New York City
In Remembrance:
Keeper Hugh
1900, West
Side Prison.

As the 20th Century began, 51-year-old Hugh McGovern had been a New York City prison keeper 20 years.

He had joined the uniformed custodial force when it was part of the dual agency in charge of NYC's major institutions tending prinicipally the poor -- the patients in the municipality's hospitals and asylums and the inmates in its jails and penitentiary.

Above is a digital plaque image memorializing eight
uniformed Correction personnel who died as result of
inmate violence since NYC became a five-borough
municipality in 1898. Click a name for related details.

That agency, the Department of Public Charities and Correction, was divided in two by a 1895 law that took effect Jan. 1, 1896. On that date, the Department of Correction and the Department of Public Charities began operations officially as separate entities. Two years later, New York City expanded from being basically Manhattan Island into a five-borough municipality that included the boroughs of the Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens.

Keeper McGovern had seen those and other significant changes during his two decades on the job. His seniority and clean record likely enabled him to gain assignment to the 7th District Court jail, also known as the West Side Prison, after it opened in 1896.

Situated at 9th Ave. between West 54 and 53th St., the jail was only about a 10 block walk from where the bachelor McGovern lived with his two maiden sisters at 533 West 43rd St.

Click for printable color PDF of digital plaque (7.5 by 9.36 inches, 661 Kb, and 200 dpi resolution).
Hugh was not the only "senior man" working the fourth tier Oct. 29, 1900. Trusty George Wilson, an inmate who did menial tasks around the jail, occupied Cell No. 1 on the tier.

A character straight out of O'Henry, Wilson was an aged homeless man who would turn himself in as a vagrant to get lodging. When his sentence ran out, he would soon appear again before a police magistrate, plead guilty to vagrancy and receive a new sentence.

His intervals of freedom between the jail exit and the court entrance, although never really very extended, likely varied in length depending of his mood of the moment and the climate of the season.

With the autumn chill signalling onset of colder weather ahead, Wilson was back as trusty that fateful October night. George had become a fixture at the West Side Prison during its first four years. His cell door was never locked. He would have been better off if it had been.

For when inmate Wilson realized Keeper McGovern was in trouble, the old trusty went to aid him and wound up as did the keeper -- beaten about the head with a sawed-off cell bar, bound, gagged, and left lying unconscious and bleeding on the tier cat walk.

While the keeper's head wounds proved fatal, the trusty survived his injuries though they were quite serious, especially given his advanced age.

Hugh and George's assailants were their juniors by about 25 to 30 years as regards the former and perhaps closer to a half century as regards the latter. Arthur Flanagan was reportedly 19. Frank Emerson, aka William B. Johnson, was somewhat older. He had already done a 4 1/2-year stint in Sing Sing.

Both were West Siders. Flanagan, who listed his occupation as waiter, was from West 66th St. Emerson, who claimed to make his living playing banjo, was from West 55th St. Whatever their listed occupations, police considered them professopnal burglars.

The two men had been jailed, in lieu of bail, to await trial in a burglary case involving thousands of dollars in valuable pieces taken from a West Side jeweler. They shared Cell No. 6 on the eight-cell tier block that faced 9th Ave.

Emerson, the older of the two escaping inmates, was also the shorter. He was therefore, according to initial news reports, believed to have been the one to squeeze through the locked cell door opening they had created.

They did this by sawing through two of the door's nine vertical, one-inch iron bars that formed the door with the horizontal iron strips that at two foot intervals held the bars in place. The lowest of these strips was two feet above the floor.

Above is a digital plaque image memorializing eight
uniformed Correction personnel who died as result of
inmate violence since NYC became a five-borough
municipality in 1898. Click a name for related details.
The burglary partners sawed the two bars nearly clean through just below the lowest of the horizontal strips. The cuts would not have been detected unless the keeper doing the inspection got down on all fours and, with his head touching the floor, examined the the bars beneath the lowest strip, using his finger tips as well as his eyes.

Even a mirror angled upward at the end of a pole might not have picked up the cuts, especially if the inmates had taken precautions to fill the cuts with dirt, metal dust and gum, all smoothed to the contours of the weaken bars.

The hacksaw blade had been hidden inside a homemade sweet potato pie that Flanagan's girlfriend gave him during one of her visits. The contents of a letter found at her home at the time of her subsequent arrest reportedly confirmed that part of the escape plot.

McGovern's duties as tier keeper included making regular half-hour look-ins on the cells.

Sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., as he turned the corner of the tier block, he was suddenly attacked and savagedly beaten about the head with one of the sawed-off bars wrapped in rags to muffle the sound of the blows.

As Hugh lay unconscious, his skull literally bashed in, the inmate attacker (reputedly Enerson) took the keeper's keys and opened Door No. 6 to free the cellmate, (pressumably Flanagan). Together they bound and gagged McGovern just in case he hadn't been killed. It was hard to tell on the dimly lit tier where the burning gas jets were reduced in number and lowered in intensity to facilitate inmate sleep.

For some reason, Emerson and Flanagan had trouble using McGovern's keys to open the tier gate. Perhaps the patience they had exercised in sawing their cell door bars over a period of several days and nights finally gave way and they became frustrated trying to find and work the right key from among the many taken from the keeper.

Click for printable color PDF of digital plaque (7.5 by 9.36 inches, 661 Kb, and 200 dpi resolution).
So they turned to Plan B:

  • Removing a sufficient number of the unbraced vertical bars from the frame of the window that looked out on the trolley rail yard of the Manhattan Street Railroad Company, and
  • then climbing down a "rope" they had made in advance from blankets, sheets and bed ticking.

Trusty Wilson at this point became aware of and suspicious about their activity, which involved Flanagan and Emerson taking turns standing on a radiator to work at loosing the bars of the window frame six feet above the floor.

The old man looked around for Keeper McGovern, saw him unconscious on the floor, and went to help him, only to be knocked unconscious too. The trusty was left bound and gagged next to the keeper who was dying, if not already dead.

Within a matter of minutes the two inmates had moved or bent window bars to create an opening sufficiently wide for Flanagan to squeeze through and lower himself on the "rope" to where, by kicking away from the jail building and then releasing his grip, he was able to land atop a "dead wall," from which he jumped to the ground below in the trolley rail yard.

But Emerson apparently missed the top of the wall and landed full force and possibly head first on a pile of rails and other metal debris where his crushed and bashed body was later found. He still had McGovern's key on him.

Flanagan walked through the trolley yard and went to Emerson's home where he tried to "con" his cellmate's step-father, William B. Johnson, into giving him some money on the pretext that the step-son had sent him to get it. The step-father wasn't buying into Flanagan's story but instead went to the West Side Prison to find out what was happening.

Click for CO Motchan stories.
By then the escape of Flanagan, the deaths of Keeper McGovern and inmate Emerson, and the serious wounding of Wilson had been discovered. The elderly trusty was transferred to the Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward.

Using information already in police and prison's records, combined with that gotten from Mr. Johnson as well as trolley yard workers who had spotted the escaped inmate, an all-points bulletin was sent out concerning Flanagan. It provided the following description: Negro, 6 feet, 150 lbs., slender, smooth face, last seen wearing a black sack coat, striped paints, tan shoes, a black Fedora hat, a turn-down collar, and a four-in-hand tie.

Despite a manhunt that extended into New Jersey Ramapo Mountains and then into Philadelphia, Flanagan eluded authorities for abouy 10 months. But on Aug. 3, 1901, he was arrested while playing pool in Pittsburg where he said he had been working as a caterer. He was using the name Richard K. Hawkins

After his trial conviction and rejection of his various court appeals, Flanagan was scheduled to executed in May of 1903. But Benjamin B. Odell, Jr, who served two two-year terms as New York State Governor State Governor at the start of the 20th Century, granted two one-week reprieves while he and his staff reviewed the condemned man's bid to have the death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

Flanagan's bid for clemency was based on the claimthat Emerson had been the one who struck the blows that resulted in Keeper McGovern's death. Clemency was not granted and Flanagan was executed in Sing Sing's electric chair on June 8, 1903.

