Breaking into Prison
You might too, if you had stashed a perpetual motion machine inside
Although jail breaks are as old as the practice of locking up prisoners, it is extraordinarily rare for the reverse to happen: not many people are willing to break into a prison. In fact, in the institutional memory of the guards and warden of Waupun Penitentiary, Wisconsin, no one had ever tried to break in.
Until September, 1920.
Breaking into Prison
William Chowick was an unusual man. Born in Poland around the year 1888, he had served two years as a private in the Russian Tsar’s infantry before he emigrated to the United States.
America did not prove a land of opportunity for Chowick; unable to find work as a mechanic, he drifted to Wisconsin and fell into a life that was funded by petty burglaries. He was caught and convicted to a seven year sentence at Waupun Penitentiary.
On September 8, 1920, he finished his term. He left the prison with $250 in earnings. Barring recidivism, none of the guards ever expected to see him again.
They were wrong.
Slightly less than two weeks later, Chowick stole toward the gray prison walls in the middle of the night. He carried a long rope with an iron hook tied to one end.
Whirling the heavy metal weight over his head, he snagged the top of the wall and used the rope to clamber over the obstacle. Once inside the prison yard, slipped quietly through the darkness to a building that houses the twine factory and sissel warehouse. He broke a window to gain entry to the building.
A guard, making a routine patrol, saw the shattered glass. He summoned help.
As the prison guards began a search of the spaces between the bales of sissel, a voice called to them from above, “I am coming right down, captain.”
Chowick descended from his perch, high in the building and surrendered to the guards.
Naturally, the authorities wanted to know why the ex-con had boomeranged back into prison. Chowick refused to explain, stating that he would only speak with the assistant warden. It was 3:00 AM by this time, but the guards decided that the unusual circumstances justified interrupting their superior’s sleep.
Perhaps they should have thrown him into a cell and waited until morning.
When the warden arrived, Chowick offered a very odd justification for his break-in: “I have worked many years in the power plant of this penitentiary. I have almost completed a perpetual motion machine. If I am given two weeks more time, I am sure I can solve the problem. I only ask the opportunity to work in the power plant at night with the machines so that my device may be completed.”
Chowick insisted that he would not be burden on the prison. In fact, he had brought two loaves of bread and a stick of bologna to feed himself while he finished his work.
The warden was not amused.
Chowick was widely regarded as a fine mechanic, but it was unlikely that he had built a perpetual motion machine. The warden put him to work drawing sketches of his machine while a psychiatrist was brought in to offer an evaluation.
Ultimately, William Chowick was remanded to Central State Hospital at Waupun for treatment. He was unlikely to stay there long, predicted one prison official. “He’s too good a mechanic. He’s nutty on the subject of perpetual motion but he knows enough about mechanics that he can’t be spared.”
“Perpetual motion,” wrote a reporter for the Fox Lake Representative, “was his hobby.”
Two-and-a-half years after breaking into the Waupun Penitentiary, the psychiatrists decided to offer Chowick another chance to make a life outside institutional walls.
He was placed into a probation program, working on a Wisconsin farm. This work did not suit him. He fled the farm and concealed himself in the belfry of a church in Juneau, Wisconsin. At night he broke into homes, garages, and stores in nearby towns. When Sheriff Lange apprehended him, Chowick claimed innocence: he had not committed any burglaries.
Circuit Court Judge Fox did not believe his plea of innocence. He sentenced him to another year in Waupun Penitentiary. Chowick promised that once he had served his term, he would leave the state for good.
There is no record of whether he resumed his experimentation with perpetual motion. In fact, Chowick kept out of the news for three years, only to resurface in Pittsburgh for the final act of his tragic life.
The Pittsburgh Bombing
On the afternoon of August 24, 1926, a man approached a teller in the Farmers Deposit Bank in Pittsburgh.
Witnesses later described him as “a foreigner poorly and roughly dressed.” Bank tellers reported that he had entered and left the lobby several times that day. At 3:15 PM he approached the window of teller Edward Jones.
He clutched a heavy valise in one hand. With the other, he pushed a crude, handwritten note across the counter to Jones. It read:
Sirs: You are held up for $2,000 with fifty sticks of dynamite. The dynamite is in my hand. It will discharge when the handle is out of my hand.
If you or anyone else fires a gun at me, there will be no cage left and we will all be blowing up to pieces.
