Murder often cuts deep in a small community, searing the hearts of men, women, and children alike. Sometimes those children, scarred by events they couldn’t fathom at the time, grow up to explore the crimes that ended their days of innocence.
Some of the most fascinating and well-reviewed books in the true crime genre have been part crime tale and part childhood memoir. The most famous book to successfully blend reminiscence with research is the definitive Lizzie Borden book, Victoria Lincoln’s A Private Disgrace. The author grew up in Fall River, had strong memories of the strange old woman who lived alone on The Hill, and explained Miss Borden’s crimes as no other has before or since.
Other examples include James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, about the murder of his own mother when he was ten years old; Ron Franscell’s book Fall: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town, which explores the awful crime that destroyed the lives of the two little girls who lived next door to him in Casper, Wyoming; and Green Fields: Crime and Punishment Haunt a Home Town, a work-in-progress from author Bob Cowser that will explore the kidnapping and murder of a girl who was in the author’s first-grade class.
Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance, is another in this echelon, and I just finished reading this impressive piece of scholarship. The author, Kevin S. Giles, was the son of a prison guard who worked at one of the toughest prisons in the United States at a terrible, pre-reform era of widespread prison disturbances in America. Between 1952 and 1955, there were 47 riots in U.S. prisons.
The author’s father barely escaped becoming a hostage in a bloody standoff triggered by an arrogant and ambitious new warden who disturbed the delicate balance of power in a place filled with shanks and stingers, cons and psychos, and two particularly disturbed men – a burglar who’d been incarcerated for all of his adult life and his murderous teenage boyfriend.
The sheer depth of Giles’ research is impressive. The way the story is structured is also glue on the reader’s hands. There is a slow, detailed, agonizing buildup to the fatal events, and Giles never tips his cards before he starts playing trump.
But what really held me fast to the book was the enormous quality of the prose. (Giles has several years of newspaper writing and editing experience.) I read several paragraphs two or three times in appreciation of it. When a writer spends a full decade not only conducting hundreds of interviews but reflecting on what he’s writing, when the narrative offers genuine insight into the events, when the story is more than just a story to the author, it quite plainly shows. Take this excerpt about the moment that a prison guard realized that things were about to go horribly wrong:
“For a few moments only silence came to his ears, and in prison, silence deafens. Here, a dictionary of sounds lay open in Clyde Sollars’ mind, as it did for every guard, ready for quick reference. In this prison of a thousand eyes, danger usually came first to the ears. Sounds that fill the prison alarm new guards. As months pass those sounds become a pattern of routine. The prison at its safest was a numbing routine and a guard was soon to learn that he should listen close when the routine changes.
“From somewhere in the maze of rooms came an urgency of shoes on tile. They weren’t squeaks of new shoes but the warnings of a struggle. Sollars felt curious and then afraid. He crept into the lobby. Here in this gloomy room, where convicted men had tromped a trail in the linoleum, he saw no carpenters, nor did he see anyone else. Where was Jones, the turnkey guard? And why were both barred doors to the yard standing open?
“That very second, as Sollars comprehended a guard’s greatest fear, a squat and sweating convict rumbled into the lobby from Deputy Warden Ted Rothe’s office. His big fist clutched a thin ugly knife, red with blood.”
You can read (or watch) Shawshank Redemption forty times and learn less of real prison life in the era than in a chapter of this book. What struck me most was the sheer foreseeability of the fatal riot; the prison itself was a disaster waiting to happen. As a ‘criminal city,’ Montana State Prison was ‘backwater Bastille,’ rotting and old — half the prisoners used buckets for toilets. Some of the guards were illiterate and recruited from bus depots; some were corrupt; some were elderly; none had any formal training. And they were outnumbered more than 30 to 1.
Giles also paints a stunning portrait of the ringleader, Jerry Myles, who had several mothers and names until he drifted ‘into the arms of crime.’ In Leavenworth and Alcatraz, he learned more about prison administration than the men who guarded him. He became a ‘professional convict,’ a ‘penitentiary homosexual,’ a ‘bull in heat.’ In 1955, he was briefly paroled. He selected Montana State Prison as his next home based on rumors of poor conditions there. Jerry Myles deliberately committed a burglary in Montana and waited for police to arrive, hurriedly pleaded guilty so he could gain admittance to one of the worst prisons in the country, then coolly planned his mayhem, including a list of the prison officials he planned to execute:
“Myles would relish each tragic and dangerous moment. Those moments would be building blocks, and after he had constructed a monument to himself that stood high and public and sated his deepest desires for glory, and after the streets of Deer Lodge filled with onlookers and all the papers wrote about what he had done and hostages’ wives cried and he could feel anguish of his captive guards in the heavy cool air of the cell house, he would commit murder before his monument toppled. Two dozen hostages waited to die….”
Congratulations go out to the author for this achievement; one hopes this book acts as sunlight to drive away some of the demons that once cursed the people of Deer Lodge, Montana, still haunted by this long-ago prison disaster.
Laura James writes the blog, CLEWS, Your Home for Historic True Crime.