Couple In Jail Woo And Plan Escape

Helen Toews on Eighth Floor and John Keefe on Seventh Defy Walls and Bars.


Woman Held as Having Too Many Husband and Alleged Land-Frander [sic] Plight Troth at Courthouse, by Use of String.

Love laughs at steel bars and concrete and rigid jail regulations as well as at locksmiths.

To this extent George H. Hurlburt, superintendent of the County Jail, is a wiser man. And yet he laughed unfeelingly yesterday as he told of shattering a romance within the jail.

Separated by a scant 10 feet of steel and concrete, hindered by strict rules and regulations and able only on rare occasions to hear each other’s voice, John Keefe and Helen Toews carried on a courtship, contracted an engagement and planned their future happiness. They also planned to escape from the jail and for this their romance suffered a sudden jolt.

Coincidence Cupid’s Dart.

Coincidence may be one of Cupid’s weapons. At least there is no other explanation of the fact that John Keefe and Helen Toews arrived at the County Jail from widely divergent sources on the very same day. Each was lodged in the institution February 4.

John Keefe is a Federal prisoner, held for using the United States mails to defraud. He formerly called himself a land locator and advertised his calling extensively. The Government then took a hand and located him in the County Jail under $2000 bail.

Helen Toews had trouble with her husbands. There were too many of them for any one woman declared authorities, and they sent her to jail. They didn’t understand why she received mail addressed to Mrs. Helen Toews and Mrs. Helen Deal. They also wanted to know why a man wrote her a letter signed “Your devoted husband, Paul Wittcke.”

Man Won By Voice.

Helen Toews was placed in the woman’s quarters on the eighth floor of the Courthouse. The corridor of her cell had a window opening into Main street. One floor below her was the cell of John Keefe. Helen frequently opened the window, filled her lungs with the fresh air off the Willamette and sang. John Keefe heard here, and like her voice. By no means could they see each other, but John listened intently.

With the aid of Nellie Smith and Mrs. Luella Sauer, who is only 16 years old, but who had been married three times, Helen Toews evolved a plan of communicating with the men’s quarters below.

She wrote a note, tied it to a string and let the string dangle between the bars of the window on the seventh floor. John Keefe seized the note, read it, wrote an answer, tied it to the string, and signaled to Helen to draw it up. In this way they communicated.

Notes Bare Escape Plan.

Just what passed during their courtship is locked in the thoughts of John and Helen. Only a few of the notes fell into the hands of Mr. Hurlburt, but they were enough. They revealed a carefully-planned method of escape, which Mr. Hurlburt declared would have been impossible of execution.

In their two weeks’ courtship, John learned to address Helen as “My Dearest Sunshine.” Their method of communicating is revealed in one paragraph of a letter written by John Keefe.

“Please write to me, dear,” he writes, “if you can today or tonight. When you have a chance to pass a note, sing “I Need You” at window No. 2 and then I will go to window No. 3 and you can pass the note down in safety.”

Having learned of this line of communication, Mr. Hurlburt intercepted some of Helen Toew’s messages, and then determined it was time to act. He brought Keefe into the office and search him. Tightly clenched in his fist was a letter he had just written to Helen.

Flight Details Revealed.

“It was just a joke,” Keefe stammered when Mr. Hurlburt took the note from him. But the note contained the detailed plan of escape, and Mr. Hurlburt did not see the joke.

“My Dearest Sunshine,” said the letter. “I have been thinking and planning night and day on how to get out of here and it does not see possible to get out without the help of somebody on the outside. It is good of you, dear, to offer to help, but I do not like to impose on your good nature. But still if I do impose, it is your own fault for you have made me want to get out. You have put new life into me and made me want to get out so that I can go away somewhere and then have you with me always, and then I know we will always be happy.”

Further on the letter advised Helen Toews that when she was released on bail, which she expected every day, she was to procure three saws and two files. She was to wrap them in a piece of black cloth and wait in the street, seven stories below the jail window, at 11 o’clock next Saturday night. Keefe would then make a long string from bedclothes, lower the string to the street, and Helen would tie the package to the string, and the files and saws would be hoisted.

Love Notes Are Held.

After he had sawed through the bars, he would lower the string again and Helen would attach a rope. With this, John Keefe would himself to freedom. He would go out alone, for he said he had not even told his cellmate of the plan.

The intimate thoughts and confidences expressed in the several letters which have fallen into Mr. Hurlburt’s hands are held sacred by him, and he has preserved the letters. Perhaps he will turn them over to their authors when they are again given their liberty.

In the meantime he has moved John Keefe to a far distant corner of the jail.

Source: Portland Oregonian, February 21, 1915.

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