Thursday August 8, 1940, started out like any other day at the Oakdale Reformatory for Women near the small town of Dwight, in rural Illinois. Helen H. Hazard, the institution’s prim forty-four-year-old superintendent, sat at her desk in the administration building going over staff reports, but her eyes wandered toward her office window. She stopped shuffling papers for a moment and reflected on the ten years she’d held the job, ever since Illinois’s only correctional facility solely for women opened in 1930. Miss Hazard, as she was called, knew every “girl” by name and ran a tight ship. Her staff tracked and supervised every step of each of the inmates as they followed their daily work schedules. Everything, and everyone, moved about with flawless precision, or so she thought.
Except for steel bars on the windows, the “cottage-type” institution resembled a country estate, and the Tudor-style prison facility was anything but imposing. Only a sign and a twelve-foot wire fence topped with barbed wire separated the 260 inmates from the surrounding corn fields and the outside world. Most of the women accepted their lot in life and bided their time until their sentences were up.
But, on this muggy summer day, after a lunchtime head count, word quickly reached the superintendent’s office that two women were missing. Staff members, prison officials, and even Superintendent Hazard herself immediately searched the premises.
Inmates Eleanor Jarman and Margaret Keringer (under the alias of “Mary Foster”) had last been seen at 11 a.m. when they were at their assigned jobs cleaning the staff’s quarters. Both women were slender and petite with pulled-back-shoulder-length hair, and they were close in age. Eleanor, at thirty-nine, was the more attractive of the two, but her crooked front teeth showed prominently when she smiled. Margaret looked older than her thirty-eight years and somewhat haggard. She spoke with a distinct foreign accent that kept her from concealing her Hungarian origin.
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For the seven years since her incarceration in 1933, Eleanor had kept to herself. Margaret, however, had racked up multiple arrests and confinements in other states and was admitted to the Oakdale Reformatory in 1939. Superintendent Hazard and her staff were unaware that the two women were acquaintances or possibly even friends. Both inmates, however, had “rooms” near each other on the second floor of one of the cell blocks. A newspaper writer later conveyed that Margaret had asked to be moved closer to Eleanor’s cell, but that prison officials had denied the request. Did Margaret, a hardened and habitual criminal who already had escaped from two other prisons, conceive of an escape plan and see an advantage in bringing Eleanor along?
Perhaps the women communicated through other inmates, as all of the women were allowed five minutes to visit with each other before each meal. Eleanor and Margaret may have devised an escape plan during one of those times or on previous shared work assignments. First, though, they had to go about their normal routines, then wait for an opportune moment to put their plan into action. It came when they were on housework duty and a staff member was distracted. Details are sketchy, but, at some point, Margaret “fixed a safety catch” on a normally locked heavy steel door. The two women also entered a closet used by the staff and stole a blue skirt and matching blue jacket, as well as a polka-dotted dress.
As Superintendent Hazard later pieced together the escape for the press, Eleanor and Margaret fled to the northeast portion of the prison complex where they hid behind a long brick laundry building that was located on the edge of the prison grounds. The women weren’t seen, as no laundry was being done that day and the unoccupied structure concealed their view from the rest of the prison complex. With only the stolen street clothes concealed on their bodies, Eleanor and Margaret managed to climb the wire fence and get over the barbed wire, before lowering themselves down the other side. There, they quickly changed clothes and tucked their prison garb into a clump of bushes.
With one of the women wearing the blue suit and the other the polka-dotted dress, the fleeing felons darted through acres of soon-to-be-harvested fields of corn. It was August, and, by then, the stalks had grown so high that they shielded the women from all directions. As soon as Superintendent Hazard confirmed that Eleanor and Margaret were no longer on the prison grounds, she summoned guards from the Pontiac Reformatory and the Statesville Prison to aid the Illinois State Police in a search that even included a small plane to view the fields from above. The guards and police also set up roadblocks in all directions. Surely, they thought, the women would be apprehended before they got far, but the combined forces’ hastily arranged procedures came too late. Eleanor and Margaret already had managed to slip away.
“In Search of the Blonde Tigress”
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All police officers, down to local patrolmen, were told to “be on the lookout” for Eleanor and Margaret. Residents of nearby farms looked out, too, and locked their doors. As they huddled around their console radios for updates, they heard report after report of Eleanor, the “notorious murderess,” and her “companion.” A few hours later, an insurance agent came forward to explain that he had given two women a ride toward the town of Morris (nineteen miles north of the reformatory), but he had dropped them off part way when he turned off the highway to his home. When Superintendent Hazard showed him photos of Eleanor and Margaret, he quickly identified them. The women, the insurance agent said, told him that they had come from the town of Streator, Illinois, and were headed to Chicago. One of them wore a polka-dotted dress.
