Elmer Dustin's story is both fascinating and commonplace. Prisons are filled with men like him who are able to manipulate those around them with ease and without conscience. Dustin was perhaps more proficient than most, as he clearly had no trouble cleverly exploiting his girlfriend, the prison staff, his fellow townsfolk, and, eventually, the Governor of Iowa himself.

From the March 18, 1897 Anamosa Journal 


Convict Leaves Without Notice 

E.S. Dustin, a convict sentenced from Cherokee County for cattle stealing, made an unheralded exit last Thursday night.  Dustin has recently recovered from a siege of typhoid fever and had not yet been set at hard labor.  For some weeks past he had been retained in the hospital as cook and in addition to this service attended to the milking.  In performing the latter duty he was accorded the privilege of remaining in the yard until after the gun guards were off the walls.  Last Thursday night Jim Williams, the prison roundsman, made his appearance at the hospital ward at 8 o’clock as usual.  A report was sent out by Sam Lorimer in the hospital that Dustin had failed to show up.  The officials were notified and a search of the premises was made but failed to reveal the missing man.  No clue as to the method of exit has been gained.  The night in question, it will be remembered, was foggy followed later in the evening by a disagreeable, chilly rain.  Dustin had evidently scaled the walls early in the evening.  All signs point to the conclusion that he had an appointment and that Thursday night was the time agreed on.  The prisoner had the same opportunity every night to make his departure for weeks past – many of the evenings being congenial.  To a man not in possession of perfect health and still with the germs of typhoid fever lingering in his system, the risk of exposure to the inclemencies of last Thursday night, were he unaided, would have deterred him making an attempt to gain his liberty.  It is said Dustin has friends and relatives in the vicinity.  Under Warden Barr he was a trustie and accorded all the privileges which fall to the lot of a well-behaved convict who is nearing the close of his term. 

Dustin is no common cattle thief.  His depredations represent wholesale confiscations.  A single steer offered no inducement to the man.  He would spot a bunch of cattle turned out to grass – a bunch which the owner would not visit oftener than once a week – and drive off the whole herd, landing them at the nearest railway station, ship to the Chicago market, and accompany his plunder to its destination.  Three times he had paid the penalty for this high-handed thieving and done time in Anamosa.  He is clever in his work and where he has encountered the law on one occasion he alone knows how many times his ventures have met with success.  At the present writing no trace of the missing man has been discovered.  It was Dustin who conducted the stone work on the new stand pipe.  As a mason he is unexcelled.

From the December 22, 1898 Anamosa Journal


 Escaped from the Penitentiary a Year Ago and has Been at Liberty Until a Few Days Ago

Recognized and Recaptured by Ex-Deputy Warden Passwater at Cordon, Iowa.

 Something over a year ago, Elmer Dustin, a convict at the Anamosa Penitentiary, made his escape from within the confines of that institution, and notwithstanding the energetic and persistent efforts of the warden and his assistants, continued throughout the balance of the Madden administration, not the slightest clue to his whereabouts could be ascertained.  The state was flooded with cards bearing his description and photograph and a liberal reward offered for his apprehension, but in vain.  There was always a mystery connected with the manner in which Dustin made his exit from penitentiary environments.’

For a period of several weeks immediately preceding his disappearance he had been sick in the hospital with typhoid fever and during convalescence was allowed to pass from the hospital yard to the main prison enclosure for the purpose of bringing milk from the stables to the hospital kitchen.  The days were short and milking was done by a “trusty” after the evening lockup and after the guards had been relieved from duty on the walls.  On the day of Dustin’s escape Warden Madden had issued an order curtailing the prisoner’s special privileges and it is evident the order reached the ears of the prisoner, as he failed to return from the stables that evening at the customary hour, and the most diligent search immediately instituted failed to discover his whereabouts.  Later his convict clothing was found near the Milwaukee bridge over the Buffalo and with this discovery every semblance of a clue failed to materialize.

Recently ex-deputy warden Passwater of Indianola, now deputy sheriff of Warren County, was called to Corydon on business connected with his office.  Sauntering leisurely down the principal thoroughfare of that bustling little city, he came face to face with Dustin.  Recognition was mutual and when informed that he could consider himself under arrest Dustin did not make violent resistance, although for a time he vehemently maintained it a case of mistaken identity and declared he never had so much as seen the Anamosa penitentiary from an exterior point of view.  The bluff did not work, however, and Passwater conducted his prisoner to the Corydon city jail.

The news of Dustin’s arrest spread rapidly throughout the town.  He had conducted himself during his sojourn in Corydon in an exemplary manner, had just been initiated into the ranks of Knighthood in the K. of P. lodge of the city, and was so well thought of by his employer that only a few weeks previous he had been promoted from a position as common laborer to foreman of a large stock ranch.  Then too, he had but recently married into their midst.  The indignation of Corydon citizens was great at what they honestly believed an outrage upon one of their most respected number.  Mr. Passwater was threatened with violence at their hands, and it was proposed to relieve him of his prisoner by force.  Cooler counsel prevailed however, and when after thorough investigation there was no longer reason to doubt Dustin’s past history, the indignation was greatly augmented, but this time the prisoner was the object of their wrath.

 In due time Mr. Dustin received a call at the jail from his wife and this visitor was a revelation to Mr. Passwater.  In her he recognized Mrs. Telles, a former respected lady resident of Anamosa, and for a brief time an employee of the female ward of the prison.  It was while acting in that capacity no doubt that the woman first made Dustin’s acquaintance, and there are some who entertain suspicious that it was through this acquaintance that Dustin was able to make his escape so easily and leave no trace of himself to aid the officers in their search for him.

 Dustin has a prison record.  The term he is now completing is the third to his credit, or discredit, at the Anamosa institution.  His offense each time has been the same – cattle stealing.  He is no ordinary petty bovine purloiner, however.  His operations were always conducted on a large scale and no less than a carload of fat beeves would tempt his avarice.  A full train load, stolen from the pasture of his own uncle, driven to an obscure little railway station, shipped to Chicago and the money therefrom safely planted in his trouser pockets, is one of the feats to his credit.  His present sentence of five years, one third of which has been served, is the penalty for a like offense committed in Cherokee County, with the difference that only two carloads of butcher’s stock, instead of a full train load, figured in the financial end of the deal.

 As a convict Dustin was considered a model.  Under Warden Barr he was a “trusty” and for several months drove the prison farm team.  He was a mason and bricklayer of more than usual ability and as such frequently held the position of foreman of gangs performing this class of labor.  His industry and intelligence secured for him special privileges at the hand of every warden under whom he served time.

 Mr. Passwater arrived in Anamosa with his prisoner last Friday morning.  No. 2780 was immediately revived on the prison records and given an opportunity to make up for time lost to the state by the manipulation of a set of tools among the prison stone cutters.

From the December 28, 1899 Anamosa Journal


He Who Escaped and Was Brought Back Year Ago Gets Executive Clemency – A Xmas Gift

 Elmer Dustin, the convict who escaped from the Anamosa penitentiary and was recaptured a year ago, has been pardoned.  The pardon, or more properly the order to release the man, was telegraphed from Des Moines last Saturday.  It could not have reached Anamosa by mail and, as the pardon was in the nature of a Christmas gift, the governor was prevailed upon to use the wire.  Dustin departed from Anamosa on the 7:40 train last Saturday night.

 Unquestionably the good record which Dustin made at Corydon militated in his favor.  His wife worked faithfully for his pardon and her efforts were successful.  Dustin was doing a five year sentence and had about a year yet to serve.