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Great Escapes: Reynolds Forsbrey by Edgeworth Downer
Robert Forsbrey’s arrest photos, December 1916
True Crime

Great Escapes: Reynolds Forsbrey

by Edgeworth Downer

Detective Story Magazine | June 17, 1922 | Vol. XLIX No. 6 THE RED FILE | June 17, 2018 | Vol. 11 No. 39

Robert Forsbrey was one of the great prison escape artists. But authorities knew it was more than freedom he sought.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

The Lunatic Gunman

The prison of Dannemora holds within its melancholy keep the outranking escaper of the decade, and one of the saddest of all the heroes of the cell — Reynolds Forsbrey. Curiously enough the history of this notorious killer and jail breaker, whom the newspapers once lightly termed the worst criminal in America, is a love story, a passion of the abyss.

Late in the afternoon of the twenty-ninth of July, 1912, an excited young man, hat drawn down upon his eyes, entered the shop of a jeweler on Delancey Street, New York, and asked about a watch that had been left for repairs. A moment later he drew a pistol from his coat and shot the innocent watchmaker to death. Apparently the motive of this mad assassination was robbery, but the sound of his own pistol evidently frightened the man away, for he fled into the street, ran wildly through a crowd, dodged into one door of a crowded saloon and out the other, and so eluded his trembling pursuers.

Within forty minutes the same man walked into the side door of a cigar shop in Cooper Square and shot the legs from under an inoffensive clerk. Once more he fled without waiting to get any money, and within a few minutes two uniformed policemen ran him down in a cellar, where the killer surrendered without a struggle, though he was doubly armed and had a pocket full of ammunition.

This lunatic gunman proved to be Reynolds Forsbrey. His name and face were not new to the police. As a boy he had been taken for attempted forgery, and at the age of fifteen he had been sent to the House of Refuge for a term of four years. Thereafter, while still a minor, he was caught trying to be a burglar, and he was sent to Elmira, where his criminal education made some progress. For, shortly after his release, he became a successful housebreaker and continued in this historic profession for two years. Then the law laid hold on him again and sent him to Sing Sing to “do” a couple of years.

Somewhere along this juvenile pilgrimage through the deeps, Forsbrey had learned to take narcotics, and he came forth from the big house at Ossining a confirmed drug addict. This was the man who had killed one shopkeeper and fearfully wounded another on that declining afternoon in July. Some time earlier he had been suspected of another shopkeeper shooting in Brooklyn, which could not be proved against him, but in which he had participated, as now developed.

Chapter 2

The Actuating Force Behind These Strange Crimes

Quietly the police began to seek the actuating force behind these strange crimes of Forsbrey. Some were content to say that he was a drug fiend and let it go at that. The deeds of these unfortunates needed no motivation of others, who understood more clearly, continued to seek, and shortly they found Reynolds Forsbrey’s reason and motive cowering and waiting in a room in Brooklyn — a woman, the thing he loved.

Her name was Margaret Ryan, and her story is simple and everlasting. A girl of twenty, with the light of innocence still in her eyes, she had met Forsbrey at a public dance and come to love him.

She was a stenographer and an orphan, lonely and starved for tenderness, living restrictedly in the home of an aunt. She had known nothing about the man’s record or character, and she had never doubted that he was what he seemed to be and actually was by trade, a poor young plumber.

The two had met and struck fire in some strange, subtle way. They had planned to elope, and on that afternoon when Forsbrey went out and shot down two men, she had been left waiting for him in that sordid Brooklyn room. He had gone to get the money to make their wedding possible, but he had not told her how he planned to have it. All this terrible story the police fed her, after they had found her and dragged her from her room to question her. When she could no longer doubt that the man she loved was a discharged patient of prisons and a killer, she said simply:

”I don’t care what he has done; I love him. He may be all you say. I didn’t know it, but it doesn’t make any difference. He was kind and gentle to me, and I love him.”

Her inquisitors stared at her and never forgot.

