RETURN OF THE REVOLVER: Family of 1930s sheriff donates weapon believed used in infamous jailbreak


GREENFIELD — One day in the fall of 1936, Hancock County Sheriff Clarence Watson fought desperately to keep a trio of violent gangsters from escaping the county jail.

One of the absconders bludgeoned him repeatedly with a steel bar. Another got hold of a gun. The scuffle spilled out into American Legion Place in downtown Greenfield, where the gang stole a car and fled.

While the outnumbering bandits prevailed that day, it was only a matter of time before the law caught up to the notorious Brady Gang with far more firepower.

The violent escape has become the stuff of legend in Hancock County, a notorious brush with infamy involving gangsters every bit as lawless and violent as John Dillinger’s gang and Bonnie and Clyde.

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So when three of Watson’s grandchildren visited the Hancock County Jail earlier this week to donate their grandfather’s service revolver to the sheriff’s department, the occasion was steeped in history. The family thinks the shiny .38-caliber weapon might well be the gun brandished by one of the gang members as they made their escape, they told Sheriff Brad Burkhart. They brought out copies of old newspaper articles and reflected on the jailbreak and the sheriff they described as one of Hancock County’s heroes.

Greenfield getaway

The three main members of the Brady Gang in jail here on Oct. 11, 1936. Alfred Brady, 26, was accompanied by James Dalhover, 30, and Clarence Lee Shaffer, 20. After forming the gang in 1935, Brady and his accomplices would go on to commit upwards of 150 robberies throughout the Midwest. They knocked off jewelry stores and banks, traveled with an extensive arsenal and killed two police officers during their many gunfights with law enforcement.

Back then, Hancock County’s jail was where the prosecutor’s office currently operates, at 27 American Legion Place. The Brady Gang members were incarcerated there awaiting trial for the murder of an Indianapolis Police sergeant.

A change of venue had brought their case to Hancock County. Watson feared outsiders would try to spring the gang from the county jail and tried unsuccessfully to get them transferred to a nearby prison, according to an archived Daily Reporter article.

That article goes on to recall how the gangsters carefully removed rivets from a yard-long steel bar from inside their cell.

According to the contemporary report, here is what happened next:

When they walked into the jail’s dining area shortly before 8 a.m. that Sunday morning, Brady had the bar hidden in his shirt. The scheduled jail employee had yet to show up for his shift. After serving breakfast, Watson entered the dining room; Brady attacked him from behind with the bar, clubbing him repeatedly over the head.

Dalhover and Shaffer bolted out of the dining area and down the hall. Watson fought his way to his feet and gave chase with the bar-brandishing Brady not far behind.

Watson lived with his family in the living quarters on the third floor of the jailhouse. Hearing the yells of the fight, Philip, Watson’s 12-year-old son, hurried downstairs with the family dog, Trix. The dog chased Shaffer outside, nipping at his heels. Edna Tinney, Watson’s sister, made for a room where Watson kept a .38-caliber revolver. Dalhover soon disarmed her, however.

Watson and Brady tumbled down the jailhouse steps and onto the street, where their brawl recommenced.

A man named Edgar Ridlen, who was driving by, slammed on his brakes and got out of his bottle-green Chevy. According to the archived report, he shouted to his wife, “It’s those murderers trying to get away!”

Ridlen kicked Shaffer to the ground, punched Dalhover and fought him for the gun. Shaffer grabbed Brady’s steel bar and attacked Ridlen. Dalhover recovered the revolver and fired. The bullet tore through Ridlen’s overcoat but missed his flesh. Dalhover then tossed Ridlen off him and fired at point-blank range but missed again. Ridlen’s wife jumped between the two and told Dalhover to take their car along with her purse and leave. The beaten and bloodied Watson slumped off Brady. The gangsters jumped in the car and sped away.

Brady and his henchmen continued their spree while on the lam. In May 1937, they used a machine gun to kill an Indiana State Police trooper near Royal Center in northwestern Indiana. The Brady Gang eventually made it onto the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.

About a year after their Hancock County jailbreak, the Brady Gang met its fate in New England. They thought they were going to complete a prearranged purchase for a Thompson submachine gun in Bangor, Maine, but the sporting goods they were headed to was filled with undercover FBI agents and police officers.

After discovering the sting, a gunfight ensued. Brady and Shaffer were killed. Dalhover was arrested and later tried, convicted and executed for the murder of the state trooper.

Watson died at 54 in 1942. His obituary reported he had been in ill health for more than a year and that it was thought that the injuries he had sustained while trying to prevent the Brady Gang’s escape contributed to that ill health.

Full circle

In Watson’s day, sheriff’s department officers had to furnish their own weapons. Burkhart said that was still the policy when he started with the department in 1988. The department didn’t start issuing weapons until the mid-1990s, he added.

Watson’s granddaughter, Connie Wilson of Fortville, said her grandfather’s .38-caliber revolver was passed down among his sons, Reva, Page and Philip. Then it went to Philip’s oldest son, Larry, who recently died and passed it on to his younger brother, Ron, of Anderson.

Wilson and her brother, DeWayne Wallace of outside Pendleton, visited the jail with Ron this week to donate the weapon.

Ron said he’s almost certain their grandfather’s .38-caliber revolver is the same one involved in the tussle in front of the jail more than 80 years ago. He thinks Dalhover must have left it behind after firing it at Ridlen, the good Samaritan.

“I don’t know that he did make off with it,” Ron said of Dalhover. “There was so much scuffling. I’m going to assume that the gun they were shooting with out there was the .38.”

Ron said that after his brother died and he came into possession of the gun, he wanted to do something special with it. After considering the history surrounding the gun and the way its initial owner took on three violent gangsters simultaneously, the family members figured the jail and the sheriff’s department would be the best place.

“This is connected to the jail,” Ron said. “The event happened at the jail.”

Ron added that he’s proud of his grandfather.

“He was an elected official and wanted to do good things,” Ron said.

Unfortunately, the job also came with risks, Ron continued, like the battle with the Brady Gang.

“No one signs up for something like that,” Ron said. “But they had an opportunity and they tried to kill him… It’s a heavy service sometimes.”

After Ron handed off the gun and copies of old news articles he had gathered on the jailbreak and the Brady Gang, he, Wilson and Burkhart visited the prosecutor’s office, where the escape occurred more than eight decades ago.

Ron said his father, Philip, who at age 12 rushed downstairs with the family dog after the Brady Gang brawl broke out, didn’t talk about the incident much.

Wilson echoed her cousin’s feelings toward the former sheriff.

“I feel like he was quite a hero,” she said. “I’m very proud to be his granddaughter.”

Burkhart said he’s grateful for the family’s contribution and that the department will prepare a case for the gun and background information to be put on display.

“I’m extremely excited that they reached out and that we’re able to archive that history here, because that’s important stuff for our time,” Burkhart said.

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“I feel like he was quite a hero. I’m very proud to be his granddaughter.”

Connie Wilson, former Hancock County Sheriff Clarence Watson’s granddaughter