Donner Lake is not the only picturesque body of water in the Sierra with a dark and sordid past. Convict Lake near the Mammoth Lakes region in eastern California gained notoriety after a violent prison escape by nearly 30 convicts being held at the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City.
The breakout occurred on Sept. 17, 1871, when 29 tough, hardened criminals overpowered their guards and escaped into the rugged country along the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada. The leaders of the plot planned it perfectly. It was a warm, quiet Sunday and the only guard inside the prison cell area was Volney Rollins. After the inmates finished their dinner, Rollins arrived to escort the convicts to their evening lock up when the prisoners attacked him with improvised weapons. Rollins was locked in a cell and the inmates escaped by cutting a large hole in the plaster ceiling. They broke into a storeroom to steal guns and ammunition and then overwhelmed the other personnel on duty at the time, including two wardens and other guards who had joined in the fray.
At the time, the prison warden was Lt. Governor John Franklin Denver, (the Colorado city is named after his brother). Warden Denver lived in a small apartment within the prison walls with his wife and daughter. Deputy Warden Zimmerman, who also lived in the prison, assisted Denver in running the penitentiary. When the escaping prisoners rushed down the stairs toward Denver’s apartment, the warden bravely confronted the men with his puny derringer. The Lt. Governor got off one shot before the desperate convicts rushed him. Denver was struck in the head and face. When he fell to the floor, convict Leander Morton grabbed the warden’s pistol and shot him with it at point-blank range.
One inmate not participating in the escape attempt was Bob Dedman, who was serving a life sentence. Dedman worked as a waiter and servant for the Denver family and his loyalty probably saved the warden’s life. After Denver was shot, Dedman attacked the escapees with a heavy, wooden chair. Several convicts were knocked down until the lifer was overwhelmed and beaten unconscious. The prisoners then left Denver and Dedman for dead, but both would survive their injuries.
Among the participants in this bold escape were Tilton Cockerell, John Chapman, E.B. Parsons and John Squires, all members of the gang that had committed the first train robbery on the Central Pacific line in November 1870. Known as the Great Verdi Train Robbery for the location of the holdup in the Truckee River Canyon, the bandits had nabbed more than $41,000 in the heist. Chapmen, a Sunday school superintendent, had been sentenced to 18 years at the Nevada State Penitentiary, while Cockerell, Parsons and Squires all received at least 20 years hard labor. With the exception of Chapman, the three other men serving time for the train robbery were all gunmen and gamblers with prior convictions for violent crime.
In their raid on the prison armory, the convicts seized three rifles, four double-barreled shot guns, several handguns and nearly 3,000 rounds of ammunition. By now, the alarm of a massive prison break drew more guards to the scene.
Guard F.M. Isaacs was the first to encounter the escapees. He shot several of the prisoners before he went down with three bullet wounds. Within a month, Isaacs would die from his wounds. Another guard named John Newhouse managed to shoot E.B. Parsons before he, too, fell wounded from the withering gunfire. Two more guards took up the fight until they ran out of ammunition; one was shot and one of them continued to fight the prisoners bare handed as they ran from the prison yard. The first fatality occurred when Matt Pixley, the owner of the Warm Springs Hotel located next to the penitentiary, was shot and killed as he rushed the prisoners firing a revolver.
After the intense gunfight, where nearly a dozen convicts and several prison staff were shot and wounded, the prisoners fled into the desert taking their injured. To avoid capture, the escapees split up into groups and took off in different directions. Six of the men eventually headed into Mono and Inyo counties, more than 200 miles to the south in eastern California. Led by Charlie Jones, a convicted murderer who was familiar with the rugged topography there, they figured it was the perfect location to hide out from the lawmen that would be sure to follow them. The six convicts were Jones, John Burke, Tilton Cockerell, J. Bedford Roberts, Moses Black and Leander Morton.
As they headed south, the prisoners stole four horses and provisions along the way. Near the Walker River, the convicts ambushed an 18-year-old Pony Express rider named Billy Poor. The young man was on his first mail ride when he ran into the escaped criminals who wanted to steal his horse. Instead of letting the teenager go, however, Jones shot and killed him.
That cold-blooded murder of a local boy incensed the citizens of Mono County and a posse was sent in hot pursuit. When the posse caught up with the escaped prisoners at Convict Lake, a firefight ensued and one of the deputies, Robert Morrison, was shot at point-blank range. Another man in the posse, Mono Jim, a local Indian, also was shot and killed. A new posse was formed and eventually all but one of the convicts – Charlie Jones – on the loose in Mono and Inyo counties were captured.
By Oct. 1, several of the men captured near Convict Lake were back in custody in Bishop. That day, they were loaded into a wagon for the trip north to Carson City and a trial. Several guards on horseback accompanied the prisoners, but they gave them up without a fight when a large group of armed vigilantes surrounded the wagon. The three convicts were taken to a vacant cabin and after a two-hour interrogation, the vigilantes voted to hang two of them. A scaffold was quickly built and the men unceremoniously lynched.
By the middle of Nov., 18 of the 29 escaped convicts had been captured; two had been hung and nine were still at large. Despite rumors that he had been shot by other inmates for killing Billy Poor, a senseless crime that galvanized the local community against them, Charlie Jones was never caught or seen in the region again. The Nevada State Penitentiary closed in 2012.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.