Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carl Panzram: Too Evil To Live, Part I

Deer Lodge

Charles Panzram as
Charles Panzram as
"Jeff Davis" # 3194
at Montana State
Prison 1913
(Courtesy Montana
State Archives)

By the year 1913, tempered by years of drinking, beatings, imprisonment and living on the road like an animal, Panzram evolved into a hardened criminal. He was also physically big, square shouldered and muscular. His dark hair and good looks attracted women, but Panzram never displayed any interest in the opposite sex. And his eyes had a strange, sullen appearance that unnerved people, made them wonder what was behind that cold, barren stare. As he continued his journey through the northwest, he was arrested in several states under the name "Jack Allen."

"Under that name I was pinched for highway robbery, assault and sodomy at The Dalles, Oregon...I was there about 2 or 3 months and then broke jail," he said later. The Dalles was a tough river port on the Columbia River where pirates, gamblers, loggers and outlaws frequently gathered. After he broke out of jail, with a posse of furious deputies after him, Panzram fled Oregon and crossed the eastern state line into Idaho.

Within the week, he was arrested again for stealing and thrown into the county jail at Harrison, Idaho. On this occasion, he used the alias "Jeff Davis." The jail was poorly run and consisted of just cells and a wall. During his first night in custody, he set a massive fire to one of the buildings and several of the inmates escaped, including Panzram. He quickly fled north, through the Grove of Ancient Cedars, across the Bitterroot Mountains and into western Montana.

In the small town of Chinook, Montana, Panzram got locked up as "Jefferson Davis" for burglary and received a one-year sentence at the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge. Located 30 miles north of Butte in the midst of the Rockies, the prison resembled a medieval castle. It was built in 1895 when American prison construction was modeled after European castles. Four pointed steeples rose majestically over a dark and forbidding complex that was surrounded by thick, stone block walls. There were turrets spaced periodically on all four walls and corners. Inside the towers rifle- toting guards kept a watchful eye over the vast courtyard, ready to shoot any prisoner who dared attempt to escape. According to the prison admissions log, Panzram was received at Deer Lodge on April 27, 1913. He listed his occupation as "waiter and teamster." But there was little for convicts to do at the prison, except kill time.

While he was at Deer Lodge, he ran into Jimmie Benson, his old cellmate from Montana State Reform School. He was doing a 10-year stretch for robbery. Together, they planned an escape, but at the last minute, Benson was transferred and couldn't participate. On November 13, 1913, Panzram escaped from Deer Lodge and fled toward Butte. Barely a week later, in a town called Three Forks, he was arrested for burglary under the name "Jeff Rhodes." He was given another year for the escape and returned to the state prison.

Life at Deer Lodge was slow and monotonous. Understaffed and mismanaged, there was very little assigned labor for the inmates who spent most of the day in their cells, lying in their bunks or wandering outside in the prison yard. "At that place I got to be an experienced wolf, " he said. "I would start the morning with sodomy, work as hard at it as I could all day and sometimes half the night." Because of his size and reputation, he was able to intimidate the other prisoners into submission. "I was so busy committing sodomy that I didn't have time left to serve Jesus as I had been taught to do in those reform schools," he later wrote. Panzram served out his full sentence at Deer Lodge and on March 30, 1915, he was released.

"When I left there, the warden told me that I was pure as lily, and free from all sin," he wrote, "He gave me $5, a suit of clothes, and a ticket to the next town six miles away."

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