This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary. William Oehlert had a lengthy criminal record, a history of escapes, a love of shooting guns, and was one of the worst behaved prisoners in the Virginia Penitentiary – until his incarceration finally broke him and he became a model prisoner.
William H. Oehlert, the son of German immigrants, was born on 21 July 1884 in Alexandria, Virginia. His father, August Oehlert (1851-1914) was a cigar maker and Alexandria’s police commissioner. Oehlert’s first known brush with the law occurred in January 1905, when he was arrested in Alexandria on suspicion of robbery. The case was dismissed but other arrests in Alexandria soon followed:
- March 1905 – arrested on suspicion of robbing freight cars. Case dismissed due to lack of evidence.
- January 1910 – arrested on suspicion of robbery. Case dismissed due to lack of evidence.
- September 1911 – arrested for assault and fined $10 for creating a disturbance.
- August 1912 – arrested for transporting stole goods. Charges dropped.
- August 1912 – charged with stealing a spark coil from a Southern Railway Company freight car. Acquitted.
- January 1913 – arrested for assaulting his brother-in-law A.E. Smoot and shooting a pistol in the street. Fined $10 for assault.
In October 1912, the grand jury of the Corporation Court of Alexandria indicted Oehlert on the charge of stealing goods from the freight cars of the C&O Railway. Oehlert provided information on an organized criminal operation in Alexandria that helped law enforcement break up the gang. On 21 July 1913, Oehlert plead guilty and was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary. He served only six months of his sentence. Governor Henry C. Stuart pardoned Oehlert on 14 February 1914 due to his cooperation with law enforcement.
After his release from the penitentiary, Oehlert worked as a brakeman for the Southern Railway. On 12 November 1918, Oehlert quarreled with another employee, Linwood Kidwell, in the Alexandria office of the yardmaster. During the argument, Oehlert shot and killed Kidwell. Oehlert claimed the gun went off accidentally. After several delays due to the influenza pandemic, Oehlert went on trial for murder in April 1919. He was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.
However, his conviction was overturned on appeal. The jury in his second trial failed to reach a verdict. Oehlert was tried a third time and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to six months in the city jail. Oehlert’s time in jail awaiting trial was credited toward his sentence; he only served 18 days and was released. He wouldn’t be so lucky next time.
On Saturday night, 15 October 1921, Oehlert and his friend Richard Burnett decided to go for a drive after having a few drinks. While driving on Camp Humphreys Road two miles south of Alexandria in Fairfax County, the pair came upon two cars on the side of the road. Oehlert pulled over to investigate. Oehlert got into an argument with three of the men from one of the cars. He accused them of touching his car. He told them “don’t touch my car,” and pulled a gun before getting back in his car. As he drove away, the three men threw rocks at Oehlert’s car. Oehlert responded by firing five shots out the back of his car, hitting one of the men, Henry E. Briscoe, twice. He died the next morning at Alexandria Hospital. Oehlert was arrested shortly thereafter and charged with murder.
While in the Fairfax County jail awaiting trial, Oehlert escaped on 18 November 1921. Or did he? His cell was empty, the cell door lock picked, and the iron bars of a first floor window were bent. The police believed he was on the run. But Oehlert never left the jail. He used a wrench to open the cell door and a hack saw (likely smuggled into the jail by Oehlert’s wife Lucie) to cut the bars on the window. However, the opening wasn’t large enough for him to crawl through. Instead, Oehlert went to another cell where the prisoners hid him under their bunk. Oehlert was discovered two days later by Glennon Cross, the four-year-
old son of the jailor. While serving breakfast to the prisoners on Sunday, 20 November 1921, Cross saw a hand protruding from beneath the bunk. “Daddy,” he said, “Mr. Oehlert is under there.” Oehlert was locked in another cell with his legs shackled. Later that night, Oehlert attempted to escape again. Oehlert cut through his chains using a hack saw concealed in the floor, but another prisoner alerted the guard and his plan failed.
Oehlert’s trial began on 30 November 1921 in the Fairfax County court house. He testified in his own defense, admitting to shooting the gun but claiming he didn’t realize anyone was hit until he was arrested the next day. He fired the gun to scare off the men throwing rocks at his car. After a two day trial, Oehlert was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in the penitentiary. Oehlert decided not to appeal and arrived at the penitentiary on 10 March 1922.