Chapter 3

Forsbrey’s Astounding Performance In Jail Breaking

Forsbrey was sent to the Tombs to wait trial for murder, and Margaret Ryan was set free. Here began Forsbrey’s astounding performance in jail breaking and the girl’s humble and terrible devotion.

Just a month after his apprehension Forsbrey was found in his Tombs cell, with a bottle of hydrochloric acid and three saws, trying to cut the bars and get away. He was immediately transferred to another cell, and a trusty prisoner was stationed before it to see that nothing more came of this man’s wild attempts at liberation. Margaret Ryan had brought him the saws concealed as stays in her corsets, and the bottle of acid was wrapped in the coils of her hair.

Forsbrey laughed when they took his tools of freedom from him and put him in the isolation cell.

”This place can’t hold me,” he said. “I’m going away from here.”

The keepers smiled, but four days later they gaped, for Forsbrey was gone.

While the trusty was absent from before his cell, Forsbrey managed to loosen the screws in the ventilator grille in his narrow home, using the metal of his suspender buckles as a tool. Wrenching the iron register from its place, he laid it on the floor, squeezed his body through the opening into the air shaft, and then half slid, half dropped into the carpenter shop, two flights below.

Here there was an aged keeper on guard, but this worthy gentleman had been out to a political dinner the night before and was sleeping off his over merriment.

Forsbrey walked out into the night-clad yard of this famous old jail, laid a plank against the high wall, crawled to the top, and dropped perilously into Center Street, where hardly a wheel moved or a footfall sounded, so empty are some of the busiest New York streets after night has descended.

For a month the police sought Forsbrey in vain, sending their warnings into all parts of the country and making vain guesses at his probable line of flight. Finally, through a blunder of his own, Forsbrey was found in a little apartment in a far corner of the Bronx, living sedately with Margaret Ryan.

Now he was permitted no further delays. The officers of the law felt it imperative to get this man inside one of the great prisons at once, so they accepted his plea of guilty of murder in the second degree, and a few days later Forsbrey was in Sing Sing, sentenced to serve from twenty years to life.

He did not remain long in this house of bondage, but was speedily transferred to Dannemora, whose reputation as an unbreakable prison is wide and justified. Forsbrey was now in the strongest and most inaccessible of prisons, far from New York City and the aid of Margaret Ryan. No doubt he was secure at last, and the keepers and wardens of prisons might take their ease in their strange inns.

Forsbrey began in Dannemora that lasting and unwavering vigil over adverse circumstance that is the lot of every prisoner that would be free. He waited and watched and yearned. The letters came from Margaret Ryan at stated intervals, were duly read by the prison censor, officially stripped of anything objectionable, then grudgingly passed along to the waiting long-termer.

His answers were treated in the same way before they were sent out to Margaret Ryan. Some wondered at her devotion to a man who had no other correspondent on the planet. Most said, from the depth of experience, that she would forget in time. Her letters would grow shorter, and the intervals between them longer. At last she would write no more, and Forsbrey would sit utterly and interminably alone — like the others.

But there was in these two people the rare thing that upsets calculations and makes mock of wisdom. Even time could not sever them. A year passed without any cooling of their devotion. Then two years, and three and four. Her letters came as often as the prison regulations permitted, and just as often his went back.

In December, 1916, after Forsbrey had been four years confined in Dannemora, he made another bid for freedom and the society of this unforgotten, unforgetting girl.

He was employed in the machine shop of Dannemora, where his practice as a plumber made him useful. Here he secretly constructed a heavy cannister of sheet iron, into which he poured several gallons of gasoline. By applying pressure to this inflammable fluid through a force pump in the shops, he hoped to make a bomb powerful enough to blow one of the guard towers from the corner of the prison wall, or tear out the end of a cell house.

In the commotion which would follow, he expected to scale the wall and get away. Forsbrey was forced to work on his bomb slowly and cautiously and only in odd moments of time, but he made progress with it, and in December of 1916 he decided it was ready to use.

