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A prison warden invented it.

Oregon built a territorial prison at Portland in 1854, and it was adequate for almost a decade. Following statehood and an unpredicted population increase, the original facility became overcrowded, and convict security suffered. In 1866 a new prison was constructed at Salem, the state capital. Shortly after all the prisoners were transferred to the Salem site, the number of escapes multiplied. The primary problems were the modest 15-foot perimeter walls and ineffective prisoner restraint devices.

When prisoners were being transported or given outside exercise, they were shackled with the traditional ball and chain—a heavy cast iron ball attached to the prisoner’s ankle by a length of chain. Unfortunately, prisoners soon learned that the ball could be picked up and carried so that they could run and climb. Once an escape was successful, the ball and chain could be cut off with a hacksaw or other tools commonly found on nearby farms.

The prison warden, J.C. Gardner, attempted to reduce escapes by inventing a replacement for the traditional ball and chain. His device consisted of a heavy steel split cylinder that was joined around the prisoner’s leg just above the ankle. The cylinder was supported by a stirrup that crossed under the instep. The weight of the device has been reported as between 15 and 25 pounds.

Gardner’s idea for the new shackle might have been inspired by the ankle brace used to restrain slaves in the South. The brace was a ring about 10 inches in diameter that was attached just above the ankle on both legs. Thus shackled the slave could perform field work but could not outrun pursuers if an escape was attempted.

Gardner’s device was manufactured in prison shops, and it was eventually used on most of the convicts when they were outside their cells. When Gardner was replaced as warden, he patented his invention. As the popularity of the device spread among wardens, sheriffs and police in the West, it was made by various manufacturers in slightly different configurations to avoid patent infringement. All the variations came to be known as an “Oregon Boot.”

The device was not without fault. In prison use, continual wear caused physical damage, and some prisoners were hospitalized or unable to work for weeks. The weight of the boot was known to break legs.

In September 1889, Frank Miller was sentenced to San Quentin Prison for a murder in California’s Lassen County. The sheriff, because he alone was to transport the prisoner by train, attached an Oregon Boot to Miller’s leg. When the train was underway, Miller seized an opportunity to limp down the aisle and jump. The weight and rigidity of the boot caused his leg to break when he landed. Although the prisoner was easily recovered by the sheriff, many extra days were added to the trip because of medical treatment, and Miller’s Oregon Boot was replaced by a much more restrictive cast. Another disadvantage with the Oregon Boot was the time required to attach and remove it from the prisoner’s leg.

The boot’s locking lugs were a variation of a screw or bolt that only the manufacturer’s wrench-style key could release. If that key was lost, nothing else would open the boot, and in one case this misfortune resulted in an unusual Oklahoma dance step. Ben Cravens was sentenced to life imprisonment at Leavenworth Penitentiary. When he was escorted from the court at Guthrie, Okla., the key to his Oregon Boot could not be found. Cravens was so overjoyed that he was not to be hanged that he danced down the street to the jail with one foot 25 pounds heavier than the other. Bystanders jokingly called it the “Guthrie Shuffle.”

Specific instances of Oregon Boot use were usually reported only when the incident was newsworthy, and most were in the West. An early California example occurred in the Bodie mining area during the 1880s. To counter an epidemic of stagecoach robbery, Wells Fargo assigned one of its best detectives, Jim Hume, to the job. He soon traced one of the robbers, a miner named Milton Sharp, to San Francisco. Sharp was arrested there and confined in an Esmeralda, Nev., jail to await trial. Extra precautions were taken because the building was flimsy. The jailor was ordered to frequently check on the prisoner, who had an Oregon Boot attached to his leg.

These safeguards failed. Sharp tunneled through his cell wall and fled toward Bridgeport, Calif. A posse found his Oregon Boot in marsh grass near a pond. Apparently, Sharp had hammered it with a rock until it fell off. But Sharp’s freedom was short-lived. Bootless, he was soon recaptured.

Outlaw David Lant was an associate of the more famous Harry Tracy, and both frequented the Utah hideout known as Robber’s Roost. The pair was arrested near Craig, Colo., in 1898 and confined at the Pitkin County Jail. Oregon Boots were placed on their legs because each had a history of escape attempts. It is not known just how, but they managed to remove both the boots and handcuffs, burrow out of the jail and escape into the mountains. Escape became a trademark of Tracy’s criminal career, his last being from the Oregon State Penitentiary in June 1902; he was killed in Washington state that August following an extensive manhunt.

A successful escape in the far north made the headlines in 1908. Thomas Thornton and Charles Hendrickson were desperate Alaskan convicts aboard the steamer Seattle. They were placed in Oregon Boots for transportation to prison at Fairbanks. While they were locked in the hold of the ship, the two men made a key from a curtain rod and opened both their boots. Guards doubted that they would be recaptured, because Thornton and Hendrickson were well acquainted with the territory and had many friends in the gold fields—and apparently they never were.

In an early attempt at prison reform, California established the “Whittier State School” for boy and girl juvenile offenders in July 1891. It soon developed a reputation for both brutality and escapes, and superintendents were changed frequently because of negative publicity. Oregon Boots were used on the boys thought likely to escape. Fred C. Nelles, appointed as superintendent in 1912, found that several boys may have been crippled for life by excessive use of the boots. He ordered their use to be discontinued. The reform school was renamed “Fred C. Nelles School For Boys” in 1941 (with the “For Boys” dropped about 30 years later).

Roy Gardner, no relative of the Oregon Boot inventor, earned the title “King of the Escape Artists” after a series of Northwest train robberies and dramatic escapes from custody. Recaptured in 1921, he was sentenced to McNeil Island Prison. United States marshals were assigned to transport him there by train, and for additional security they placed his leg in an Oregon Boot. A pistol had been hidden in the restroom of the day coach by one of Gardner’s confederates. The prisoner, heavily manacled and wearing the Oregon Boot, was allowed to go to the toilet without escort. Gardner returned with the pistol, disarmed the guards and used their keys to free himself. He then handcuffed the guards and put the boot on one of them. When the train slowed near Centralia, Wash., Gardner jumped and made his escape.

The Great Houdini had an interesting encounter with an Oregon Boot. He appeared at the San Francisco Orpheum Theatre during 1922, and the management offered a $500 reward to anyone who could produce a handcuff from which Houdini could not escape. One evening a policeman in the audience brought an Oregon Boot to the stage. Houdini protested that it was not a handcuff, but the audience chided him to wear it along with a variety of handcuffs. The Great Houdini stepped behind his protective screen, and a few minutes later the removed boot and handcuffs were tossed out to the audience.

The Oregon Boot could no more be restricted to official use than could handcuffs. Practical jokers obtained one and attached it to Kleber Hasell’s leg. He was about to be married, and during a stag party his friends “married” this bridegroom to the boot. It was not reported if he was forced to wear it through the ceremony and honeymoon.

Although use of the Oregon Boot declined after the 1920s, some reminders exist in recent history. A television episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents featured one in 1957. In the production, titled “Manacled,” a prisoner is transported by train. He wears an Oregon Boot and is accompanied by a single guard. In a struggle to escape, the prisoner shoots the guard and obtains the key—but he cannot use it because a bullet has jammed the key port in the boot.

In the field of parking enforcement, police have needed a method to immobilize offending vehicles until they could be towed. In the 1950s a device was developed that clamped over the tire and kept it from moving until the car could be impounded. It was called the “Denver Boot” because it was first used there, and its design brought back memories of the Oregon Boot.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here