Forsyth County jail, 1850-1954…located on North Main Street near the corner of Fifth Street…in the immediate background is the 1911 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Comapny office building…beyond can be seen the smokestack of the P.H. Hanes Knitting complex at Main and Sixth Streets…click image for larger view…
After dark on January 30, 1949, a mixture of snow, sleet and freezing rain began falling in the North Carolina Triad. By ten AM the next morning, with an overnight temperature in the low 20s, about two inches of winter slush had accumulated in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, The city schools and most businesses remained open, but the county schools closed for the day.
Dozens of auto accidents were reported, keeping both the Winston-Salem police department and the Forsyth County sheriff’s department busy all day. Shortly after 8 o’clock on the evening of January 31, the phone at the sheriff’s office rang for the zillionth time that day. Sheriff Ernie Shore happened to be standing nearby, so answered.
“When did Claude Weldy get out of jail,” a voice asked.
“He didn’t, ” Shore responded. “He’s still here, and will be until his trial.”
“Funny,” the voice said. “I just saw him and another guy get into a cab on East Ninth Street.”
Jailer J.L. Matthews rushed to the third floor of the ancient building. Weldy and his cellmate Grady Jones were nowhere in sight. Someone went outside with a flashlight and found tracks in the snow leading away from the jail.
It didn’t take long to figure out what had happened. Weldy and Jones had sawed through a couple of bars in their cell and another one at the end of the cell block. Then, like the Human Spider, swinging from barred window to barred window they had dropped to the ground and disappeared into the night.
Roy Thompson’s front page story appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal, February 1, 1949…click for larger…
Just over two weeks before, on January 13, they had broken into the home of Harry Huffman at 1910 South Main Street, cracked his wall safe and stolen $20,000 (about $193,000 in 2014 dollars). They were not the brightest boys in town, so were quickly apprehended, and soon confessed to the crime, so were cooling their heels in lieu of $25,000 bond each in the Forsyth County jail.
Shore, the first true professional sheriff in the county’s history, was apoplectic. Not only was this an embarrassment, but because another notorious criminal had sawed his way through those same bars twice in the past few months, it was a threat to his term as sheriff.
But he knew what to do. He told a reporter that the problem was a shortage of qualified jailers, and he added “We are about to celebrate the centennial of Forsyth County. That old jail building will be celebrating along with us.”
He also set into motion a plan to find and recapture the miscreants. But that would be more a matter of fate than top notch police work.
When Weldy and Jones were seen getting into that cab on Ninth Street, they were leaving Weldy’s mother’s house, headed for the High Point Road, where they would hitchhike to High Point, take a bus from there to Richmond and wind up in Baltimore. And they might have gotten away clean. But as a friend who is a semi-retired homicide detective likes to put it “it’s a good thing that criminals are stupid; otherwise we might never catch any of them.”
Jones, who was an overfed bar brawler, would later tell another reporter “Fighting was my downfall. I’d made up my mind not to get in a fight when I [escaped]. But (in Baltimore) I got to going around with a couple of fellers and a girl and I could not keep calm. One of the guys I was with got ornery over the girl and I slugged him. The cops moved in and grabbed me and I knew the game was finished.”
After barely five days of freedom, Jones was led out of the Stardust Saloon on East Baltimore Street in handcuffs. Weldy immediately fled to Chester, Pennsylvania.
“(I) hit the night spots there and seen some people I know,” he later told the same reporter. “Then one night I seen a detective come in the bar looking for me. He come up to the bar next to me and looked everybody over. And another one come up too and said ‘I guess he ain’t here.’ If I’d of got excited, they’d of picked me up right then. But the next night, I seen ’em come in some more bars an’ so I had to leave town and go back to Baltimore.”
Meanwhile, Sheriff Shore and deputy Jack Gough had driven to Baltimore to bring Jones back to Winston-Salem. They were preparing to leave when Shore decided to take one more swing through five Baltimore saloons, focusing on the Stardust. As Weldy told it:
“The sheriff come in (the Stardust) while I was talking to this feller…and asked me my name. I give him a phony and he asked for my identification papers. I saw then that he had me so I told him who I was.”
The next day when they got out of the car in the Twin City, Weldy and Jones were wearing wide belts. A strap buckled to the front and back of the belt ran between their legs. Their handcuffed wrists were hooked to the belt at the waist.
As cameras flashed, looking down at his harness, Jones said “Please tell my girl not to be too embarrassed over this picture. This is a hell of a way for a man to be looking right out here in the street.”
On the way down from Baltimore, the two had explained to the sheriff that after their safe cracking, they had bought hacksaw blades and concealed them in their shoes, just in case they got caught. So before Shore let them back into the jail, he made them remove their shoes.
“If they get out again,” he said. “They’ll have to go barefooted.”
Click for larger
Jones last word to reporters bemoaned his loss of standing with his girlfriend: “Tell my gal I hope she still loves me regardless of how much trouble I’ve caused her…tell her someday maybe I’ll do better.”
This post is based upon a number of sources, the best of which are Roy Thompson’s original story about the jailbreak in the Winston-Salem Journal and Frank Borden Hanes’ post capture piece in the Twin City Sentinel. Two great works of old time journalism.
The Stardust Saloon was one of the many dives in what was long known as “The Block” on East Baltimore Street, which actually extended for about three blocks, from Holliday Street on the west to the Fallsway on the east. Many of the women who made up the main attraction of “The Block” lived in Fells Point, today one of the trendiest addresses in America. Some young men from the Camel City might have seen Gypsy Rose Lee and Virginia Belle (Double 88s) there in the early ’60s…of course, I wouldn’t know about that.
Read an excellent piece on “The Block” and its long history stretching back to John Paul Jones and his sailors here: