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Retro Baltimore: ‘Tunnel Joe’ Holmes was only Maryland Penitentiary inmate ever to dig his way to freedom

Joseph Holmes " Tunnel Joe" alias " The Dinner time Burglar."
Joseph Holmes " Tunnel Joe" alias " The Dinner time Burglar." (Baltimore Sun)

As the wrecking ball continues making its way through the lugubrious and now-closed Maryland Penitentiary that squats for several blocks on East Forrest Street in Baltimore, it’s time to recall the adventures of “Tunnel Joe” Holmes, the only resident of the institution who ever successfully dug his way to temporary freedom, and was returned there after pulling off a stickup in Mount Vernon.

Holmes was into the eighth year of a 20-year sentence for burglary when, fearing he would “blow up — as he’d seen others do in nearby cells,” reported The Baltimore Sun, he made the conscious decision on July 8, 1949, to start digging his way to freedom, and began hacking away at the slate floor beneath his cot.

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An experienced criminal, Holmes, who only had a fifth grade education, was first sentenced to the city jail in 1928 for breaking and entering and at the age of 19 began serving a 30-month sentence in the pen. By 1939, he had earned the newspaper moniker of “Dinner-Time” burglar for his penchant of breaking into Guilford and Roland Park mansions occupied by the wealthy at the dinner hour.

After robbing Dr. Hugh Hampton Young, a well-known Johns Hopkins surgeon, urologist and patron of the arts, who lived on West Cold Spring Lane, Dr. John B. Whitehead, an electrical engineer, and John R. Shea, an industrial executive, Holmes was sentenced in 1941 to a 20-year sentence in the Maryland Penitentiary.

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Holmes began his tunneling project using a stick with a nail attached to its end, and after 40 days of steady work, had fashioned a trapdoor that he was able to keep away from the prying eyes of guards who inspected his cell.

This historical photo shows "Tunnel Joe's" cell where he started his dig.
This historical photo shows "Tunnel Joe's" cell where he started his dig. (Baltimore Sun)

He chose to conduct his labors as nightly radio broadcasts were piped over the pen’s public address system, and after placing a dummy on his cot and stripping down to his underwear and shirt, wiggled into the shaft he had fashioned and started digging away for at least four hours every day.

Holmes used a small homemade kerosene lantern for illumination as he dug with a shovel he had made from a stick to which he attached a piece of metal. He then carefully packed earth he had removed into hand-sewn bags which he carried up into his cell and then flushed down the toilet.

After encountering water, he designed and built a 9 foot deep by six feet wide drain which allowed him to dispose of 140 gallons of water nightly.

This depiction shows how "Tunnel Joe" dug beyond the walls of the Maryland Penitentiary.
This depiction shows how "Tunnel Joe" dug beyond the walls of the Maryland Penitentiary. (Baltimore Sun)

Twenty months of tunneling resulted in a narrow tube that was 70 feet long and plunged 26 feet down under the prison’s outer wall, ending in a grassy plot at Forrest and East Eager streets.

“The morning before the escape, he completed the entire project, leaving a thin layer of topsoil on the lawn above, but poking a small peephole through to see the outside,” reported The Sun. “He saw the night light, and above him, framed in the tiny peephole, the stars. That gave him a great deal of satisfaction.”

On Feb. 18, 1951, Holmes made a run for it when he packed his civilian clothes and a $152 dollars he had saved, and made his way through his tunnel in 45 minutes. Outside, he shed his muddy clothes, changed into the ones he had packed, and then ran and jumped a 7-foot picket fence near the warden’s residence, landing in Eager Street.

For several weeks, he wandered to Wilmington, Delaware; Philadelphia and New Haven, Connecticut, before returning to Baltimore to board a ship for a foreign port. After being involved in a bowling alley shootout on Howard Street, Holmes was arrested after robbing John W. Garrett’s cook of $5 in Mount Vernon Place.

Col. Edwin T. Swenson, the pen’s warden, told The Sun it was “the most fantastic escape I’ve ever heard of ... and that his ex-charge must have been an engineer.” He banned all copies of the newspaper that showed detailed drawings of Holmes' escape, fearing that it might inspire other guests of the State of Maryland to take up excavation work as a creative and possibly lucrative pastime.

Holmes, who was sentenced to another 20 years for the escape, never gave up the idea of making a run for it. In 1953, he was placed in solitary and given a diet of bread and water after guards discovered escape plans, a cache of weapons and a bed sheet rope he and an accomplice had fashioned.

On Oct. 27, 1970, after serving 29 years, nine months and 17 days, Tunnel Joe was paroled, and spent his first day as a free man going to the movies.

Holmes was 61 when he died April 17, 1973, beginning his permanent underground journey after being lowered into an unmarked grave in Westport’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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