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Corrections history: Inmate escape from a Pa. county jail in 1892

A convicted rapist walked away, with three weeks left in his 9-month sentence, after he was sent outside to close the iron gates


Inmate supervision and escape reporting procedures at the Luzerne County Jail were different in the 1890s.

Luzerne County

By Ed Lewis
The Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Procedures at the Luzerne County Jail were different in the 1890s than they are today.

Inmates were allowed to go unattended and unescorted outside the walls to perform yard work.

One such inmate took advantage and fled.

“No blame can be attached to anybody at the Luzerne County Jail for allowing Joseph Bellas to escape,” read the seventh paragraph of a story in the Wilkes-Barre Daily News-Dealer on Sept. 23, 1892.

Bellas, 28, a coal mine laborer, walked away when he was assigned to go outside and close the iron gates.

An all-male jury convicted Bellas of raping a girl near his home in Wanamie, Newport Township, after a one day trial on Sept. 23, 1891, and was sentenced Jan. 20, 1892, to nine months in jail.

Bellas escaped on Sept. 18, 1892, with three weeks left in his sentence.

Jail Warden Thomas Haines kept the escape quiet until a Wilkes-Barre Record reporter got a tip.

“For the last four days, Warden Haines and his assistants at the jail have been quietly endeavoring to keep quiet the fact that a prisoner had escaped in order they might recapture him before he got out of Luzerne County,” the Record reported Sept. 23, 1892.

When confronted by the reporter, Warden Haines told the story of Bellas’ escape.

“On last Sunday night (Sept. 18, 1892), shortly after supper, Bellas was sent outside the jail to shut the large iron gates leading from the side walk to the barn. As is usual when prisoners are doing any work outside the jail, a keeper watches them, and Bellas was under surveillance with the jail keeper watching him from office windows,” the Record reported.

Bellas closed the iron gates and disappeared.

The jail keeper kept watch hoping the inmate would reappear until he notified Warden Haines five minutes after Bellas was last seen.

“The neighborhood was thoroughly searched but no trace of Bellas discovered, and that night the trains were watched but with no result,” the Record reported.

Wilkes-Barre policemen learned of the escape by the story in the Record.

Bellas’ old home in Wanamie was kept under surveillance, and it was believed Bellas was hiding in a barn in Slocum Township.

“The criminal has a large number of friends in the lower end of Luzerne County and Warden Haines believes they will make every effort to capture Bellas,” reported the Record.

The News-Dealer reported no one could be blamed for Bellas’ escape as it was custom for inmates who earn trust within the jail walls to perform yard work.

Bellas was reported to have earned the trust of the jail keeper as he was given liberty to work in the kitchen, stable and sweep the sidewalks in front of the jail.

On the same day the Wilkes-Barre Record broke the story, Bellas was captured when found hiding in a cave in woods near his Wanamie home.

“I don’t know why I ran away, I think I was very foolish to do it. and I am sorry I have caused you this trouble,” Bellas is reported to have told Warden Haines as published in the Record on Sept. 24, 1892.

Bellas was given an extra five days to his sentence, equal to the time he was a fugitive.


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