KENT WARD

An old tale about true Maine grit

Posted May 18, 2012, at 3:51 p.m.

Nearly 50 years ago a Maine State Prison inmate escaped from the former prison at Thomaston, disappearing into dense fog and remaining at large for 11 days before state police collared him at Wiscasset.

For much of that time he had been holed up in the barn of South Warren farmer Wendell Studley, not far from the prison. In his final hours there, he at times held a stolen gun on Studley and his wife Beulah — both in their late 70’s — during a night of conversation before fleeing on foot on the day of his capture.

Because he paid his debt to society, and because this column is not about him but about the spunky couple he encountered on his way, I will not identify the man. As the Bangor Daily News Rockland bureau chief, I interviewed and photographed the Studleys at their home after their ordeal, learning the meaning of the phrase “true Maine grit’’ in the process. I recently found a copy of the Sep. 8-9, 1962 weekend edition of the paper featuring the front-page story. A condensed version follows.

As Studley placed a lantern in his garden late one night to discourage marauding skunks, he discovered another kind of pest — a stranger standing in a bed of cucumbers, eating one of the vegetables.

“What in the dickens are you doing here?’’ he asked the man. “He said he was the escaped prisoner from Thomaston and had been in my barn since Saturday,’’ Studley told me. “He wanted to stay here. I told him to go to the old mill down the road a ways and leave us alone, but he put a gun in my back, right up close like, and marched me into the house.’’

The escapee asked for a razor so he could shave at the kitchen sink, and Studley held a mirror for him while he did so. It would be his only act of hospitality toward the intruder. When the man asked to be fed, Studley told him he could fix his own eggs. “Be darned if I was going to fry them for him.’’

Mrs. Studley gave the inmate biscuits and cookies, “then she went in the other room to read the paper and this guy followed her,’’ Studley said. “He invited me to come in, too, and we sat down and chewed the rag all night about prison life and all.’’

“He liked me real fine and stuck close to me all night,’’ Studley said. “He was too loving with that gun — and it was my gun. When I finally recognized the thing it made me real mad and my fingers were just itching to get at him, don’t you know. That’s an ugly looking gun when you’re looking at it from the wrong end.’’

When the escapee ordered Studley to tie up his wife, Studley replied, “Nothing doing’’ and the idea was abandoned.

“Oh, he wouldn’t have had me tied me up,’’ said Mrs. Studley of the inmate, a prison baker who had offered her baking tips during the long night. He had told her how to make jelly rolls and get them out of the pan without them sticking, Mrs. Studley disclosed, and had also given her helpful hints about making cream puffs.

The escapee left the Studley home at daybreak after disabling the telephone. “Don’t you rip it out in here, young feller,’’ Studley had told him. “If you’re gonna tear it out you do it outside. It’s less expensive that way.’’ And so and outside job it was.

The man asked Studley to give him a ride. Studley refused “because it’s against the law. So he told me to give him a half-hour start, and took off on foot.’’

By the time Studley could fetch his shotgun the escapee had vanished and Studley went to a neighbor‘s home to alert police. “He was going to shoot him,’’ Mrs. Studley said.

“I don’t like the idea of him coming in my home and taking my gun while I’m away and then sticking it in my back,” Studley explained.

“He wasn’t nasty at all,’’ Mrs. Studley said of their surprise visitor. “I’ve met a heck of a lot of people who had worse manners than that young man had. I wasn’t near as scared of him as I was of a neighbor that we used to have who would come banging on the door drunk as a hoot owl every Saturday night.’’

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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