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The Great Escape of 1916 – Another Forgotten Tale of Rhode Island

By Jim Ignasher

If the two deputy sheriffs were apprehensive about their assignment it wasn’t recorded, but one could understand if they were, for it was highly unusual for only two officers to be given the responsibility to transport thirty-one prisoners from the Providence courthouse to the state prison in Cranston. Furthermore, something wasn’t right – the prisoners were singing and acting boisterous – almost as if they were happy to be going to jail. And that too, was highly unusual.

The date was March 21, 1916, and although the mechanized era of the automobile had arrived, Providence County Deputy Sheriffs G. Ralph Tillinghast and Nathan Colvin had been detailed to bring the prisoners to Cranston in what was described in the newspapers as a “moving van” drawn by four horses. In the rear of the van were three benches, two on either side, with a third running down the middle on which the prisoners were to sit. The conveyance was far from secure, with nothing but oil-cloth flaps covering the sides and loosely tied at the bottom. They were more to keep the weather off passengers and freight than to prevent escapes. And the van was to be operated by a hired driver who was not a law enforcement officer.

The prisoners were in custody for two reasons. Some had been indicted by a grand jury, while others had been arraigned before a judge for various offenses, but couldn’t post bail. All were handcuffed and placed in the van. The only prisoner not to be shackled was the lone woman in the group, Mrs. Rose G—– of Woonsocket, who’d been unable to secure bail after pleading not guilty at her arraignment. She was placed up front with Deputy Tillinghast and the driver, while Deputy Colvin took a position on the rear tailgate to guard the men.

The vehicle left Providence via Reservoir Avenue and turned south onto Pontiac Avenue as it entered Cranston. As the horses plodded along at a leisurely pace, some of the prisoners kept singing while others suddenly grew quiet. The sheriffs were armed with revolvers, each holding six bullets, which means the math wasn’t right if all thirty-one tried something at once, and Colvin was essentially watching thirty of them by himself.

When the van came to a railroad crossing about a mile from the prison, a signal was given, and Deputy Colvin was suddenly set upon by three prisoners who’d managed to free themselves with a hidden key. They pushed Colvin to the street and jumped upon him. One produced a concealed pipe and beat the officer into semi-consciousness, then took his revolver. Meanwhile the driver suddenly threw pepper in Tillinghast’s eyes, while three others grabbed hold of him and pulled him into the back of the van. After disarming him, he was dragged to the rear and thrown into the road beside Colvin. When he tried to get up two shots rang out. One bullet struck him in the shoulder and deflected into his neck, gravely wounding him. The other missed.

With both officers down, sixteen prisoners freed themselves of their restraints and fled into the nearby woods, along with the driver who’d evidently been part of the escape plan.

Fifteen however made no attempt to get away, including Mrs. G—– who rushed to the fallen officers and took charge of the situation. After ordering the others to remain in the van, she administered first aid to the deputies using her handkerchief to staunch the flow of blood. Colvin gradually regained his senses enough to take command and ordered Tillinghast be placed in the van. With this done, he took the reins and set out for the prison. Police radios were non-existent in 1916, so an alarm wasn’t given until the van arrived at its destination. Then heavily armed officers from the Department of Corrections, Cranston and Providence police, as well as Providence County sheriffs, converged on the area. (The Rhode Island State Police didn’t exist until 1925.)

Within the next few hours eleven of the sixteen escapees were back in custody, but five were still at large. Some of those who were re-captured claimed they’d been forced to take part in the escape, but their claims weren’t taken seriously.

Meanwhile Deputy Tillinghast lay in critical condition at Rhode Island Hospital with a bullet lodged in his neck, and surgeons were trying to decide how it should be removed. Although his prognosis was grim, he eventually recovered. Deputy Colvin was treated and released, and doctors expected him to make a full recovery.

Rose G was hailed as a hero for her cool head and quick thinking in a dire situation. Being the only prisoner not handcuffed, she could have easily escaped with the others, but she not only stayed behind, she did what she could to help the injured deputies.

Two days after the escape, it was announced that a special grand jury would be impaneled to investigate the incident, for circumstances indicated that it had been planned ahead of time with help from outside sources. One area the jury would look into was how one prisoner came to be armed with the concealed pipe used to beat Deputy Colvin, when the prisoners had supposedly been searched before leaving the court lock-up.

Meanwhile, it was further reported that deputy sheriffs had been given orders that in the future, at the first sign of trouble they were “to shoot and shoot to kill”.

By March 23rd, two more escapees were in custody, one of whom was the coward who shot Deputy Tillinghast, leaving three still unaccounted for. It was believed they’d left the Providence area and their descriptions were wired to police departments all along the eastern seaboard. Research was unable to determine if they were ever re-captured.

As to those who took part in the escape, the ringleaders were given long prison sentences ranging from 17 to 20 years each.