Saturday, October 19, 2019

The (Almost) King of the Jailbreak


During the spring of 1923 two sailors from Delaware whom were part of the crew of the U.S.S. Wyoming deserted while on leave from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Steve Jankovic and Irving Biddle should have stuck with the Navy. While AWOL they were arrested for breaking and entering the garage of Frank Gootee of Smyrna. They were released to the Navy for court martial but out on the streets in just a few months. On October 1, 1923 the pair, along with Biddle's sister Ida, held up Wilmington taxi driver Ralph Mustard, robbed him and stole his cab. They were caught a few days later in Northern New Jersey. Both Jankovic and Biddle were convicted of highway robbery sentenced to 40 lashes plus 25 years in the New Castle County Workhouse at Greenbank. Ida Biddle was released because it was determined she was forced to ride along with the men and was not part of the highway robbery.

Evening Journal 9/19/1931
The following December the men were in the news again when Biddle wrote to his sister instructing her to deliver a roasted chicken to them for Christmas dinner. The roasted chicken was to be stuffed with two .38 caliber revolvers and ammunition for the men to use to break out of the workhouse. Unfortunately for the men Ida became very intoxicated in Chester and passed out in a theater, when she was brought the hospital the staff found the letter in her belongings but the chicken had already been delivered. Warden Leach had the workhouse searched and no weapons were found. Biddle and Jankovic were given lengthy stays in solitary confinement.

In September of 1925, Jankovic was caught trying to hatch a plan to hacksaw his way out of the confines of the workhouse. He had mail ordered a dozen hacksaw blades and had them hidden but never got to use them before they were found by the guards. He was given 60 days in solitary confinement. In 1928 Biddle and Jankovic were again caught trying to escape with smuggled hacksaws.

Evening Journal 9/19/1931
On September 18, 1931, there was a riot and spectacular jailbreak at the New Castle County Workhouse at Greenbank. When it was all over, one guard and one prisoner were shot, a steel door was dynamited, and 14 inmates escaped. The nearby railroad tracks were an excellent path for the getaway as they were not very visible from the roads. The men split up and went in various directions. Some made their way to Wilmington and others decided the fastest way to get far from the workhouse as quickly as possible was to walk the tracks to Landenberg Junction and hop a B&O freight train headed toward Baltimore or Philadelphia. Yet others decided to make their way westward along the tracks and ended up in Yorklyn where they were ultimately recaptured. 

On September 19, John P. Eckles of Yorklyn was approached by some of the escapees who commanded him to drive them in his car. He refused but gave them the key saying, “I don’t feel like driving”. The men took off in the car but it choked out and they were unable to figure out how to keep it running. They gave up then unsuccessfully attempted to steal another car nearby. They left on foot but by then the police were tipped off. An hour and a half after trying to steal Eckles car, several State Police officers were in Yorklyn on the lookout for the escapees. They saw 5 men in a field near the bridge over the Red Clay. The men opened fire and the police returned fire. After a brief gun battle, the men took cover and tried to hide, soon the police apprehended 4 of the 5. Biddle managed to crawl away and hide but Jankovic was amongst the men captured.

Two days later on September 21, escapee Irving Biddle, was still lurking about the Red Clay Valley. Biddle hadn’t eaten in days, came to the cabin of Morris Chandler on Yorklyn Road and asked for food. Chandler’s housemate, William Tillman, realizing Biddle was an escapee, slipped out the back door and ran a half mile to the garage of Harry Gilston who telephoned the workhouse. Meanwhile, Chandler keep the food coming and engaged Biddle in conversation until the Warden Leach himself accompanied by the assistant warden and a guard came and took Biddle into custody without a struggle. It was then they discovered that Biddle was suffering from a flesh wound from the gun battle. Eventually all but one of the fugitives, Thomas Kelly, was recaptured. Jankovic was determined to be one of the ringleaders in the jailbreak and was charged with shooting the prison guard but the charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Jankovic had applied for parole to the Board of Pardons a month before the jailbreak and was scheduled for a hearing in October. On October 2 the Board of Pardons told the Evening Journal, "So far as the Board of Pardons is concerned, the pardon case of Jankovic is closed." Jankovic was later sentenced to an additional 7 years for being one of the masterminds of the jailbreak. Biddle and others were given solitary confinement for their part in the jailbreak.

