Charles W. Clark
Two Years is Long Enough
The prison cell in
A long prison sentence
for 'borrowing' a horse
Columnist Audrey Yeager has written before about her grandfather's prison sentence, his escape and his re-arrest in 1942. This is the complete story.
By AUDREY YEAGER
Like so many other natural seaports in the United States, Tacoma, Washington was crackling with activity in 1942. Workers were giving their best, turning out the finest warships in the world. The tide flats never slept as the shipyards kept round-the clock shifts humming smoothly.
Close to 6 oclock on a certain fall evening during the second shift, a great cacophony of sound flowed steadily into the night sky as riveters, welders, carpenters and metal workers plied their trade. That evening 54-year-old Charles W. Clark was swinging his hammer with the best of them, and many times, as his ballpeen hit the target, he imagined himself across one ocean or another. He thought of himself as delivering a blow that might help one of his sons overseas in the thick of World War II.
His youngest son, Charles, had barely passed his 19th year and was fighting in the South Pacific. Donald, 25, was tramping somewhere across Italy and France.
It was good their father didnt know the details of what was happening to either young man. Don hadnt been dry or warm for several weeks, his black hair had turned snow white, and he slept on his feet. The only food available was what he and the others could gather from fields and fruit trees, as they inched their way toward Germany.
The battle for the Pacific Islands was a different thing entirely. Claude, as they called the youngest son, moved through the stinking, steamy tropical jungles in wringing wet clothing, where the fighting was done with hands or bayonets. He was enmeshed in gathering nightmare memories of his own.
No, Charlie Clark didnt need to know any of those details right then. He was about to be sucked into a whirlpool of shame and dejection that had nothing to do with World War ll.
Out of the corner of his eye Clark saw two men striding purposefully toward him. With their dark suits, white shirts and ties, they stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. He went on with his work and then felt a tap on his shoulder. Are you Charles Washington Clark? One of them asked.
Thats my name, he replied, what can I do for you?
The tallest of the pair reached in his pocket, producing an FBI badge and a pair of handcuffs. Youre under arrest, he announced without ceremony.
Clark couldnt believe it was happening. Surely it was a mistake of some kind. Still, his knees felt like jelly and his tongue was thick.
At the Tacoma police department no one was more surprised than the FBI agents when they heard the charges read against Clark. The chief of police said he was wanted as a fugitive from Oklahoma. Supposedly, he had escaped from the Oklahoma Penitentiary over 23 years ago, where he had been incarcerated for, Larceny of a domestic animal. Translation, Stealing a horse.
After checking Mr. Clark's activities over the last 23 years, and finding his record was not only spotless but exemplary, the chief of the Tacoma police department refused to put him in a cell. Charles was placed in a small, comfortable room next to the office without so much as a locked door between him and freedom. The chief also thought there was some giant mix-up. Charles would stay in this room while the wheels of the legal system rolled about seeking the truth.
Those who knew Charles Clark would not believe he had committed any crime. There was not one black mark against him in his community. He was highly respected in business dealings as he bought run-down houses, renovated them and sold them at a fair price. Not only was his record clean, none of his six grown children had ever had so much as a speeding ticket. And then there were those two young military men on the other side of the world.
This is the place that would be
Charles Clark's new home in
Oklahoma...for six years!
Any similarity between this quietly contented husband and father and the man who had carefully planned and executed an escape from one of the roughest prisons in the country was difficult if not impossible to comprehend. The fellow running for his life through swamps, forests and rivers, with bloodhounds baying in the distance didnt wear the face of kind and unassuming Charles Clark. Did he?
And, what about all those years he would have had to hide? Of sneaking up to houses where his family might be, just to get a glimpse of them. Of crisscrossing the country alone, sleeping in a hundred barns, working for meals, or a few bucks here and there. And there would have been the waiting until it seemed safe to emerge into the light of a normal neighborhood, waiting to send for his wife and two little ones to join him.
To imagine Charles Clark in this role was harder than believing the moon was made of green cheese.
Mrs. Clark was politically minded and had campaigned for the fellow running for the office of mayor. She was an organizer and a doer, the head of every committee that came along. She planned and oversaw many successful fund raising events. If your group needed a special program you called on Mary Clark.