Oehlert wasn’t at the penitentiary long. He escaped on 28 May 1922 and was recaptured the same day. On 1 July 1922, he sawed out of his cell but was apprehended before he could escape from the prison. His third attempt was more successful. He escaped on 20 February 1923 by hiding in the back of a truck. Oehlert remained a fugitive until 1926 when, using the name Harry Burke, he was captured in Tampa, Florida. In his brief time at the penitentiary, Oehlert made quite an impression on Superintendent Rice M. Youell. “During the 4 years I have been Superintendent of the Virginia Penitentiary,” Youell wrote in Oehlert’s 1926 extradition file,
“I consider this man about the worse individual we have had to deal with. He has a very bad reputation in his home town of Alexandria, Virginia. His prison record during the short time he was incarcerated here is very bad. Not only was his conduct bad, but he was one of the kind to incite other inmates to create trouble.”
Oehlert proved Youell’s point upon his return to the penitentiary. Over the next two years he was punished for:
- Using profane language to the Superintendent and guards, and making threats to escape and kill officials (26 July 1926);
- Having hack saws in his cell and attempting to escape by cutting cell bars (19 October 1926);
- For making noise in the cell building and cursing guards (20 October 1926);
- For turning on water in cell building and flooding the cell house, and also cursing and abusing the Superintendent (21 October 1926);
- For cutting bars in the east basement (28 June 1927);
- Cursing guards (11 June 1928);
During most of this two year period between 1926 and 1928, penitentiary officials placed Oehlert in solitary confinement in a cell in the death house, the building where executions took place. He was not allowed visitors or to correspond with anyone. Oehlert’s wife, Lucie, wrote Governor Harry Byrd on 16 October 1928 about her husband’s treatment and urged him to investigate. Oehlert “has been locked up in one cell since July,” she wrote, “and the cell is very damp & musty & I hear that his health is very bad as tuberculosis runs in his family.” She added that “I also hear that inhuman treatment is given prisoners down there [death house].” Byrd’s 15 January 1929 reply was succinct. “I understand that [Oehlert] has given the penitentiary authorities a great deal of trouble,” he wrote. “They would much prefer that he conduct himself properly and be allowed the privileges given to the other prisoners.”
Beginning in 1928, Oehlert’s behavior changed and he became a model prisoner. In an 18 August 1932 letter to the governor’s office, Superintendent Youell wrote that Oehlert “for the past four years…has turned over a new leaf and his prison conduct has been good.” Oehlert wrote Governor John Garland Pollard on 3 October 1933 to explain this change and why he should be granted clemency.
“When I came here under sentence of twenty years, well, it just seemed that I would never again enjoy the privilege of being with my family, the future appeared so hopeless that I could see no other way out but escape. As the record shows, I escaped. This I found only added to my troubles. About this time I began to realize that before I could better my position it would be necessary for me to change my views on what constituted right and wrong, this I have done, for the past five years I have tried to conduct myself that those in authority would feel assured of my changed viewpoint and I feel sure that the officials of this institution can state with conviction that I am capable of living the right kind of life.”
R.E. Knight, a family friend, also urged Governor Pollard to pardon Oehlert. “This young man went astray and was looked upon when a young man as a bad one,” Knight wrote in October 1933. “I believe his incarceration has completely broken him and he now sees the errors of his way.” Governor Pollard did not pardon Oehlert but his family and friends continued to advocate for him.
Lucie Oehlert petitioned the new Virginia Governor George C. Peery for a pardon for her husband in 1934. Superintendent Youell gave his full endorsement. “For the past six years [Oehlert] has a clear record,” Youell wrote the governor’s office on 1 August 1934. Youell continued:
“For the past year or two he has been used on occasions on trucks hauling goods down town. He is now fifty years of age. For the past six years there has been such a complete change in his whole attitude and conduct that I believe he is entirely cured and will not again become involved in trouble…I believe, one of the objects of imprisonment is reformation as well as punishment…I recommend a conditional pardon at this time.”
Oehlert appealed directly to Governor Peery in a 13 December 1934 letter in which he credited the love and faith of his family for his reformation.
“I also desire very much to mention, at this time, the question of loyalty and devotion so splendidly manifested toward me by my wife and children during my incarceration. This, alone, has served as a very real inspiration in my life. The very fact that they have made so many sacrifices and offering almost every concession in life, as evidence of their love and devotion for, and their unbounded faith in me. It is because of this that I long ago was inspired to become a better man-to be the father and husband that they believe me to be.”
Governor Peery pardoned Oehlert on 2 April 1935. “In view of the time served,” Peery wrote, “the absolute change in this man’s attitude towards society, his efforts to maintain order in the penitentiary and cooperate with the officials and the opinion of the Superintendent that he will make good…I am granting him a conditional pardon” on the condition that it would be null and void if he was every found guilty of violating the penal laws of Virginia.
Oehlert never violated the terms of his pardon. He died on 14 April 1950 in Alexandria from a cerebral hemorrhage. His devoted wife Lucie died on 25 June 1955.
-Roger Christman, Senior State Records Archivist