1950 : Governor G. Mennon Williams Narrowly Escapes Becoming Prison Hostage

When:
July 8, 2018 all-day
2018-07-08T00:00:00-04:00
2018-07-09T00:00:00-04:00

Saturday morning, July 8, 1950. Michigan’s rookie governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, mulling his chances of winning another term as chief executive, was flying north for some politicking, inspections and square-dance calling in the Upper Peninsula.

After dropping in the Northland Hotel to pose with some local kids, he had lunch with Emery Jacques, warden at Marquette Branch Prison. He had planned to tour the prison and Northern Michigan College to see how these institutions were managing under tighter budgets.

Over lunch, Jacques lamented that the guard force had to be reduced and the cost of inmate meals cut from fifty-eight to fifty-five cents a day, both due to budget constraints. The governor promised to return later in the day to observe how the prisoners were taking to the cheaper meals.

Williams had proposed earlier that the legislature modernize the state’s “archaic” prison system, reduce dangerous overcrowding and pay the guards a fairer wage. Inmates in other prisons had rioted over the worsening conditions. Instead of granting the governor his wish, the legislature chopped at the budget, so the chief executive scheduled a fact-finding trip to impress voters, or so the papers said. He told the warden that the protests and subsequent rumblings from Marquette inmates brought him north; he had to see for himself. Little did he know what danger lurked at Marquette Prison.

At 4:45 p.m. on July 8, Governor Williams showed up as promised, accompanied by Representative Louis Mezzano of Wakefield, state pilot Stan McWhinney and state police corporal George Kerr, the governor’s bodyguard. The warden fell in with them for the tour. As the party of five entered the 700-seat dining hall, prisoners were just filing in for dinner. Within ten minutes, prison trustees began serving food.

Williams wanted to eat the same food as the prisoners: ham and lima beans, with side dishes. Moving toward the kitchen, he encountered chief steward James Nancarrow, and asked him whether he could taste the lima beans. As he asked this, he was standing between two sets of swinging doors leading into the kitchen. In a flash, the tranquil scene erupted in violence.

“Governor Attacked” blared Monday’s headline in the Mining Journal, followed by Bob Biolo’s gripping account of the chaotic scene.

As the governor stood near the kitchen doors, convict Ralph Stearns leapt out from behind the door and rushed at the governor, waving a six-inch kitchen knife. Sticking the knife under Williams’ throat, Stearns shouted, “Come on, Soapy! Come with us.” He forced Williams into the kitchen as bodyguard Kerr and a prison guard quickly followed. The governor was puzzled at first, thinking it was “play acting,” but when convict Stearns began poking him with the knife, he knew he was in real trouble.

Seeing his boss with a crazed convict’s knife at his throat, Kerr tried to grab Stearns, but was cut off by another convict, John A. Halstad, who was wielding a homemade knife. By now, the whole group was in the kitchen. Since the kitchen was visible through a surround of glass, 700 prisoners were getting an eyeful of a real-time, high-level assault. The mess hall began throbbing with excited inmates as the struggle went on.

A third member of the convict assault team, the violent Jack “Crazy Jack” Hyatt, had armed himself with a heavy, four-foot long, metal onion masher and gone after the warden. Hyatt swung and hit the warden across the face with his bludgeon, breaking the warden’s arm as he tried to protect his face. The governor had seen Crazy Jack “come zooming at us…and screaming bad language.” Three guards—Albert Haukness, Ed Anderson and Albert Texmunt—went after Crazy Jack, who was keeping them at bay by wildly waving his onion masher.

At this point, the governor was pinned by Stearns’ knife, Hyatt was whacking people with his masher and Halstad was grappling with the bodyguard Kerr. Jacques, despite a broken arm, managed to close the kitchen door against any more agitated prisoners.

At this point, Halstad got behind Kerr and plunged his knife into the bodyguard’s back. Despite the wound, Kerr held his assailant off with one hand, then pulled out his Smith & Wesson pistol with the other hand and warned Halstad to drop the weapon. “I’m going to kill you!” Halstad yelled at Kerr, who drilled him with a single shot to the stomach. He then swung around and pointed the gun at Stearns, ordering him to remove the knife from the governor’s throat or he would get it, too. The warden also issued a warning: “Drop those knives or be shot!”

The gunshot in such a small space echoed off the walls and stunned everyone. As Stearns relaxed his grip, the governor swiped his knife. The deeply frustrated Stearns yelled at the governor, “I could kill you, Soapy, but you don’t deserve it. I’ve served twenty-two years in this hole. I’ve served twenty-two years!” He was venting his rage at blowing a chance to break out, with the governor as a hostage.

