By Mark Fullenkamp
It was Sept. 13, 1943, and something was not right during evening bed check at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. Prisoner “17602 Runyon” was missing. Instead of sitting in his cell typing with one finger on the portable typewriter as he normally did, Tom Runyon was nowhere to be found. The alarm was sounded and guards quickly discovered a shallow hole dug under high voltage electric wiring at the back of the prison yard. Runyon had escaped.
When the sun came up the next morning, the future “Dean of Prison Writers” was lying in a ditch next to a railroad track just east of West Point, in southeastern Iowa, eating an apple and contemplating his next move.
In 1932, Runyon had begun living a double life, making ends meet by robbing banks all over the Midwest.
One of those bank robberies resulted in the shooting death of an innocent bystander. For this, Runyon was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life at the Iowa State Penitentiary in 1937.
Not long after being incarcerated at the prison, he was determined to become a writer, a craft that he had no knowledge or experience in pursuing.
By 1943, Runyon became editor of the prison magazine The Presidio, yet he felt compelled to break out of prison.
(Publisher’s note: This story includes a firsthand account from Iowa History Journal reader Ed Dougan of his family’s encounter with the escaped bank robber in 1943.)