the one who had won the victory over them. By her heroic conduct, she had done them a greater service than they ever realized. Had they carried out their design, it is doubtful if even one of them would have escaped, to relate their adventures. It would have taken all their lives to repay the loss of a single guard or citizen. During the process of attiring themselves in citizens' dress, they appropriated an overcoat belonging to one of her boys. She said "That's my boy's coat. You can have some other coat, but you can not have that." She carried her point, and assisted the convict in removing the garment. Another put on Mr. Woodhurst's overcoat. "You can not take my husband's coat," said she, "Take it off," and she was obeyed. Some of them took boots belonging to some of the better behaved prisoners, but she would not allow them to wear them. She said, "There are other boots and shoes for you. Take them, if you want. Take my shoes, if they will fit you. But you shall not have those shoes. Take them off," and she compelled them to obey. As she was conducting them down stairs, after the surrender, McWaters apologized for his conduct towards her, which she accepted with the remark: "I allow no man to swear at me. No one shall use such language to me."

Mrs. Woodhurst had, on two previous occasions, faced mobs in her husband's absence, that were intent upon lynching prisoners in his charge; and in one instance saved the prisoner's life. The mobs in both cases were defeated by her prompt and fearless defense. In spite of this determination and force of character, she has nothing of masculinity about her, but has the grace of a lady, the dignity of a matron and the kindness of a woman.

The Second Revolt

The twenty-sixth day of May, 1875, was the time fixed for a second mutiny among the convicts, with McWaters again as leader, but by the prompt action and coolness of one of the guards, the danger was averted.

The plan for escape had been discussed and laid out a long time before by McWaters and his accomplices, but the officers became apprised of the design through one of the conspirators dropping a note addressed to another convict disclosing the plan and time fixed for its execution. The letter stated that the object was to first kill Kolkow, keeper of the wash-house, then Mr. Nobes, the Deputy Warden, after which a general rush was to be made to get possession of the prison. Eight men would have taken part in the mutiny and it was thought eight more would assist.

After dinner on Tuesday, the twenty-sixth of May, the time fixed, the prisoners were not allowed to leave the main building. But the following day they were marched out as if no suspicions were entertained. The guards were doubly precautioned and instructed to shoot any one who showed the least sign of attempting an escape. The convicts had gone to work and were apparently very diligent, picking away as steadily as clock work. John Geary asked leave to go to the privy and was gone a short time, when McWaters held up his hand which was granted just as Geary made his exit. The two convicts met directly under the guard cage (which is about six feet from the ground) and as they passed McWaters touched Geary and made a threatening declaration. The guard heard the remark but was not quite sure whether it was meant for him or not, but being instructed to be on the look-out for danger, he quickly took his gun and prepared for emergencies. At the same time McWaters picked up two stones and was about to hurl one of them at Hugh Blaney, the guard, but before he could accomplish the act the guard fired, the ball taking effect in the left jaw, badly shattering it, took a downward course, passed out of the jaw and entered the neck near the collar bone, severing the carotid artery in such a manner that the blood flowed in a stream the size of a man's wrist. The ball continued its downward course and must have passed through or near the heart as the leaden missile came out just above the left kidney.

McWaters never spoke after receiving the shot, neither did he cry out. For a second he stood upright, then walked some twenty feet and was caught by Cochran, the overseer, who had by this time rushed forward to keep the wounded man from falling among the convicts, who had been instantly ordered to continue their work. The overseer held the wounded man but a moment for an instant later, William McWaters, horsethief, desperado and murderer, was a corpse. As soon as the guard had fired and noted the fatal effect, he re-cocked his gun, brought it to bear upon Geary, who was making considerable demonstration, but the fate of his comrade, the steady hand of the guard and the threatening glare of that unerring muzzle streaming into his face, persuaded him at once to obey the command and "Get back to work!" The guard gave a general alarm by ringing the large bell in the yard and also the smaller ones in the Warden's and Deputy's rooms. The alarm brought out H.M. Gould, the Inspector, who was conspicuous in the assistance he rendered in the first riot, Capt. Wyman, the Warden, and Mr. Nobes, the Deputy. The prompt action of all the officers had the effect of restoring order and the convicts continued work as though nothing of importance had happened, but in a short time they were marched into the main building and placed under the watch of two extra guards. Had the action of the overseer and guard been less rapid and decisive, a general mutiny might have followed, even had there been no preconcerted plan of action.

The management of the penitentiary is necessarily strict, but it is not more so than the necessities of the case demand. Among the theories entertained by the Warden for the amelioration of the condition of the convicts, is the introduction of an educational system. Ignorance breeds crime, while the higher standard of cultivated intelligence induces a loftier conception of moral duty. The maintenance of a library and the employment of instructors are methods of prison reform which deserve the careful attention of those intrusted with the care of the criminal classes.