This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. Walter E. Stiars, the subject of this week’s post, is in essence the father of Mug Shot Monday. His daring 1906 escape from the Virginia Penitentiary, eerily similar to Andy Dufresne’s in the film The Shawshank Redemption, was the catalyst for requiring that prisoners be photographed.
On 28 February 1905, the Manchester Corporation Court sentenced Walter E. Stiars, age 30, to eight years in the Virginia Penitentiary on two counts of breaking and entering. Penitentiary officials considered Stiars dangerous. They assigned him to work in the office of the Davis Boot and Shoe Company in order to keep him under constant surveillance and away from any tools. The noon dinner bell rang as usual on Saturday, 16 June 1906. During roll call, Stiars did not answer “adsum” when his name was called. A search of the prison revealed he was not on the premises and Penitentiary officials presumed he escaped sometime on the evening of 15 June. Or had he? As a precaution, extra guards were posted along the outer walls. Penitentiary Superintendent Captain Evan F. Morgan was confident Stiars would be captured.
“We expect to land him,” Morgan told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on 17 June, “and if I am not mistaken we will not be long about it.” Morgan was mistaken. Stiars had not escaped – yet. He hid for 13 days in a “loathsome” hole and climbed over the wall on 28 June to freedom.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch claimed Stiars’ escape had “no parallel in the history of criminal endeavor for freedom in this State.” The newspaper described the escape in vivid detail:
On the evening of June 15th, leaving his desk in the office, with his coat and cap hanging on the wall, he went to a closet which is in the corner of the shipping room. Here he removed a small board behind a waste pipe and disappeared under the floor, and replacing the board, was swallowed up as effectually as though he had used Aladdin’s lamps.
In his new prison house, a dark damp, filthy cellar, twenty-two inches high, with the stench of filth on one side of him and the almost unbearable heat of a steam room on the other, with rats, cockroaches and loathsome vermin as his only companions, Stiars must have lived through an eternity during the thirteen days he existed in his cesspool.
Prior to his escape, Stiars stockpiled provisions for months using the money he earned working for the shoe company to purchase food and cigarettes. On the night after the extra guards were discontinued, Stiars used a chisel, broke through the brick wall of the cellar, removed the iron ventilator, and emerged in the prison yard behind the shops. Using a roll of webbing and a scaling hook, Stiars attempted to climb over the wall. He nearly made it when the webbing broke causing Stiars to fall to the ground. Unfazed, Stiars removed a large plank from a nearby coal bin and used it with the webbing to scale the 18-foot wall.
Penitentiary officials first learned of the escape when a guard discovered the hole in the cellar the next day. “How he lived in that awful hole for 13 days, I cannot understand,” Morgan said. The smell from the hole was so repugnant that the first official to examine it gave up after five minutes. A prisoner was sent down instead; he discovered cans of meat, salmon, ham, tomatoes, sardines, crackers, and water, as well as cigarette butts, a knife, chisel, and a roll of webbing.
Stiars was never caught. He was arrested in April 1907 on a burglary charge in Mansfield, Ohio. Before he could be extradited to Virginia, Stiars escaped. He was never heard from again. Perhaps he traveled to the beach in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. We will never know what happened to him. Stiars’ legacy was the introduction of mug shots to the Penitentiary. A few weeks prior to Stiars’ escape, Superintendent Morgan announced that the Penitentiary would soon start using the Bertillon System for prisoner identification. As a result of Stiars’ escape, prisoners also would be photographed.