He had now to his advantage the result of four years’ good conduct. The officials at Dannemora could find nothing in his record to warrant the apprehensions of the officers who had sent him there. Evidently the Forsbrey tradition was a myth, and he was no more difficult to detain than other men. If he had ever been a determined escaper he had got over it, as the four years of exemplary conduct proved.

Consequently his mail was no longer carefully watched, and there was a general tendency to be lenient with him, for he could be as affable and gentle as a boy. Thus Forsbrey managed to communicate to Margaret Ryan the fact that he had prepared a bomb and was ready to try again.

Chapter 4

A Pair of Riding Horses, Food, and Arms

The girl rushed up to Plattsburg by the first train, carrying the money she had been able to save in the years of Forsbrey’s confinement. Her wages had been hoarded in the hope that they would one day be used to reunite her with her lover. It was the deep of the Northern winter, and the snow choked every road and lay high upon the trees in the vast forests that clothe that region with austere beauty. Yet she determined that there was one way to freedom in case Forsbrey should break from the walls. The road to Canada lay buried in terrifying depths of snow, but she believed she might fight her way across the border with her lover, if the chance came.

Accordingly, she hired a pair of riding horses, prepared food and arms, then made her way to the vicinity of the prison to wait for Forsbrey’s issue.

But two days before this unhappy man was ready to spring his coup the officers found the gasoline bomb and destroyed it. So Margaret Ryan waited vainly in the white, ironic wilderness.

She was finally picked up by local police and sent back to New York, with a warning. And on the twenty-eighth of December Forsbrey was transferred to Auburn Prison. He had got the run of things at Dannemora, and it was considered policy to send him to another jail, where he would not be familiar with the routine and the conditions of his detaining house.

At the same time the officials of the prisons dealt him the bitterest blow of all. They had seen how the cureless passion for the girl outside had almost succeeded in providing an escape for Forsbrey, and they determined to sever her from him completely. Forsbrey was denied the privilege of sending or receiving mail. He lay in his prison utterly alone, with the hunger for this distant, but devoted, woman eating into his brain.

The prison authorities had not yet gauged this man or his need. He had failed at Dannemora, and failure has never yet wrung much respect from men. In spite of his earlier exploits, Forsbrey was regarded as a common type of prisoner. Worst of all, no one understood the thing that impelled him to demolish the bars of his prisons. A love-driven criminal was a man beyond the reckoning of the officials.

Four months after his transfer to Auburn, however, Forsbrey was to cut a deeper furrow into the memory of his keepers’ brains. He was not closely confined at Auburn, but was allowed the liberty of the prison, along with the fifteen hundred other men. Some added care was taken, but on the whole he was free to do as he liked. Prowling about the prison yard, ever seeking the weakness that would open the way to freedom for him, Forsbrey noticed that an aged guard held the office of turnkey at one of the important rear gates.

With the keys to the doors this man sat behind a set of bars. If he opened these inner gates, the outer barrier was still locked. Whoever has been in a prison understands this double-locking system. On entering, one set of gates is closed and locked behind the entrant before the second set is opened. It is an old precaution against a sudden rush of convicts. Forsbrey saw this old man at the double gates, and he had an idea.

With a bundle of soiled laundry in his hands, a few morning’s later, Forsbrey sauntered across the prison yard. He approached the wicket of the old turnkey, signaled for the open gate, and was dimly scrutinized. The old man supposed that this must be some prisoner on a casual errand, and he opened the gate. Forsbrey pulled the door far open, deposited his bag on the floor, and turned as if to go. Instinctively the old guard stooped to pick up the bundle, and instantly Forsbrey struck him down with a hammer which he had concealed in his sleeve. Then he beat the old warder insensible, stripped him of his keys, opened the outer gate, and was free.

But, once outside the walls, Forsbrey displayed that helplessness that characterizes many of the most notable jail breakers. He had been unable to make preparations or receive the aid of confederates, and he stood before the glowering walls of Auburn, free, but unable to hold his advantage. He struck out blindly, without plan or reason, and a few hours later a hound traced him to a neighboring hayloft, where he meekly submitted to rearrest, and was taken back to Auburn.