If you are willing to come with $2,000, be quiet and keep off from the alarms. The help will do you no good. If they come, they will come for their death. If not, make all of the noise you like. I will help you with the noise that whole Pittsburgh will hear.
If you wish to see the death machine, ask for it. Otherwise, absolute silence. Death or $2,000. Either you like.
The handwriting was poor; Jones pretended that he could not decipher the note. “What do you want?” he asked.
“$2,000,” replied the man.
Jones picked up the note and took it to the cashiers. After alerting the two bank guards, George Ortmann and Albert Anderson, Jones and the cashiers strolled casually back to the teller’s cage. Ortmann circled slowly toward the suspicious man, flanking him.
The cashiers told the man that they could not give him any money based on his note.
“Give me $2,000” growled the man, “or I put you out of business.”
Ortmann reached out to grab him. The man dropped his case on the floor and kicked it.
The bomb in the case detonated.
The bomber was killed instantly. The blast tore off most of his head: “A part of the jawbone and other bits of flesh from the maniac were hurled through the wickets of the teller’s cage and plastered against a safe beyond,” recorded the Pittsburgh Daily Post. The rest of his body was severely mangled, leaving “a twisted mass of flesh and bone.”
Bank Guard Ortmann was also caught in the blast. He struggled to breathe for a couple of torturous minutes, but then slid into death. The other guard, Albert Anderson was severely burned and lost his sight.
The explosion scored the bank’s marble walls. The large plate glass windows fronting the street blew outward, driving glass shards into pedestrians on the sidewalk. A woman passing the bank’s revolving doors “was hurled into the street and most of her clothing was torn off.” Twenty-five customers and bank employees were injured.
Glass fragments pierced the steel bodies of cars parked in front of the building. The cages around the teller stations were so badly twisted that they would require replacement.
Bank President Edward Coll estimated that it would cost $150,000 to repair the bomb damage. Nevertheless, speaking like a true man of business, Coll emphasized that the bank would be open for business the next morning. Nothing, not even an horrific bombing, would interrupt the relationship between the bank and its valued customers.
The bomber had claimed that his suitcase was filled with fifty sticks of dynamite. The police detectives through that unlikely. The method of detonation — a sharp kick — and the sweet smell that lingered in the air afterward led them to conclude that he had employed nitroglycerin.
Lieutenant Peter Connors of the homicide squad stated that the bomb was probably a flask of nitroglycerin contained in a zinc cylinder. The charge would normally have been triggered by a gunpowder charge ignited by a switch and battery. The ignition device was not used; the unstable nitroglycerin detonated when the bomber kicked the case.
After the blast, little was left of the bomber. Morgue workers discovered that the remains of the body lacked tattoos or distinguishing marks. A piece of his hand provided partial fingerprints, which were sent to the National Bureau of Identification in Washington, DC.
Five days later, the Bureau matched the prints to Chowick through his prison records. The local detectives showed the surviving bank tellers a photo of Chowick, and they confirmed the identity of the bomber.
Although Chowick had been living under the name James Robick in Pennsylvania, the photo and fingerprints proved that he was the same trouble prisoner who had once worked on a perpetual motion machine at Waupun Penitentiary.
Why did Chowick choose to end his life this way? The coroner classified his death a suicide. Considering that he died in the commission of a felony, this seems like an odd finding.
The police, on the other hand, believed that Chowick was an anarchist: he had carried a black memorandum book that was found in the teller’s cage after the blast. In it were the names of Pittsburgh politicians and business leaders.
It also mentioned a political gathering that had taken place earlier in the year, in April. Anarchists were believed to be hiding under every bridge in 1920s America. Chowick was obviously just another.
The truth, however, is probably less-prosaic. This poor Polish immigrant never attained the American dream that had driven his emigration. Despite having an obvious mechanical aptitude — the construction of a perpetual motion machine and a sophisticated bomb attest to that — Chowick was never able to find work to support himself. Simple burglaries ultimately expanded into the ultimate robbery, the deadly attempt on the Farmers Deposit Bank, with its tragic consequences.
Chowick should have stuck to perpetual motion.
Sources: The Representative (Fox Lake, WI), Oct. 21, 1920, May 17, 1923; Pittsburgh Press, Aug. 25, 1926; Daily News (New York), May 7, 1923; Capital Times, (Madison, WI), Sept. 20, 1920; May 8, 1923; Pittsburgh Daily Post, Aug. 25, 1926;