After Eleanor and Mary got out of the man’s car, a farmer gave the women a ride the rest of the way into Morris. There, a rural mail carrier reported seeing them, as described, on the northern outskirts of town. A gasoline station attendant reported that they had stopped at his station, indicating their intentions to hitch a ride toward Chicago. Likely they reached the big city, where someone must have, at least, given them a meal and a change of clothing.
Back at the reformatory, staff members reported the thefts of the skirt, jacket, and polka-dotted dress. Superintendent Hazard, meanwhile, questioned and then suspended the staff member who had been trusted with their care. When the superintendent was asked about the escaped women, she told the press that Eleanor “had been a model prisoner and never before had made trouble.” Of Margaret’s behavior, the superintendent replied, “Not quite so good.” Margaret, in fact, had a long rap sheet for grand larceny and bank robbery, so it made sense that she was the instigator and took Eleanor along.
The press and, thus, the public, interpreted the situation differently. Eleanor had been convicted in 1933 as an accomplice to murder after participating in a series of “daylight robberies” with two men on Chicago’s west side. One of the men was her “sweetheart” George Dale who fired the fatal shot at an elderly shop-owner. Reporters were quick to dub Eleanor the “blonde tigress,” after they falsely claimed that Eleanor had clawed at and kicked the victim as he lay dying on the sidewalk. At the time of her and Margaret’s escape, reporters all over the country wrote about the “Tiger girl and her pal.” No one in the press bothered to debate as to whether Eleanor had been guilty as charged, or if her role in the crime been exaggerated.
Eleanor, in even-more sensationalized news reports, became known as “the most dangerous woman alive.” Perhaps Margaret had picked Eleanor solely for her notoriety, in hopes that the police would search harder for the “tigress” than for her. If this was Margaret’s strategy, it did not end as planned.
Author’s note: Above is Chapter 1 of “In Search of the Blonde Tigress.” Eleanor’s claim to fame is that she, most likely, was the longest-running female fugitive in America. Born in 1901, and now obviously deceased, she’s believed to have been buried under the name of an alias. That name —”Marie Millman” — was released by one of Eleanor’s descendants, in 1994.
The book is part biography and part detective story, drawn from long-ignored primary source documents that include police, court, and prison records. More than a half-century after Eleanor’s escape, her family stepped in to search for the wanted woman. This story’s conclusion picks up where the family left off.
As a Colorado author, what I uncovered came as a complete surprise. I started with genealogical databases and found numerous women named “Marie Millman” who fit into Eleanor’s time span. Then I eliminated all who (according to census records and obituaries) had parents, siblings, and/or children. Only one “Marie Millman” was left —a waitress who worked on East Colfax Avenue from 1951 to 1974. One of the restaurants where she worked was Pete’s Kitchen (formerly The Kitchen), still in business at 1962 East Colfax. Denver probate records reveal that “Marie” died intestate, in 1980, and had no known heirs.
She’s buried in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery. Perhaps someone remembers her.
From Chapter 20
In making sense of Eleanor’s untold story, it’s important to reflect on who she was as a woman. She had entered the workplace with a below-average education, but her reformatory records indicated an above-average IQ. After her escape with Margaret, while riding in the car with the unsuspecting motorist, Eleanor likely was the one who steered the conversation toward the rumblings of war rather than be confronted with small talk such as “where do you live and what do you do?” At the time of her trial, most of her photos show her looking frightened and subdued, despite her reputation as the notorious “blonde tigress.” After her escape, if she hadn’t matured into a confident woman, she wouldn’t have survived.
Eleanor, as Marie, blended into society as an ordinary working woman, just as she had been before the crime spree that ended in the shopkeeper’s murder. Yes, she had joined up with the wrong people at the wrong time, but she wasn’t the killer. Nor had she kicked the dying man on the ground.
She served seven years in the reformatory for being an accomplice to murder, then she fulfilled the reformatory’s mission — “to return unfortunate girls and women to society, clean, healthful, and with character reconstructed.” If Superintendent Hazard had known of Eleanor’s law-abiding life and success in her job, she would have, secretly, been proud. For Eleanor, the tables had turned. She wasn’t the blonde tigress after all, and she was left with her freedom. She had earned it.
Any of us who were born before 1980 may have passed Eleanor — as Marie — on the street or been served by her in a restaurant. The columnist Ed Lahey, whose wife drove him through Dwight, Illinois, on the night of Eleanor’s escape, thought so, too. In 1966 he wrote, “When I am in some wayside diner late at night, and a beat-up old doll in her sixties is dishing out chili, I am tempted to ask if she is Eleanor. But I never do.”
Lahey ended his column, in part, by adding, “I keep hoping that she got some good out of life… Goodnight, Eleanor Jarman, wherever you are.”
Silvia Pettem is a longtime Colorado resident, researcher, newspaper columnist, and author of more than 20 books and has a knack for pulling intriguing women out of the past. She can be reached at her website, silviapettem.com.