On January 3, 1933, the men were back in the news for another
Evening Journal - 1/3/1933
attempted jailbreak. Again, they managed to smuggle hacksaws into the jail. They cut their way through the bars of their cells in solitary confinement and used chewing gum to hold the bars into place until the time was right. When they thought it was time the removed the bars and used them to  overpowered two guards, and started to make their way to the outside when an outside guard heard the ruckus and sounded the general alarm. The men were captured at gunpoint and their plan was foiled.

On October 2, 1934 Jankovic was foiled again when he was caught hacksawing bars leading to the power house tunnel and trying to lead seven
Evening Journal 10/3/1934
inmates to freedom. This time the guards were on to him and watched until they felt the inmates had gotten close enough to escape and then dashed their hopes. This time Biddle stayed away from trouble, perhaps he realized Jankovic was just the wrong guy to follow. 

Just three years later in 1936 Biddle was released on parole. Biddle learned his lesson and went straight, on September 27, 1942 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in WWII, later owned a service station, and died at age 70 in a tragic house fire in 1970. His sister Ida from the taxi robbery, by then Ida V. Carr of Philadelphia, was listed as a survivor. Ida died in 1982.

Phila Inquirer -11/9/1943
Amazingly, in 1938 Jankovic was also granted parole. A mere two months later Jankovic was back in jail for robbing a gas station in Penns Grove, New. Upon his release, he was returned to Delaware for violating his parole. He earned parole again in 1942 but soon found himself in jail in Philadelphia on charges of robbery and kidnapping. On November 7, 1943 he was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot in the Infirmary of Moyamensing Prison, in addition to a .32 caliber revolver, in his possession was a stock of ammunition, a prison guard's sweater and cap, and a master key that would have gotten him all the way to the main gate of the prison. The death of the 40-year-old career criminal was officially ruled a suicide. He had all of the makings for another jailbreak, it’s a mystery why he chose to end his life instead of making a break for it.

The Jankovic story doesn't end there. Shortly after his suicide a woman, Mrs. Caroline Brainard entered the story. Newspapers reported that she was wanted for questioning in the investigation into Jankovic’s suicide. Brainard had visited Jankovic in prison 21 times over the previous 9 months and claimed she was Jankovic's "melancholy baby." It was reported that another inmate made a charcoal sketch of Brainard and gave it to Jankovic who wrote on it “To my melancholy baby” and gave to Brainard as a present.

Caroline Brainard first visited Jankvoic at the request of her
Evening Journal -11/10/1943
husband, Thomas J. Brainard, a career criminal who was serving time for bootlegging. Authorities wanted to question her to determine if she had a role in smuggling the gun to Jankovic but she was in in the New Castle County Workhouse for skipping bail for receiving stolen goods. When she was brought to trial, she was acquitted on the charges and was taken to Philadelphia to answer questions related to the Jankovic suicide.

Caroline Brainard was cleared of any involvement in the suicide even though it was determined that only her handbag was searched on her many visits. Soon it came out that Jankovic had been giving money, between $800-1,000, to Caroline Brainard for “little errands and favors” during her numerous visits. Rumors floated around that Jankovic may have hidden away many thousands of dollars of loot from his life of crime.

Prison guard Alfred Palladino, was charged with smuggling in the gun but was acquitted. How Jankovic obtained the gun remains as much of a mystery as his reason for taking his own life. Caroline Brainard and a friend, Matilda Tixon, (Tixon, alias Marcella Robinson was reportedly an employee of Thomas J. Brainard in a house of ill repute) hired Philadelphia undertaker Alan Sanson to provide Jankovic a $250 funeral that consisted of a new suit and a finished coffin. The deal included an $18.75 suit, $5 underwear, and a new handkerchief.

Sanson told Caroline Brainard that due to the nature of the suicide the body was not suitable for viewing but assured her Jankovic would be provided with the agreed upon suit and coffin. Brainard became suspicious and had his body disinterred and found he was buried in a pauper’s coffin with just a cloth over his body. Brainard went to the Pennsylvania State Undertakers Board and filed charges against Sanson for unethical practices. Sanson fired back accusing Brainard of extortion, he alleged that a man named Mr. Shuck appeared at Sanson’s office demanding $2,000 to make the issue of the improper burial go away. Sanson was unable to prove the existence of Mr. Shuck. After hearing the case and examining the evidence the State Undertakers Board revoked Sanson’s License.

There has never been evidence proving or disproving the existence of Jankovic’s ill-gotten loot and as for Caroline Brainard, there is no further record of her existence, no obituary, no nothing, she simply vanished.

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