1928 - Alderson High School - 1968



David Shields  Dec 6, 2010

She escaped one night in the dead of an uncommonly bitter West Virginia winter. The temperature was falling from the high of 20 that day and about 10 inches of snow lay on the ground in the valley. This was before anybody had thought about computing a ‘wind-chill factor’. God only knows what that was. High in the mountains that surrounded Alderson the wind had pushed the snow into drifts three or four feet deep and made travel on foot difficult and especially dangerous at night.

There were no signs that she had had an accomplice, no signs of a getaway car. According to the horde of law enforcement and prison officials that came in and out of the Snack Shack to get coffee to carry back to their respective stakeouts, the inmate, like most of those before her, had fled the reformatory on foot and alone and very likely for reasons known only to her.

Escape, however, had to be the least of her reasons for that was unlikely given the terrain, the weather, and the lack of help on the outside. Dying was more likely. She wasn’t a native of the area which would make unfamiliarity with the lay of the land certain and finding bearings impossible unless she were a skilled reader of the stars. Neither would she have had access to proper footwear and clothing to withstand the elements. Or at least that’s the way my friends and I had it figured.

You see, these woman hunts were some of the most exciting experiences we young denizens of Alderson, West Virginia had growing up there. Alderson then and now is the home of a rather large Federal Reformatory for Women. Or at least that’s what it was called back in the 50’s. I think they just call it a federal prison now. Since Martha Stewart just passed through they may have renamed the place Martha's Vineyard for all I know. Anyway, at that time it was the only exclusively federal prison for women in the country. It may still be. I don’t know for sure.

In any event, the facility at Alderson houses over 1,000 women inmates and has been the residence of some of the most infamous female lawbreakers in the nation’s history, including Tokyo Rose, George “Machine Gun” Kelly’s wife, Kathryn, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of the best known of the Charles Manson girls. Almost every year one or more of these inmates will walk away from this prison without walls and set in motion a highly orchestrated manhunt (or woman hunt) in Alderson.

Back then a $50 reward was always offered for a capture or information leading to the capture of the runaway, but it was never the money that motivated us teenage boys. What motivated us was the fantasy of walking up on this beautiful and worldly woman and having her teach us the art of love before being handed over to the authorities.

Every escape ignited an anticipatory fire in our bellies and we would set out through the mountainsides that we knew like the back of our hands, looking in every cave, down every ravine, in every abandoned barn and shelter for the lonely goddess of love. Summer hunts were just short of revelry for we knew the young woman of our dreams could, if she wanted, cross the Greenbrier River that, in the winter, locked the prison’s western perimeter. The image of a woman in a wet T-Shirt was not a foreign concept to us back then and coupled with the idea that the green grasses and warm summer breezes would be there to embrace our frolicking was indescribably tantalizing. If only we could run up on her!

Women on the lam in the dead of winter, however, posed a different set of images, not to mention problems. But if we were anything we were optimistic. For one thing, the circle of escape routes was cut in half by the freezing river. She would have to go east and she would have to seek shelter before the sun came up or freeze to death. We knew where all those shelters were and so this night we headed up the mountainside to wait for the fulfillment of our fantasies.

At the mouth of a large cavern, the entrance of which was overhung with a large rock formation with icicles hanging down like enormous teeth, we built a small fire by which to warm ourselves and boil some coffee in a small pot we kept at this particular hideaway. We reasoned that the fire would also serve as a beacon to our love object, struggling out there somewhere in the woods and the cold, and would eventually bring her unto our warm and loving company.

We waited and listened and were encouraged by every snapping limb under the weight of the ice on them and talked quietly about what we would say to her when she came and how we would wrap her in our coats and warm her and give her some steaming coffee and ask her about life in the underworld. We argued about who would be first on the altar of love when she asked for male companionship and decided that we would let her choose.

Along about midnight we were having trouble finding enough dry wood to keep the fire going and we had gotten cold despite our heavy mackinaws and boots. We also grew more and more worried about her being out there all alone for so long but knew it was too dark to find her frozen body even if we went looking. Soon some of the guys put in to leave claiming waiting longer would not be worth the parental wrath that was surely already in their future. Against very little serious opposition the leavers won out and we trucked down the mountain to town.

The stakeouts were gone and the Snack Shack was closed, two conclusive signs that the woman had been apprehended. The fire in our bellies went out and everybody mumbled their good nights to each other and went home. Tomorrow was another day.

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