Chief steward Nancarrow, rushing to help the governor, got a clout on the head from Crazy Jack’s onion masher for his trouble. According to Ike Wood’s 100 Years At Hard Labor, the blow cut Nancarrow’s head open and bounced him off the wall. A Mining Journal photo showed the governor consoling Nancarrow, who sported a large bandage on his forehead.

Guard Albert Haukness was the next one injured. As he reached into a locker for a billy club, Hyatt swung his masher and broke both of Haukness’ arms. Hyatt dropped his onion masher and ran for the door, but guards grabbed him and threw him to the floor. Kerr, bleeding from the stab wound in his back, kept his gun trained on Hyatt as the latter was being restrained. At this point, some prisoners began filtering into the crowded kitchen, but a word from Kerr and a wave of his gun quelled any more disturbances.

Guards quickly hustled the governor and warden out of the building and into a waiting automobile. Others spread through the mess hall to herd the diners out of the room. Only a few convicts were left at the scene. Stearns and Hyatt were slapped in solitary confinement while Halstad was taken to the prison hospital with his stomach wound.

A Marquette doctor was summoned to help prison staff with the wounded felon, but to no avail, as Halstad, age fifty, died at 3:10 a.m. the following Monday. He had been serving a life sentence for armed robbery. The net result of the raid was one dead convict, three injured employees and no escapes. All this took place in less than fifteen minutes.

Halstad’s coconspirators also were in stir for armed robbery: Stearns, forty-eight, had a life sentence, while Hyatt, only twenty-eight, was serving twenty-five to thirty years. All three were from Wayne County. Stearns previously had taken part in a 1938 escape in which warden Marvin Coon and some state parole board members were held hostage until the convicts were captured in Menominee.

Governor Williams had nothing but praise for the employees who came to his aid. “I particularly want to commend [George] Kerr for his courage and quick thinking…I also want to praise the prison personnel. They are paid a little over $2,000 a year to risk their lives in this sort of work. It is also important to bear in mind that only a few inmates were involved in this fracas, and that, in fact, one of the prisoners even rushed to the aid of the steward. The prison system is functioning well. The situation moved rather rapidly, and this ‘Crazy Jack’ was absolutely out of his mind.”

The governor recounted how Stearns, waving his long knife, told him, “You know, I could kill you if I wanted to.” Williams figured he was angling for mercy.

Undaunted by the attack, the governor appeared at a Democratic banquet at the Chalet Restaurant in Marquette before eighty-two candidates and supporters, many of whom were impressed by his “unruffled composure.” He used the incident to slam legislators who put prison guards in jeopardy for so little compensation, charging the prison system was cutting guards at a time when the prison population was rising. He noted that Marquette housed 922 inmates versus an average of 800 the previous year.

After the dinner, he delighted a political crowd at a dance in the Knights of Columbus hall with his specialty: calling square dances. The next day, he was glad-handing at an American Legion picnic in Champion. After staying overnight in Marquette, he joined Corrections Commissioner Ernest Brooks in looking at the Ford Motor Co. site in Pequaming for possible state use. Ford had the property for sale, and some county residents wanted the state to purchase it for a mental hospital or home for delinquent boys. The plan fell through when the site was deemed unsuitable and the price was too high, although Ford said it had cut the price considerably.

Williams proceeded to L’Anse, escorted by the local drum and bugle corps and U.P. labor queen Jeanne St. George of L’Anse. He spoke at a downtown rally, then local Dems hosted a dinner party for him at the Whirl-A-Gig with more than 300 people. Also on hand was Copper Country strawberry queen Marilyn Francois of L’Anse.

In the wake of the prison scare, dead convict John Halstad was buried in Marquette after a failed attempt to find any relatives. Stearns and Hyatt remained in solitary confinement, but three years later Hyatt was a ringleader in a riot at the Jackson State prison.

In an editorial two days after the assault, the Mining Journal questioned the value of the governor’s visit. While praising bodyguard Kerr and prison staff, the paper asked whether it was “necessary for the Chief Executive of the state to expose himself to the danger always present within the prison.” He could have gotten the information he needed with a conference in the warden’s office, they said. They also suggested he was making political hay by suggesting the attack took place because the prison was shorthanded on guards.

“Political claptrap,” said the Mining Journal. The incident would have occurred “even if there had been ten to twenty more guards nearby…Since the prison budget was reduced by the legislature, only seven guards have been discharged. It is difficult to understand how so small a cut in the force would turn the institution upside down or make it impossible to give the public adequate protection from the felons.”

Williams went on to serve five more terms before joining the Kennedy Administration as assistant secretary of state, and serving as ambassador to the Philippines under President Lyndon Johnson. He was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court from 1970-86, serving the last few years as Chief Justice. He died in 1988.

Sources::

Larry Chabot, “Governor, don’t eat the lima beans“, Marquette Monthly, September 9, 2009.

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