Taking French Leave: Jailbreak in Cape Cod

Harold Tracy claimed he was ‘a public scapegoat’ at a hearing for sentence reduction on the jailbreak charge. The eight- to ten-year sentence was reduced to three to five. Courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Quarantine. Self-isolation. Social distancing. Whatever you like to call it, as people across the country adjust to new guidelines to combat the coronavirus, the core message from medical authorities remains to stay at home, away from large groups of people. At times, such measures can lead us to feel like our homes have become like temporary prisons, prisons from which—no matter how comfortable they are—we now long to escape.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Americans have harbored such feelings—nor the first time they would have acted on them. Allow us, then, to introduce you to Harold Tracy, who undertook one of the great jailbreaks in Massachusetts history, becoming the first escapee from the Barnstable House of Correction on Cape Cod.

Tracy didn’t end up in jail by accident. In June 1940, while war raged overseas in Europe, a lady named Clara Smith was found brutally murdered at a local acting and elocution school on Martha’s Vineyard. Violently attacked in the middle of the night while asleep in her dormitory, Smith was only the sixth murder victim in the island’s 300-year history. At first, suspicion fell on one of the staff members of the college, Ralph Huntingdon Rice, who was arrested and tried in a riveting courtroom drama featuring many members of the Vineyard’s close-knit island community.

A photo of the front page paper of the Vineyard Gazette
The Gazette morgue was a maze of newspapers, but has since been organized, with 150 years of Gazettes neatly boxed. Photo by the author. Image sourced from Mystery on the Vineyard.

Though prosecutors sought valiantly to tie Rice to the crime, their case suffered from numerous holes and inconsistencies, and ultimately he was acquitted—rightly, historian Tom Dresser argues in his book Mystery on the Vineyard: Politics, Passion, and Scandal on East Chop. Throughout the trial, however, another name kept popping up: Jan Thomas, known as an electrician calling himself Harold Tracy, a name he had adopted while fleeing a jail sentence back in Kentucky. Tracy, a former ex-con and now fugitive, was tall, handsome, and a raging alcoholic, and his aggressive advances on local women had upset many on the Vineyard. When the case against Rice fell apart, the only viable suspect remaining was Tracy: he had no alibi for the night of the murder, was known to be drunk that evening, and harbored personal vendettas against the women of the college who had sought to curtail his flings. Clara Smith, it seemed, had become the tragic victim of his violent revenge.

A portrait of Clara Smith
On her first and only trip to Martha’s Vineyard, dowager Clara Smith met an untimely demise in Sumner Hall. Courtesy of the New Bedford Standard Times. Image sourced from Mystery on the Vineyard.

With no immediate evidence against Tracy, however, Rice’s acquittal ended the matter for a time. The following spring, in March 1941, police interest in Tracy renewed, thanks to a campaign by the editor of The Vineyard Gazette, Henry Hough. In those intervening months, Tracy had finally been apprehended on his prior charge and was serving time at the Barnstable jail. With news of his indictment coming from the island, however, as Dresser puts it, Tracy wasn’t going to stick around:

“Between four and five in the afternoon of Saturday, April 19, 1941, Harold Tracy climbed a ladder in a hallway of the jail, picked a lock in a ceiling hatch and pushed through to freedom. He hurried across the roof, dropped a dozen feet to another roof—where he bruised his ribs—and shimmied down a chimney to the ground.

Initial reports in the Cape Cod Standard Times indicated footprints were found nearby. Tracy scurried along railroad tracks to avoid detection. … Tracy managed to dye his clothes to look like a railroad worker and made a sledgehammer out of cardboard to perfect the disguise. Earlier, he had been asked to perform electrical work that required a key to the scuttle, which he never returned. It was two hours before he was discovered missing.”

Learn how criminal Harold Tracy evaded authorities for eighteen months

Tracy stayed on the lam for a year and a half, until an FBI agent recognized him from a wanted poster in Chicago, and brought him in. Within a few months he was remanded to Massachusetts to face sentencing for his (now several) crimes, the jailbreak high on the list. Ever the dapper gentleman, Tracy had even apologized to his jailer back in Barnstable after the event, writing him a letter that said, “I hate to run out on you like this, but after all it is the only thing I can do.”

What happened to Tracy next, why the case remains unsolved, and what happened on the Vineyard in the aftermath are all found in full in Dresser’s book, and far be it from us to spoil the whole story here. But as you’re contemplating your own unexpected confinement this season, we here at Crime Capsule encourage you to consider just how good you have it, to stock up on great books to get you through the long weeks, and most of all, be kind to your jailer, whoever they may be. After all, they’re suffering through it too.

Interested in more unsolved cases from America’s past? Check out our archive of stories here. Love a good jailbreak or escape? Read about gangster Alvin Karpis or fugitive James Dunham. Or visiting us for the first time, and want to learn more about what we do? Check out our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!