Shawshank Anticipation

This is part two of “Scary Story Time,” continuing The Dock Walloper.

In January 1888 Henry McCabe was convicted of manslaughter. He had killed Notre Dame lawyer Jim Howard in a Chicago lumber yard, crushing his skull with a coupling pin. He was sentenced to eight years in the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet, but remained in prison for only one year. On March 19, 1889 he was transferred to the Elgin Insane Asylum, about 35 miles northwest of Chicago. History does not record the reason for his transfer.

It does record, however, that only five days after arriving at the asylum, McCabe nearly killed another man. On March 24 Attendant Maloney was supervising a small work detail when he left a mop unattended. McCabe grabbed the handle, snapped the thick wood with his powerful hands, and gave Maloney a beating. Several other inmates joined in; newspaper headlines of the affair screamed “Attacked By Maniacs,” and “Fighting With The Mad.”

You might think this would serve as a warning that McCabe deserved some careful observation. You might think that McCabe should not be permitted near weapons. You clearly did not work at the asylum.

Only two months after brutally attacking an attendant, McCabe escaped. The asylum included a large farm, and patients provided the labor. This involved chopping wood, slaughtering hogs, and otherwise handling potential weapons. Which is how McCabe was able to get an axe – an AXE – and bust out of the joint. He was captured in Chicago a week later, “in an ugly mood … violently insane and bent on murder.” He was returned to the asylum.

You might think this would serve as a warning that McCabe deserved extra-special observation at the asylum. You might want to keep a very close eye on him, day and night. You still do not work at the asylum.

Anticipating the plot of The Shawshank Redemption by several decades, McCabe asked the warden for some paper to hang on his wall (he drew pictures of boats – Rita Hayworth had not yet been invented). The warden provided the paper, which McCabe dutifully tacked up on his wall – during the day. At night, he took the paper down and dug into the wall. He replaced the paper each day, hiding the evidence of his work.

It took Andy Dufresne 20 years to dig a tunnel out of Shawshank Prison; it took Henry McCabe only a few weeks to do the same at the Elgin Insane Asylum. Why? Because McCabe’s room was on the first floor and the only thing between him and freedom was a few inches of masonry wall. McCabe escaped for the second time. The headlines read “An Insane Murderer Escapes.”

In a nice bit of journalistic symmetry, the headlines a week later read “An Insane Murderer Captured.” McCabe had steered clear of Chicago this time. He made his way west to the Mississippi River, then followed it south to the small farming town of Canton, Missouri. In a remarkable bit of bad luck for him, a former guard at the asylum happened to be in town and recognized him on the street. McCabe was taken into captivity and returned to the asylum.

You might think this would serve as a warning … I won’t even finish. You know where this is going.

Only a week after his second escape from the insane asylum, McCabe escaped for a third time. He was able to do so because he had a room on the first floor, with a window. There were bars on the window but they were no match for Henry McCabe.

The third time was a charm for McCabe, but undoubtedly a curse for society. The man who killed Jim Howard, who had been adjudged insane and was handy with an axe, was never captured.

Did Henry McCabe kill again? I don’t know. But I don’t want to be sitting around a campfire near the Mississippi River when his tale is told.

I hope that “Scary Story Time” was a welcome diversion from a stressful semester. We will move forward in time with our next story, featuring one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of Notre Dame Law School faculty.

Until then, stay well.


For sources and additional reading see p. 2


  1. kbcaughlin says:

    Kevin, Keep these coming. Brilliant tone, well-researched and entertaining. I read two a few weeks ago and just binge-read the rest. Thanks so much.

    Keith Caughlin


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