Despite media stories claiming early on that Richard Matt and David Sweat were the first-ever escapees from Clinton Prison, some in the past did it in even more spectacular fashion, and overall, hundreds managed to escape under various circumstances. Among them was Jack Williams, a participant in two Clinton exits involving unusual components featured in no other Dannemora escapes.
Williams was sentenced to Clinton in January 1875, and six months later took part in an escape scheme that was only partially successful. He and three others worked the overnight shift in the forge, which was very close to Clinton’s outer wall, with Dannemora’s main street just on the other side. They widened a hole where a belt passed outside the building, and through that opening went three men.
Williams was quite heavy and couldn’t fit through the hole (newspapers described him as “a stout man”), forcing him to stay behind. The three men dropped to the street and ran for the woods, but were captured soon after their absence was discovered.
A year later, Williams put his great size to good use in a second attempt, one that involved Clinton’s famous cannon—and a candidate for president. The cannon at Clinton was installed when the prison first opened in 1845, and public advertisements defined its purpose: to broadcast for twenty miles in all directions that a breakout had occurred. If one inmate escaped, the cannon sounded once; if more than one escaped, the cannon was fired three times for each escapee. The blasts warned the public to beware, but a reward was paid for each inmate captured, and in a relatively poor region, the cannon was a signal to go hunting for profit, which many people did.
The system had to be followed religiously in order to effect the recapture of dangerous criminals. For that reason, most wardens forbade the cannon’s use for any other purpose, even Independence Day and New Year’s celebrations.
But in 1876, political excitement was at a fever pitch for New York Governor Samuel Tilden, who was about to announce his candidacy for president of the United States. Zealous supporters arranged to have Clinton’s cannon carried off to Plattsburgh for a big Fourth of July celebration, to be highlighted by statewide confirmation that Tilden was running. When the news arrived, the cannon would begin firing.
Jack Williams, serving a second term at Clinton, chose this same time for his departure. While overseeing an underground mining crew of three other inmates, Williams overwhelmed the convict deepest in the mine and tied him up. Working towards the surface, he did the same to the next two men, leaving no one available who could reveal his escape. Utilizing rope and a grappling hook, he then climbed the picket wall, descended on the outside, and walked away. (During the prison’s early years, Dannemora’s wall was a 20-foot-high wooden picket fence.)
When his absence was discovered, the cannon/alarm was at Plattsburgh, fourteen miles away, something Tilden’s local political foes gladly shared with the media as the manhunt for the missing convict continued. Williams, a prolific criminal in the Albany area, met the fate of nearly every other Clinton escapee—recapture, and a return trip north to complete his term.
Photo: A section of Dannemora’s early picket wall (1880).
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.