Because of his attempted flight from Dannemora nine years had been added to Forsbrey’s term. Now a second impost of nine years was laid upon his life, so that he stood committed to a term of twenty years to life, plus eighteen years. This may seem a little illogical, but it is so written upon the legal records of the prisons.

Chapter 5

Isolation

At last the prison officials began to see the character and powers of this sad man. He could be trifled with no longer. Henceforward he would spend his life in the isolation ward.

Inside the walls at Auburn is a semidetached modern building of stone and steel, one story in height and containing twenty-four detached cells, each with its small exercise yard behind it. These cells and small yards are arranged back to back, in two equal rows of twelve each, and around them all is an encircling corridor or passage, so that the watching keepers may saunter completely around these rows of cells, as a patrolman on his beat may walk around a block of houses. Beyond the corridor lies the building wall of heavy masonry, with barred windows near the ceiling. At either end is a double steel door, with at least one turnkey always on duty. And beyond these doors or gates lies the prison.

Each of the twenty-four isolation cells is a detached room, not more than eight by ten, and perhaps nine feet high. In the front is a barred steel door secured by ponderous double locks. In the rear wall of each cell is a solid steel door, which allows the prisoner to reach his exercise yard when it is unlocked by a keeper. To the left of each such door and near the top of each cell is a small barred window.

The exercise yard is of the same size and construction as the cell itself, save that it has no roof except a complete grille of one-inch steel bars, set about five inches apart and firmly held in concrete and masonry. All the floors and sidewalls of the cells and exercise yards are of hopelessly thick stone slabs, firmly cemented into place.

Into one of these little tombs Reynolds Forsbrey was locked.

”Let’s see you get out of here, my boy!” exclaimed the keeper.

It was a bit of justifiable prison pride, for these isolation cells were considered the last word in security. No one might hope to break from one of them. Let Forsbrey try his luck. He had against him not only the vault-like security of these awesome cells and this hopeless building, but there were special provisions of routine to add to the escaper’s discouragement.

So that no man might get used to his cell and find some weakness in it, the prisoners in the isolation ward were moved from cell to cell every few days, in an endless rotation. The man who was in cell No. I to-day was in cell No. 3 before the week’s end, and it took him two or three months to get back to his first cell, in case he had any deviltry afoot there. Moreover, a keeper was stationed inside the isolation ward day and night, and it was his duty to walk around the corridor every half hour and peer into each and every cell.

Could Forsbrey beat this terrifying place? His keepers smiled with confidence, but his fifteen hundred fellows, with whom he was now elevated among the heroes, gave him their hopes.

Forsbrey sat down on his stool in his solitary cell and said not a word. This was to be his home for eighteen years beyond his natural life, or so the law said. Well, if he must have the patience to suffer the penalty he must have the resolution to escape it. He waited and watched. Nothing happened. The drab uneventfulness of prison shrouded him. No word was allowed to reach him from the single being toward whom his shackled dreams went out.

The spring and summer crept past, funereal procession of endless and starless nights, succeeded by brief days, on each of which the guarded man was let into the sunshine of his exercise yard for one hour, to pace like a bear in a den and stare upward through the bars at the remote freedom of the clouds and sky. The courage must have sunk out of any heart, but not Forsbrey’s. He saw the hopelessness of his confinement, and yet he hoped and planned. There was no way, and yet he cut one out of chance and desperation. And thereby the demoniac drug taker and killer changed the abhorrence of other men into a sure, if grudging, admiration. For the celebrity which he had achieved as a jail breaker proved to be the outward key for Forsbrey in the greatest of all his breaks.

In the autumn of 1917, after Forsbrey had been six months in the isolation ward at Auburn, it was decided to transfer a number of prisoners from this impregnable house to Dannemora, among them a certain French prisoner from a town near the Canadian border. This transfer did not apparently affect Forsbrey in any way, and he took little interest in it until a few nights before the move was made. The prisoners in the isolation ward had just been shifted again, and Forsbrey found himself in a cell next to that of the Frenchman. In the middle of the night Forsbrey heard a tapping on his wall in the old code of signals familiar to all long-term men. Forsbrey listened and responded by similar rappings. Finally, after patient effort, he was able to get the message:

The outgoing Frenchman had a saw hidden in the weight box of the window in cell No. 3. He could not take it out with him, but he wanted Forsbrey to have it. Good luck!

