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Wednesday 5 August 2015

The Great Typewriter Escape

Esther Harris, aka Elizabeth Wells, aka Mrs J.B. Sherwood, in all her guises a notorious American fraudster, stole one of these Standard Folding portable typewriters (serial number 11594) in San Francisco on May 21, 1911, and in December 1912 somehow managed to escape from the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead, New York, carrying it under her arm.
Her casual walk to freedom, which remained newsworthy in New York for the next three years, led to an inquiry about the jail's security and the behaviour of its wardens, and to the sacking of Sheriff Melville E. Brush. But to this day, nobody knows who Esther Harris really was, where she got to, what she looked like or how she really managed to escape jail carrying her stolen portable typewriter. One theory is that she actually left the typewriter behind, hidden in the jail, in order to throw authorities off her trail.
Jail breaks have been in the news of late, what with a tunnel being found under Goulburn maximum security jail outside Canberra this week, following Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s leisurely, air-conditioned walk from the Altiplano maximum security prison west of Mexico City last month and The Shawshank Redemption-inspired escape of convicted killers Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York on June 6.
Guzman's five-star underground departure from Altiplano led one Australian news site to ask whether it was "the greatest jail break of all time". It also resulted in many other websites listing "Top 10 Escapes, the world’s most amazing and ingenious prison breaks", as rated by penologists. Of course, these included Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin escaping from Alcatraz in June 1962, Billy Hayes from Turkey in 1975, IRA escapees from the Maze Prison in Ulster in September 1983, the Melbourne Remand Centre breakout by Peter Gibb and Archie Butterly in March 1993, Brenden Abbott’s escape from a Queensland jail in 1997, John Killick's helicopter ride out of Sydney’s Silverwater Prison in 1999, the John Connally Texas Seven in December 2000, Richard Lee McNair mailing himself out of a Louisiana jail in 2006, Pascal Payet flying to coop in 2007, and Choi Gap-Bok creaming his way through a meal slot in his cell door at a South Korean jail in September 2012.
There was also John Dillinger in 1934, Frank Abagnale (Catch Me If You Can), Leonard T. Fristoe, René Belbenoît, Henri Charrière (Papillon), James Robert Jones and, most hilariously, the 28 inmates who escaped from a Brazilian jail after three women in fantasy police costumes "seduced" prison wardens last year.
No need for this sort of gear if you have a typewriter
For almost all of these lists, jail breaks by women were overlooked. But the daring though doomed bid for freedom by Matt and Sweat motivated at least one blogger to chronicle notable jail breaks by female prisoners. Names included Assata Shakur, Sarah Jo Pender, Samantha Lopez and Marie Walsh (née Susan LeFevre), as well as the five women who broke out of the Niantic Correctional Institution in Connecticut in 1984.
In none of these did Esther Harris figure. She should have been somewhere near to top on each, if only for the sheer audacity of her exit from the Suffolk County jail.
"Where's me bloody effects?" A forlorn actress Helen Lowell
The New York Times, December 10, 1912
Lowell: Duped  by Harris
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 20, 1913
Evening News, March 8, 1913
Victim: Helen Lowell
 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 30, 1913
The New York Times, April 18, 1915
If anyone knows any more about Esther Harris,
please let me know.
Did you know there is a book about great typewriter thefts? It was written by 2014 QWERTY Award winner, Typex editor Michael A. Brown.

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