By Kevin S. Giles
We squinted at the wind-chapped brick, trying to decipher some of the nicknames carved into it.
“Right there!” said the old guard, jabbing impatiently with his finger, and I knew he was waiting to tell me a story. “That one!”
He pushed me closer to the wall, pointing again to a crude carving. I saw it, sure enough. “Froggy,” it read, but I didn’t know the name and when I shrugged, he seemed grateful for my ignorance.
The old guard tore into a checkered tale, staining the air with his blue language. The story he told described a convict who had spent a half-century at the Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge, Montana. He had been an accomplice in a sensational 1959 riot. It was a blood-letting; three people died.
As we stood there in April, it was a classic spring afternoon in the Rockies. The wind swept over us from the snowy brow of Mount Powell, looming to the west. I found myself wondering what Froggy was thinking as he scratched his nickname as a postscript to his existence there. In his imagination, he might have sailed on that wind over those big granite and sandstone walls to a free life.
This old prison, now a museum, holds more than a vicarious fascination for me. I grew up in Deer Lodge, the son of a prison guard. I visited my dad at work when he escorted me to convict boxing matches. When I was in high school, I played basketball against the convicts, inside the walls, and in one game got knocked hard to the concrete floor when a tough guy on their team heard my last name.
Dad is gone, but my memories of him and the prison are alive. Two or three times a year, I take the tour of this prison, now housing six museums, remembering how it was.
And wondering about people like Froggy.
History behind bars
In the 1890s, after Montana got statehood, convicts began expanding the old territorial prison under the discipline of Frank Conley, an early warden. I marvel at how efficiently they walled themselves in, perfectly fitting together quarry-mined chunks of rock that rose to an escape-proof height of 22 feet, and at the craftsmen’s flourishes that gave the cellhouse its castlelike appearance. Its turrets claw at the sky.
So sturdy is the 1912 cellhouse that even the crash of three National Guard bazooka rounds during the riot barely ruffled its facade. (Scars in the walls from that attack remain.)
Every summer, tens of thousands of visitors come to Deer Lodge to see this prison. There, in mountainous western Montana, a surprise awaits. Old Montana Prison houses six museums, and one ticket opens the doors to all of them.
Through the fortified entrance of the old prison laundry I went, inside those long stone walls that have stood for more than 100 years.
Six years before George Custer’s demise at the Little Bighorn River in 1876, the federal government spent $40,000 to build a territorial prison on this tract of land. The first version was crude; cells had no ceilings, windows had bars only halfway up. A few years later, it became Montana State Prison, and Conley and his convicts expanded it into the monolith it is today.
The last convicts left in 1979 when a new prison opened west of Deer Lodge. Five major buildings remain inside the walls of the old prison. One of them is the theater – once a showplace funded by the son of a Montana “copper king” to bring culture to the prison. Now, because of a convict who was an arsonist, it’s a burned-out shell.
To me, the most intriguing structure is the cellhouse, which contains 200 cells on eight galleys. Inside, I think of the prison as a kind of home.
Among the characters who lived there was the eldest son of Depression-era gang leader Ma Barker, imprisoned under the alias of Burke Lavender. Deaf Charlie Jones, who rode with the Hole in the Wall Gang led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, spent time at the prison.
My dad always told stories about the prison’s best-known resident, “Turkey Pete” Eitner. He was a diminutive murderer who lost his mind in prison and became “the man who owned the world.”
His nickname came from tending the prison’s turkey flocks at a farm outside the prison. One day he sold the turkeys to a man who offered him a quarter apiece, bringing two fast results: an assignment back inside the walls, and the name Turkey Pete.
In his extensive financial dealings, he came to believe that he owned 1.5 million sheep, and he sold 10,000 “pink alligators” for $10 million. He spent $20 million to buy an insurance business in Russia. To build some cash flow, he sold his horse-racing stables and their exhibitions for $684 billion. Most every guard who worked during Turkey Pete’s senile years collected handsome checks, including my dad, and Pete’s fellow inmates played along, taking care to respect his empire.
Prison was his home, and he died there. A bare light bulb still shines in Cell 1, decorated just as he left it.
And then there’s maximum security. This was a dark, unforgiving place. Convicts who ran afoul of guards or who committed crimes inside the walls were locked inside barren cells that permitted no light.
Which brings us back to Froggy, who lived in maximum security at least once. He was an accomplice in the April 1959 riot, which began with the shooting death of deputy warden Ted Rothe and ended 36 hours later with the murder-suicide of ringleaders Jerry Myles and Lee Smart. The riot attracted national attention. The rioters took 26 hostages, most of them guards, and threatened to hang, burn and shoot them. (They seized two rifles and ammunition from catwalk guards.) When the slaughter became imminent, National Guard soldiers stormed the prison with bazooka and small-arms fire, saving the hostages before Myles and Smart could kill them.
Froggy survived the riot, got transferred to another prison when the Old Montana Prison closed, and, the last I heard, he was living out his golden years behind bars.
This is a place where ghosts whisper. I hear the voices of men calling from the galleys and the clanging of all those big steel doors. I can still see my dad in his blue uniform, opening those barred doors with brass keys as big as soup spoons.
I’m always happy to visit Old Montana Prison, but — unlike Froggy and thousands of others who lived there — I can leave a free man. And that makes me even happier.
(Originally published in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul.)