So the battle with the watchfulness of the keepers began. It was four weeks before Forsbrey got to cell three. In the night he managed to pry out the wooden front of the sash-weight box, and there he found the thin steel hand with the hard, fine teeth. It was true!

Again the difficulties under which this man worked must be made clear. Every day the cells were inspected by the keepers for the express purpose of making sure that no sawing or digging was going on. Every half hour in the day and night a keeper came to the cell door and peered in to be certain that the prisoner was making no attempt to escape.

If Forsbrey was to cut a bar, he must do it a few slashes at a time, in these half-hour intervals, without noise. He must then manage to conceal the cut so that the keepers might not find it on their daily inspections. But, even if he succeeded in all this, would he be transferred from cell No. 3 before he was able to make his dash for liberty ? And if he managed to cut a bar on the window of his cell and get out into the exercise yard, how was he going to manage to cut a second bar in that steel grille which roofed the yard?

Obviously, with a keeper coming every half hour to peer into his cage, Forsbrey must have both bars cut before he tried his break. The determined prisoner saw what the men who built the isolation ward had missed. By standing on his washstand he could reach out through the bars of his window and touch the bars which formed the roof of the exercise yard.

So it was possible to cut the roof bar first and then the window bar. If he could manage to conceal the marks of the saw in the steel till the job was done, there was hope. He would at least be outside in the prison inclosure, with no task before him but the scaling of the high wall.

This astounding man attacked the hopeless problem with the skill and courage which made him worthy of human attention and sympathy. First he hacked the bar in the roof grille at its farther end, as far out as he could reach. He would take a few hacks at it and then return to his bed, pretending to sleep. The keeper came on his half-hour round and saw the notorious escaper snugly in his cot.

As soon as the man was far enough down the corridor, Forsbrey was up on the washstand again, tearing fiercely at the steel with his saw teeth. In two nights he managed to cut the bar nearly through, so that it hung at one end by a thread. He had still to cut the near end of this bar and the second bar in his cell window.

Well, so much had been done. Forsbrey filled up the cut with dust and covered it over with a little green paint scraped from the other bars. Then he dropped his saw back into the weight box of his window. The next day he was transferred from cell No. 3.

At the end of six weeks he was back in this den, whose darkness was so suddenly illumined with hope. He attacked the bar in the window and cut it almost through at one end, in a single night, while the warder walked past every half hour and peeped in at the inert convict under his blanket.

On the second night Forsbrey cut the window bar at the other end, and now it hung only by two thin fibers of metal. A stout jerk would pull it out of place and make an opening about eight by fourteen inches, through which Forsbrey was certain he could force his lithe body. Once more he filled the cuts with earth and plaster dust, covered the surface with scrapings of green paint, and lay down to wait for the inspection of his cell.

About noon the keepers came, let him into his exercise yard, and then inspected the cage for signs of trouble. By some evil chance one of them took hold of the window bars and shook them vigorously. Forsbrey’s heart stood still. But the keeper happened to catch hold of one of the sound bars, and nothing happened. Only one end of the bar in the roof of the exercise yard, only a few hours of cutting, stood between the prisoner and freedom. He was already exulting at the issue when the order came to change cells again. Two months went by before Forsbrey again saw the inside of cell No. 3.

Chapter 6

Fortuitous Circumstances

It was the seventh of March, 1918. Now his time had come. At eleven o’clock in the night the keeper in the isolation ward made his rounds and saw that all the men were quiet in their cells. He had just peered into the last cell, No. 24, and gone back to his chair to take his ease till the eleven-thirty round, when he heard a noise and jumped up to investigate. As chance would have it, he started around the corridor from left to right, so that he reached cell No. 24 first and cell No. 1 last.

