Joliet Penitentiary, a walk in the park

Sandy Vasko

    Recently I drove past the old Joliet Penitentiary on Collins Street. It's getting an exterior makeover, new plantings, new parking lot and new signage. Soon it will be open to the public, and will no doubt be a great success.
    We all have a fascination for the place, and we always did. Today's way back machine will take us to October of 1883.
    All of the stories today are being taken from one edition of the Joliet Weekly Press, printed on Oct. 27, 1883. The organization known as The Press printed a daily paper, The Daily Press, and once a week an edition called The Weekly Press.
    The weekly edition reprinted some of the stories from the dailies, and a few new ones.  Scandal and sensationalism was their stock in trade.
    Three stories on the same page in that edition had to do with convicts in and out of the Joliet Penitentiary.  The first has the headline “Born to Convicts” in bold type, with a subtitle, “A female convict at the Joliet Penitentiary gives birth to a boy baby.”  
    “A bouncing boy baby was born last night to a female convict named Lily Lafont, alias Lily Waters, alias Ada McBride, the noted Chicago female crook who created such a sensation at her trial by claiming to be the daughter of a Dublin banker.
    “She is the wife of the notorious Max La Fountain, a Chicago thief, who was received Saturday, two months subsequent to Lily's arrival here. When told that his wife had given birth to a son he seemed wonderfully delighted, and asked permission to be conducted to the female prison to see his boy.
    “He ascended the four flights of stairs to the female department as proudly as a hero, without a thought apparently of the shame he and his convict wife had brought upon the little unconscious innocent thus born in a penitentiary to a convict father and mother, and whose cheeks may someday tingle with shame at the disgraceful circumstances of its birth.”
    The second story is about Razor Joe's death in a penitentiary in Philadelphia. It seems Razor Joe, alias Bill Johnson; alias Joe Brown had robbed a home in Chicago and had been caught by the famous Allen Pinkerton himself. He had been sentenced to eight years in Joliet.   
    We read, “Soon after his arrival at the prison he happened to be walking through the prison yard when he came face to face with a large party of visitors, who were going rounds with the prison usher.
    “He observed a man among the visitors who had appeared against him at the trial.  The sight of the visitor so enraged him that he sprang forward to strike the man, but was seized by an officer before any harm was done.
    Brown cursed the visitor and swore that he would break from the prison and kill him yet. He was immediately placed in solitary. A few months after his release he was found missing when the final evening count was taken.
    The officers searched high and low but no trace of him could be found. The walls were guarded night and day for it was supposed that the convict was in a safe hiding place, awaiting a dark night to scale the walls.   
    In the meantime the daily papers were commenting upon the supposed escape. The gentleman, whom Brown had threatened to kill when he should escape from prison, saw the account, and being in fear of his life, he reported the fact to the chief of police.
    A couple of detectives were sent to watch at his house. That very night a man was discovered prowling about the gentleman's house, after a desperate struggle he was captured, and sure enough it was Joe Brown.    
    Brown could never be prevailed upon to tell how he had made his escape.  He was watched very closely for the next six months, but as he exhibited no further signs of escaping, the authorities, in time, became careless regarding him.
    He worked in the prison tailor shop. He finally managed to get together a suit of citizens clothing, one piece at a time. First one foreman lost his hat, a week later another prison officer missed his vest, these articles having been taken by convicts employed about the rooms occupied by guards, and given to Brown who put them on under his striped clothing and wore them for weeks, awaiting a favorable opportunity to escape. On Oct. 29, 1869 he bribed a convict teamster to haul him outside the prison gates under a load of hoop shavings from the cooper department. The scheme was successful.
    Brown then went east and continued his life of crime. He died in prison in 1883.
    When the Penitentiary is open, and you're taking the tour, remember Lilly LaFont and Razor Joe, I know I will.