It was reported that Mrs. Clark spent most of her days at the side of her husband at the jail, trying to lift his spirits. Nothing seemed to work. He was a beaten man, shamed to the point of depression, and had trouble lifting his head. Those who saw him during this time say he became an old man in those weeks. He suffered terribly over what his children and grandchildren would think of him.
His three daughters and stateside son talked of being brought up to respect others and never to tell a lie. Their father, they related, was adamant about those two things.
Days passed and the newspaper headlines told the Clark story. Well, they told as much of it as they knew. His picture was there for all to see with captions like, Upright Life Crashed, and, Oklahoma Rejects Plea.
Most of Tacoma waited for Charlie to deny the story, and finally the newspaper printed these words, Charles Washington Clark, who has a wife and six children and who has been a law abiding citizen of Tacoma for 23 years, faces extradition to Oklahoma to finish a prison term. He admits he escaped from the Oklahoma penitentiary in 1916 while serving a six-year term for stealing a horse. Clarks identity was discovered when his fingerprints, taken at a local shipyard where he was employed, were sent to the FBI in Washington, DC. His wife and children are grief stricken. Efforts are being made to prevent his return to Oklahoma on the grounds that his upright life for 23 years has atoned for his crime.
Oklahoma wanted him, and it seemed the final word would have to come from the governor of that state. Would he have to serve the rest of the term, plus added time for the escape?
Charlies wife--go-getter that she was--gathered thousands of signatures on a petition asking the Oklahoma governor to issue a parole for her husband. Robert S. Kerr, governor at that time, turned it down, stating, If he wants to return to Oklahoma and surrender I will consider his application.
Mr. Clark had trouble trusting the Oklahoma justice system.
An Earlier autumn 1914
Missouri farmers were having a tough time of it and the Clark family was no exception. For various reasons crops were failing and there was no day work to be found. Charlie Clark had a wife and two-year-old daughter to think about, as well as a child on the way.
Through one of his brothers-in-law Clark heard that Oklahoma wheat ranchers were having a bumper crop and begging for harvesters. But it was a tough decision for the young couple to make. Because of the distance Charlie wouldnt be able to come home periodically. He would have to stay in the neighboring state until the harvest was over. They decided it had to be done, and it was made somewhat easier by the fact that Mary
had parents and siblings close by.
Early one morning, Charlie grabbed a ride on a wagon with some other fellows, heading for a ranch in Oklahoma that had advertised for harvesters. He kissed his wife and daughter, giving Mary what money he had and assured her he wouldnt be gone longer than a month or so unless there was more work offered.
Charles slept in a bunkhouse with the other men and spent most of the daylight hours working in the vast wheat fields. In the evenings they played cards, or, checkers and talked of their homes and families. Most of them were homesick and Clark had a double dose. He couldnt help wondering how Mary was getting along, and if the pregnancy was going well.
About one month into the harvest, and just after midnight, a rider trotted up to the bunkhouse. He slid off the horse as if exhausted, tied the reins around a pole and entered the sleeping quarters. Several of the men sat up one of them was Charlie Clark. Are you in here, Charlie? Came a loud whisper from the doorway.
It was Marys brother, Bill. He had been riding for two days and two nights, looking for the right place. Mary was ill. It looked like the baby was coming far too early and she was having a terrible time. So bad, in fact, that the mid-wife didnt think she was going to live.
Charles grabbed his coat, leaving the rest of his gear stored under his cot, and ran toward the corral with Bill at his heels. Stopping at the tack room first, he gathered up reins and saddle, then slipped into the corral and picked out a big sorrel gelding. Charlie, rasped his brother-in-law, My horse wont make it without some rest. Lets wait until morning.
Clark was tightening the cinch of the saddle, I cant wait, Bill! You come on whenever you can. And he galloped out of the yard, as yellow lights began to show in the bunkhouse and up at the main house.
The Missouri border was still a hundred miles away when he was apprehended, dragged from his mount and handcuffed as a horse thief. At the county seat, while he was doing his best to defend himself, a judge pronounced him guilty and sentenced him to six years at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Years later, Clark was asked why he didnt explain the circumstances at the trial. He replied, What trial?
