The Writing of "Jerry's
Kevin S. Giles
In the 30 years since his
last days as warden, Ed "Bus” Ellsworth had never gone inside the old
prison in Deer Lodge,
coaxed him back on a raw March afternoon, anxious to hear what he could
remember about the 1959 riot and its aftermath.
I was researching a book
that I planned to write someday. I didn’t have a title for it because,
like writers do, I was trying to find the central story. Newspaper reports
of the day described the riot as "a failed escape attempt by a desperate
madman.” That seemed much too predictable an explanation, and I thought
Ellsworth could give me some perspective.
I knew he played a
prominent role in ending the riot. I wanted him to trace the steps he
took that cold starlit night on April 18, 1959, when National Guard
troops stormed the cell houses to rescue 23 hostages the ringleaders
had vowed to shoot, hang or burn.
Old Montana Prison's
brick and stone facade loomed just blocks from Ellsworth’s living room
window, yet in the sunset of his life, he thought of it as a distant
place. At first he told me he didn’t want to go. He said he couldn’t
remember much that would help me.
When I was a boy I
knew him as Warden Ellsworth, an iron-disciplined man with a military
buzz-cut. Being my dad’s boss, he seemed all the more unapproachable.
One summer he caught me sneaking into the drive-in theater south of
town. All the kids did it, once or twice anyway. My friend and I,
creeping through the river willows near the drive-in, attracted
attention from passing motorists who had heard news reports of two
inmates escaping from a prison ranch. I don’t know if I was more
scared of the warden and the tall prison guard who stood beside him
with a rifle, or of my dad if he found out. Ellsworth drove us home in
the back of a prison cage car, gold with a green stripe across the
hood. If he ever told my dad, I didn’t hear about it, but I regretted
right away that I hadn’t paid the dollar or so to see the movie.
On the day that I
drove Ellsworth to the prison in my blue pickup, he didn’t mention
that incident. Maybe he forgot it, but at my age I didn’t feel
inclined to remind him.
He forgot his earlier
hesitation when we started talking about the riot. An opportunity to
set the facts straight can be powerful persuasion to an old man. I
told him how I had collected hundreds of pages of documents that
detailed the long federal prison career of Jerry Myles, the riot’s
chief antagonist. Anyone familiar with the riot knew his name but not
Until I read those records, I didn’t
realize that Myles was much more than an ordinary convict. His riot
wasn’t an escape attempt, as Ellsworth’s predecessor, Floyd Powell,
tried to convince everyone. Myles was a psychopath, trained in
America’s worst prisons. The riot in Deer Lodge mimicked a bloody
outbreak he had watched at Alcatraz Island during his incarceration
there, and even earlier, a mutiny he led at a federal penitentiary in
Atlanta. Myles was a student of prison riots. He didn’t want to escape
from Montana State Prison. He wanted attention, even if that meant
When Ellsworth and I arrived at
Prison, now a museum, we met retired guard Bob McNally. He brought the
key to the outside door of the northwest cell house tower, where Ellsworth
led three men up the stairs to flush out Myles and Lee Smart, his teenage
boyfriend. Smart, convicted of murdering a traveling salesman in northern
shot and killed Deputy Warden Ted Rothe when the riot began. More than 30
hours later, as the riot crumbled, Myles and Smart retreated to the tower
of Cell House 1 with two rifles they seized from catwalk guards. McNally
pried open the rusty lock. He waved his flashlight beam around the dark
cavern. Plywood covered windows from the inside. Bars remained intact.
Pigeon droppings matted the stairs and floors.
climbed the narrow concrete stairs to rooms that were dark and cold and
felt, in the context of our visit, like death.
Evidence of the 1959 prison riot can be seen in this tower
the upper window and roof line, July, 2008, Kathy
crossed the landing where Myles shot and wounded Capt. Francis "Russ”
Pulliam, a National Guardsman from Missoula. On the fourth floor, sunlight
peeped through the broken brickwork along tall windows where two bazooka
rounds hit before rifle teams charged into the prison yard. Then Ellsworth
took us to the tomblike room at the top of the tower.
In a measured voice he
described the murder-suicide that took place there. Before the National
Guard could take them captive, Myles killed Smart and then himself.
Ellsworth found the bodies. Like many other people I had interviewed, he
described Myles as having no other apparent motive but to make a name for
"It was his riot,”
Ellsworth told me.
Suddenly the meaning of
that riot jumped out at me from documents, interviews and photographs.
Yes, the story was about guards and prisoners caught in violence. Yes, it
was about the failed attempts of Powell, the new warden, to reform a
terrible prison. And yes, the story was about a small town in western
that sent generations of men to work inside the walls.
tragic self-indulging Jerry Myles, however, the story didn’t exist at all.
why I chose "Jerry’s Riot” as the name of my book.
As Ellsworth wandered
around the old prison that day, encountering memories wherever he turned,
he told me that the prison was a terrible place to work. Many guards never
wanted to come back inside.
Ellsworth, a World War II
veteran, former Powell County sheriff and a longtime National Guard
colonel, died in 2001. Many others I interviewed are gone too: Everett
Felix, the guard captain taken hostage; Victor Baldwin, another guard
hostage who died recently in Deer Lodge; Elmer Erickson, the prison’s
business manager at the time of the riot, and Carl Parish, a prison
employee nearly captured during the takeover.
To them and many others I
interviewed for Jerry’s Riot, what happened over three days in 1959 stuck
to their minds like glue, but they didn’t care much for reliving their
Only Jerry Myles, it
seems, wanted to stay.
Kevin Giles, Added November, 2005
About the Author:
Kevin S. Giles, a native Montanan, is the author of Jerry’s Riot: The
True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance. Like many sons and
daughters of prison guards, he finds some of his past at the Old Montana
in Deer Lodge, his hometown. He is a journalism graduate of the University
of Montana and has worked as a reporter and editor for several newspapers. Gile's nonfiction book, Jerry’s
Riot, tells a dramatic story about one of Montana's
most interesting historic designations -- Old Montana Prison in Deer Lodge. Further details about the book are
available at Sky Blue Waters
Also See: Old
Montana Prison Museum
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