Above is a digital plaque image memorializing eight
uniformed Correction personnel who died as result of
inmate violence since NYC became a five-borough
municipality in 1898. Click a name for related details.
The half-dozen stories on the case used in putting together the above account did not include an explanation of the governor's reasoning in rejecting Flanagan's clemency application. But Odell may well have reasoned

  • that, regardless who actually struck the blow, the attack on McGovern had been planned by them both,
  • that they both had a hand in fashioning the murder weapon,
  • that they both were involved in the keeper being bound, gagged and left to bleed to death from his wounds, if he wasn't already dead,
  • that they both were involved in leaving the wounded trusty Wilson in virtually the same condition, and
  • therefore, regardless which one wielded the weapon, Flanagan and Emerson were both responsible for the results, displaying gross indifference to the human lives involved.

-- The Webmaster

-- The following are the dates of the New York Times stories used in writing the above account: Oct. 30, Nov. 1 and Nov. 3, 1900; August 4, 1901; May. 25 and June 9, 1903.

Seven other New York Times stories mentioning the West Side Prison were read:

  • Feb. 10, 1905 -- Among the 25 male inmates and the 10 female inmates in the West Side Prison, those whose cells faced onto the 9th Ave. where the trolley car barns of the New York City Railway lit up in flames Feb. 9 were moved to other, safer quarters in the jail.

  • June 25, 1918 -- Material witnesses signed and submitted a petition protesting their being held at the West Side Prison in conditions that they argued were contrary to the law regarding their status since they were neither charged with nor convicted of crimes.

  • March 13, 1930 -- William Z. Foster and four of his Communist Party aides were released from the West Side Prison where they had been held without bail until a federal court rule they were entitled to post bail on the charges resulting from a Union Square rally-turned-riot.some days earlier,

  • July 2, 1930 -- During one of his early morning personal inspection "prowls" of the city's jails, Correction Commissioner Richard C. Patterson strolled into the West Side District Court and, being recognized by the keeper of the holding pen, was admitted into it. With a change of tours, a new keeper took over. He wasn't told about the Commissioner being there, didn't recognize him among the prisoners and wrote him down as a burglar when Patterson responded "prowler" to the question why he was there.

    After half an hour chatting with his "fellow prisoners" in the holding pen, Patterson decided his joke had gone on long enough and called the keeper over to dislosed his identity. At first, the keeper refused to believe him but eventually was convinced by Patterson whom he then released.

  • Jan. 21, 1931 -- Correction Commission Richard C. Patterson agreed with a report on the West Side Prison's inadequacies, including the ill suited housing of material witnesses. He expressed support for a centralized magistrates court and detention facility that would eliminate outlying district courts and detention facilities such as the West Side and Harlem prisons.

  • Jan. 22, 1931 -- Aldermanic President John V. McKee inspected the West Side Prison in the wake of a critical report about the facility by the State Department of Correction.

  • Oct. 15, 1937 -- Plans were filed for a West 47th street four story, police station, prison and garage east of the old West Side Court at 53rd St.

-- The Arthur Flanagan entry in Daniel Allen Hearn's excellent reference resource Legal Executions in New York State, 1530 - 1963 very succinctly outlines the same basic story that is detailed much more extensively in the above account.

However, Hearn's source notes indicate he used New York Herald stories of Oct. 30, 1900 and June 9, 1903. This may account for differences on a few points: Keeper McGovern's age was given as 60. Flanagan's age at his execution was given as 27. The murder weapon was said to have been a chamber pot. Once outside their cell, the two inmates were said never to have attempted to get to the stairway by opening the tier door.

The webmaster's account goes with the Times version on the matter of ages, the weapon and the attempt to open the tier door to the stairway.

-- A New York State Senate Committee on Cities legislative report published in 1891 includes the "pay-roll of city prison (Tombs)." Entries include "Hugh McGover, keeper . . . . . . $800.00."

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