Monday, October 5, 2020

The Other Tunnel Escape

by Erin Doane, Curator

On October 7, 1864, 10 Confederate soldiers tunneled their way out of Elmira’s prisoner-of-war camp. You can read all about that famous Civil War-era tunnel escape in Rachel Dworkin’s blog post, The Great Escape. Another, much less famous, tunnel escape took place in Elmira just four months later, on January 27, 1865. This time it was from the county jail.

Courthouse and Clerks Office, Elmira
“About 8 o’clock yesterday morning as the Jailor of our county jail, Edward Thomas, called the prisoners to breakfast, upon looking over the number of his charges, found several missing,” read the story in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser the next day. The missing prisoner who caused the greatest concern was Lorenzo C. Stewart (aka Leroy Channing Shear, aka Charles R. Clark, aka Frank Mallory), a murderer who was supposed to be transferred to Albany.

Stewart’s troubles with the law began in 1863. On September 4 that year, he enlisted in the Union Army at Utica. He took the enlistment bounty, disserted, then reenlisted in Ogdensburg a month later, where he collected another bounty. On October 9, however, he was arrested for bounty jumping and brought to Elmira. He tried to escape by poisoning two soldiers who were guarding him. Both men died. Stewart was tried, convicted of murder, and sentenced to be hanged, but he had powerful friends. President Lincoln himself commuted Stewart’s sentence to ten years in the Albany penitentiary. (Later he married a woman who used her family’s influence to get President Hayes to pardon him for the murders.)

Before that transfer to Albany could happen in 1865, however, Stewart and six of his fellow prisoners, tunneled their way out of the county jail. When Jailor Thomas went to investigate their absence on the morning of January 27, he found a hole in their cell cut through 6-inch-thick solid timbers, just large enough for a medium sized man to crawl through. Beyond the opening was a 20-foot-long tunnel that sloped just deeply enough to pass under the jail’s east wall. The men had likely been digging the tunnel since November.

Seven men slipped out through the tunnel. Besides Stewart, who seems to be considered the ring-leader, there were Charles F. Varian, who was awaiting trial for forgery, and Warren King, William Manning, Anthony Laponte, George Lee, and Wilson Jackson who had broken into L. Strauss and Co.’s dry goods store and were being held on charges of grand larceny. Stewart and Varian both left letters behind. Varian wrote to his wife while Stewart wrote to his sister and his father, and to Sheriff Edwin W. Howell.

Transcription of the letter from Charles Varian to his wife that was found after
the escape, first printed in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, January 28, 1865

Transcription of the letter from Lorenzo C. Stewart that was found after the
escape, first printed in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, January 28, 1865

A reward of $200 was offered for the apprehension of Stewart, and $100 for each of the others, but I only found a report of one, Charles Varian, being recaptured soon after the breakout. On the occasion of his death in the Auburn prison hospital in 1897, the Star-Gazette had an article enumerating Varian’s many encounters with the law. “Probably there is no one criminal every before the Chemung County bar, outside of murderers, who had more notoriety than Charles F. Varian of Horseheads and Elmira,” the reporter declared.

Elmira Star-Gazette, July 9, 1897
Varian’s first appearance in the local criminal record was when he was arrested for forging his father’s name on drafts amounting to several thousand dollars in December 1864; the crime that led to him being held in the county jail in Elmira. After his recapture in February 1865, he jumped bail. He was on the run until 1868 when he was caught and sentenced to two years in Auburn prison for forgery. He was arrest for forgery again in 1892 and sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Auburn prison, where he ultimately died.

I wasn’t able to track down the five men who were being held in 1865 for grand larceny, but I did find Lorenzo Stewart in a March 1902 article in the Star-Gazette. That year, the police in Boston contacted the Elmira Police Department asking for any information they could provide about Leroy Channing Shear, aka Lorenzo Stewart. He was wanted in that city on charges of passing worthless checks. The article detailed some of Stewart’s other criminal activities, including his arrest in Burlington, Vermont in 1884 for check fraud and his arrest in Albany in 1891 for grand larceny. He had served time for both crimes and by 1902 was at it again. He was arrest in May of that year. The last mention I could find of Stewart, under the name Shear, was on June 13, 1914. He was again wanted for passing forged checks, this time in Syracuse. According to the police records, he was nearly 80 years old at the time, so his life of crime was likely near its end.


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