There is no stopping time, although there are some rocky periods in life when an hour seems to take a day. Thats how it was for Charlie Clark. If he thought he was homesick before, this was misery. But, he had choices. Either fret until bitterness poisoned him, or continue being the man he was when he came into the place. He chose the latter, learning carpentry, picking up some skill in the machine shop and working in the vegetable gardens just outside the prison walls. Before two years was up, Charlie was a trustee.
He heard the bell ring, calling all inmates inside for the evening.
It was just too beautiful to go back inside those walls. The sky was a blue he hadnt noticed until coming here. He hadnt really appreciated the trees or stopped to feel the breeze on his cheek before, either. Then he thought of Mary and the two little ones, for all had gone well with the pregnancy in spite of the scare that had set him flying from the ranch in such fear. And, just like that it was decided. He started to walk away from the prison toward a copse of young aspens.
The bay of a bloodhound is not something you soon forget. Charlie heard them coming when he was probably 10 miles away from the prison and heading for a thin line of waist high shrubs. He knew that greenery meant water probably a small creek. He ran toward it, got his drink and plowed into the water running. Every country boy knows that bloodhounds cant get a scent in water. Then again, you cant keep that up forever either.
At one point, the escapee ran up an embankment, down into the water and back up the side of the creek bed, trying to think of ways to confuse the onrushing hounds. With a stitch in his side, he climbed through a barbed wire fence and into a cow pasture, purposely stepping into several fresh, cow pies, before he raced on. Somewhere he had heard that the smell of the cow droppings overpowered the human odor.
Charlie stopped, listening, but at first all he could hear was his own heartbeat then it came again the far off whistle of a freight train to the north of him. He turned toward the sound and forced stone-heavy legs to keep moving, one in front of the other.
From Kansas chicken ranches to the Chicago stockyards, Charlie bummed across America dreaming of the day he would see his family again. He didnt dare go anywhere near Missouri, but he wrote letters and was on his way to the next state before they left the post office. He saved every penny he earned at whatever work he could get. Sometimes he stayed at a job only a day or two. Sometimes there was enough to keep him busy for a week, but he never felt comfortable much longer than that. Not yet anyway.
About a year-and-a-half later he began to feel almost safe, safe enough to take a permanent job on a ranch back in Kansas. He sent train tickets and money for Mary under an assumed name and she and the two little girls came joyfully to meet him.
Eventually the Clark family ended up in Tacoma, Washington. They had 4 more children, altogether, three girls and three boys. Charles family, including mother, father and most of his eight brothers and sisters would sooner or later settle in Washington; Marys family, too.
Charles Clark poses with his granddaughter in front of her
dad's service station. She grew
up to be our Audrey Yeager.
They were happy, prosperous years for all of them, even though there was always a little niggling fear in Marys heart. Charles quit any serious worry about 1930. Who was going to continue chasing some guy who borrowed a horse 16 years ago? By the 1940s Clark rarely thought about it at all. Both he and Mary were too concerned about their sons across the sea to think much about what had happened all those years ago.
The ad in the newspaper said the shipyard was in desperate need of workers. Charlie was a top rate carpenter and he wanted to sign on. Mary was against it. They will take your fingerprints, Charles. Dont do it! Please dont!
They dont care about me after all this time, Mary.
Please dont do it, Charles!
But of course, he did, and they did fingerprint him, and they did send the prints into the FBI, where all the prints were sent. And thats how they found Charles Washington Clark.
The story, however, ends well. Charlie was released on a writ of habeas corpus after Tacoma newspapers had asked Governor Arthur Langlie editorially, to refuse extradition. Superior court Judge Ernest F. Freeman granted the writ. The court held that Oklahoma had had ample opportunity to take further action to obtain custody of Clark but had failed to do so.
Mr. Clark returned to his job at the shipyards after his release.
In later years one of his granddaughters--it was me, to be precise--asked him why he chose to leave the prison after two years. His answer wasnt profound or philosophical. It wasnt made up of words of wisdom, but it was so typical of the man he was.
I just figured two years was long enough for something I didnt do, he said.
© 2001 by Audrey Yeager. The caricature drawing of Audrey Yeager is © 2001 by Jim Hummel. The photos are from the author's private collection.
You can comment on this column or contact Audrey Yeager with an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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