Joseph "Tunnel Joe" Holmes is the only prisoner to tunnel out of the Maryland Penitentiary.
Joseph "Tunnel Joe" Holmes is the only prisoner to tunnel out of the Maryland Penitentiary. (Baltimore Sun)

The honor of being the only resident of the Maryland Penitentiary, some of which is slated for possible demolition, to ever dig his way to freedom goes to “Tunnel Joe” Holmes.

The escape began July 8, 1949, when Joseph Holmes, in the eighth year of a 20-year sentence for burglary and fearing he would “blow up,” began hacking away at the slate floor under his cot, using a stick with a nail attached to the end.


He began boring holes, The Baltimore Sun reported, and after 40 days of steady work had completed a trap door, which he managed to disguise from guards. His digging routine with a crude shovel attached to a stick began when nightly radio broadcasts were played over the prison’s public-address system.

After placing a dummy on his cot, Holmes stripped to his underwear and shirt, and then wiggled into the dank shaft, illuminated by a kerosene lantern set in a niche. He would dig for four hours, carefully packing the dirt in hand-sewn bags which he brought to the surface and flushed away in his toilet.

When water began seeping into the tunnel, he devised a drain that measured 9 feet deep by 6 feet wide, which disposed of a 140 gallons of water each night.

On Feb. 18, 1951, Holmes slithered through his 70-foot tube that carried him 26 feet down and under the prison’s walls to a grassy plot near East Eager and Forrest streets, and looked up into the nighttime starry sky. His journey had taken him 45 minutes and 20 months of persistent digging.

Prison warden Col. Edwin T. Swenson told The Sun it was “the most fantastic escape I’ve ever heard of ... and that his ex-charge must have been an engineer.”

Holmes, whose first incarceration dated to 1928, changed into clean clothes, and with $152 he had saved from gambling bets, fled into the night and out of state. A few weeks later, he returned to Baltimore, and after a Howard Street shootout in a bowling alley, pulled a $5 holdup in Mount Vernon Place, for which he was arrested.

Returned to prison in 1953, Holmes was placed in solitary confinement after guards discovered in his cell escape plans, crudely made weapons and a bed sheet rope he had fabricated with an accomplice.

After being a guest of the State of Maryland for 29 years, nine months and 19 days, “Tunnel Joe” was paroled in 1970. He was 61 when he died in 1973 and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.