This fortuitous circumstances gave Forsbrey ten or twelve minutes, the time it took the warder to make the rounds. Had the keeper started in the other direction he must have reached cell No. 3 in less than a minute, and he would have caught the escaping prisoner before he could have got through the roof of the yard. As it was, the astounded keeper found this cage empty, and Forsbrey was gone. What he had heard was the snapping of the bars and the struggle of Forsbrey to drag his body through the narrow hole in the window grille and then through a hole in the roof of the yard.

Immediately there was an instant alarm and precipitate pursuit. The convict had a start of not more than fifteen minutes, and the officers believed he must still be inside the walls. But here they erred, and thereby added to the escaper’s lead.

Forsbrey, once he had got to the top of the isolation ward, ran along the roof to the farther end, where the building abuts the prison lumber yard. Here he hung by his hands and dropped into the mud and slush below. Picking himself up, he dragged a long piece of lumber from a stack and laid it diagonally against the outer wall of the prison, a trick he had employed earlier in escaping from the Tombs. Crawling up this board like a monkey he gained the top of the wall and then, hanging by his hands once more, let himself fall.

The moment he landed upon the hard, cold ground he must have been overcome with misgiving and terror. All this indescribable waiting and watching, all this prodigious labor, all these risks and vigils — and for what?

Here he was just outside the wall, in prison clothes, unarmed, without money, without a confederate, hundreds of miles from the nearest friend or a city with whose underworld he was associated. There was no cover for him at hand, and only the rarest chance of reaching a place of hiding remained. The situation must have overwhelmed him. Before him stretched a single road, and he took it. He fled eastward, hoping to catch a train and get as near New York as possible before the telegraph and telephone would bar all lines of advance.

All things considered, he managed well enough. The searching parties that went out from prison and the posses that formed everywhere, as soon as the news of his escape got abroad, were unable to find him for forty-eight hours.

But late on the second night after his flight some railroad workmen in the little town of Locke, twenty miles from Auburn, saw a man skulking in a box car and immediately concluded that this might be the celebrated Forsbrey. They did not dare tackle so notorious a criminal alone, so they sent word to the prison, and an armed patrol was hurried out to investigate. Before the officers could arrive the man in the car was overcome with hunger and went to a near-by cottage to beg food. With this he returned to his hiding place and sat down to appease his gnawing appetite. He was still munching when half a dozen gun barrels peered through the car door at him, and the chase was at an end. The man who could perform such marvels inside his prison did not know enough to board only a moving train, or to steal food if he must have it.

Forsbrey went back to Auburn and his isolation cell, and a few days later he was transferred back to Dannemora, the prison he had not been able to beat. When they brought Forsbrey back to Auburn from the box car where he had been hiding, he was taken before the warden.

”If you’d let me hear from Margaret Ryan,” he said hopelessly, “I wouldn’t be trying to escape.”

The writer of this article arrived at Auburn a few days later and talked with the warden; he found the prison official under no illusions about his man. There was no question that the fever of love for this chance-met girl was the driving power behind all the strange, dark labors and high achievements of this famous jail breaker.

”But what can one do?” asked the warden. “If we let them correspond, she helps him to plot escapes; and if we don’t let them write, he is all the more determined.”

Chapter 7

Melancholy Romance

It has been four years since Forsbrey last broke his chains,, and perhaps he will try no more. Failure may have chastened him, and luck deserted him.

The woman in this melancholy romance has not been more kindly dealt with than the man who loves her. When Forsbrey went to prison she set out to get money for his assistance by any means that came her way. She threw herself again and again at the barriers of the law. She tried to match her feeble strength and fragile charm against an adverse world, and she was soon undone.

The dark substreams of metropolitan life had shortly caught her in their deepest currents. She floated a while, washed from place to place, like driftwood. Then she gave it up one night, turned on the gas, and swallowed poison; but her room was entered in time, and she was dragged back from the grave.

On her dresser was a note: “I am Margaret Ryan, the sweetheart of Reynolds Forsbrey.”

~ The End ~

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