Mugshot of Jimmy Arnston. Photo credit: Washington State Archives.
This is the first in a series of stories about a slippery criminal who caught my attention.
On a cold morning in December 1931 a train sped across central Washington carrying passengers from Portland to Spokane. Sheriff George G. Miles of Spokane County was on the train escorting a wanted convict back to Spokane to stand trial. The monotony of the central Washington landscape may have lulled the Sheriff into inattention. The convict, Jimmy Arnston, quickly picked the lock on his handcuffs and dove through a window of the moving train. The conductor abruptly stopped the train. Sheriff Miles and a bounty hunter jumped from the train car and gave pursuit. Firing shots as they ran, chasing the convict over snowy hills. He was apprehended and the journey to Spokane continued. Arnston later recalled that “it didn’t take any nerve to jump off.”
Jimmy Arnston was wanted in Spokane for the brazen robbery of the Blumauer-Frank Wholesale Drug company. In September of 1931, Arnston led a gang of robbers who broke into the drug company building, bound and gagged the night watchman, and stole narcotics. According to the Spokesman-Review, the drugs were “worth $15,000 at bootleg prices.”
It was not Arnston’s first brush with the law. A few months earlier, Spokane Police warned the public that the most skilled gang of “safe cracksmen” in the Northwest was headed to town for the Fourth of July. Police Chief Wesley H. Turner explained that “with the noise of fireworks, the sound of a safe being blown would attract little attention. The temptation will probably be too much for the gang to overlook.” He continued, “if they don’t pick Spokane for their holiday, some other city of the district probably will get a visit from them.”
Arnston missed the holiday in Spokane - but returned a few months later for the drug company robbery. Spokane was a favorite target of Jimmy and his gang. Detectives had identified them as the main suspects in multiple other Spokane burglaries including those of the J.C. Penny Store, Garden Dance Palace, the Kilmer & Sons Hardware Store, and the Garrett, Stewart, and Sommer Store. Police had arrested Jimmy in the Garden Dance Palace case in February 1931. He was charged with holding up a merchant policeman while his gang made off with $1100. Authorities were shocked when a Spokane jury acquitted Arnston of burglary and robbery on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
When the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad came into town with Arnston in the custody of Sherriff Miles, authorities had their man. Now they just needed a conviction. Arnston’s trial began promptly in early January 1932. The prosecution's star witness, the night watchman of the drug company, testified that he was certain it was Jimmy Arnston who stole the drugs and threatened his life. He identified Jimmy in the courtroom and exclaimed “that is the man who held the gun on me, sitting over there with the black hair. I know him by his size, his voice and his eyes.”
In a dramatic piece of testimony, the watchman told the court that Arnston had threatened to kill him while holding a gun to his head. Once the robbers had pilfered the drugs, “they tied my hands with tape and put a gag in my mouth and then tied a handkerchief over my face. They laid me down on the floor and tied my feet,” explained the watchman.
The testimony was damning but Arnston’s attorney waged the best defense he could. His lawyer was a straight shooter with the jury. He told them “we are not going to try to prove that these men are angels, their records show differently.” He explained that Jimmy had come to Spokane in September for just one reason, to support his wife, Helen Harlowe, who was facing a vagrancy charge in the city. Although he was in town the night of the robbery, the defense argued he could not have been involved in the robbery because on that very evening he was busy getting drunk at Liberty Lake. According to Arnston, him and a few friends had three gallons of alcohol which left them too drunk to move and certainly too drunk to commit robbery.
Despite his compelling alibi, on January 6, 1932 Jimmy Arnston was convicted of robbery and burglary in Spokane County Superior Court. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison and immediately sought an appeal to the Supreme Court. While awaiting his appeal, Jimmy was held at the Spokane County Jail.
Arnston, a popular figure with police throughout the Northwest, was also appealing a conviction for burglary in Snohomish County. Sheriff Miles placed Arnston in the most secure cell block of the jail. The prisoner was not happy with his accommodations. Using a three-inch piece of a hacksaw blade he sawed his way through his cell bars and was cutting through the outer walls when a deputy sheriff discovered him. “Arnston had woven a rope from mattress cloth to help him in his daring try for freedom,” explained the local newspaper.
Oregon Boot. Photo credit: University of Washington Digital Collections.
The Sheriff was understandably frustrated. He placed Jimmy in the cell adjoining the jailor’s office and locked an Oregon Boot on him, a strange and inhumane prisoner restraint. A modern version of the ball and chain, the boot was a heavy iron collar that locked around a prisoner's ankle. The boot had extreme physical consequences for those who wore it for any extended period of time. The constant weight of the boot caused permanent damage to prisoners hips and knees while the metal collar rubbed their skin raw. Due to the health problems it caused, Oregon discontinued the boot for long term use in 1878. The Oregon Boot had fallen out of favor by the 1930s and was used primarily for transporting prisoners. It seems Jimmy was a special exception.
On February 18, 1932 his Snohomish appeal was denied and Arnston was transported to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to serve six years. Sheriff Miles was relieved to see Jimmy go. Now the “bad boy bandit” was someone else’s problem.