Driving down Smith Street and glancing down the alley behind the Corsarro’s Family Pizza, one would inevitably notice the mural on the side of the historic Kingsburg jail, built in 1925. The mural depicts one man working diligently to free a desperado held inside the jail, as his dog watches intently. In the course of my careful review of the Kingsburg Recorder archives held at the Kingsburg Historical Park, I believe I have found the true story behind The Great Kingsburg Jail Break.
The story begins in San Jose, California on September 11, 1929 when two desperados decide to steal Mr. Kelly’s automobile and make a run for it. As the duo entered the Kingsburg city limits, they caught the attention of night policeman Vic Linman. As Officer Linman pulled them over, something peculiar caught his eye. Was it their nervous reaction to seeing a police car in the mirror? Perhaps, they failed to properly signal or maybe the driver executed a rolling stop. Maybe, but more likely it was their youthful appearance. It would be four years before the first police car was equipped with a two-way radio, so officer Linman had to rely on his experience and intuition.
Marshall McElheran sat quietly in the passenger seat as the driver rolled down the window. I can imagine the conversation went something like this …
Officer Linman: Boys, you’re a bit young to be driving such a fine vehicle aren’t you?
Driver: Yes sir.
Officer Linman: Suppose you tell me your names and what brings you boys to Kingsburg.
Driver: I’m John F. Kelly, and this here’s my friend, Marshall. We’re just visiting from San Jose.
Officer: You boys look kinda young to be driving a car. How old are you?
Driver: Well Sir, I’m 13 years old and Marshall is 12. (proudly stated as if that was old enough for just about anything.)
Officer Linman: This your car?
Driver: Nope, it belongs to my father.
Officer Linman: Where is your father?
Driver: At home in San Jose.
Officer Linman: Did you boys get your father’s permission to take his car so far from home?
Driver: No sir.
At that point, Officer Linman had no choice but to hold the young desperados in the City Jail until the parents could take them and the car home. No need to file formal charges or send them to Fresno County Jail. That’s just the way things were handled back then. However, our story takes an unexpected turn when Chief of Police, John Croft attempted to release the boys to their parents the next day. Chief Croft inserted the key to the cell door, and it would not open; the lock had jammed. After trying everything, Chief Croft had no alternative but to break them out of jail.
No, he didn’t use a horse to dislodge the bars over the cell window as depicted in the mural. The Recorder article makes no mention of a dog in attendance either. Instead, the boys, and their parents watched as the Chief of Police used an acetylene torch to cut the lock to execute the first, and as far as I can tell, only successful jail break in the history of Kingsburg.