by Martha Anderson, Volunteer
In the collection of things brought from the state penitentiary at McAlester (2010.025) there is a wonderful example of what you can tell about a man from his wallet. Most of the time wallets are empty, but this one came to us packed tight with everything but cash or family photos.
It’s a nice but worn wallet with lacing along the long edges and sporting a geometric design tooled on one side. It’s made of calfskin, according to one of five cards the Amity Company included when it was new. The interior is inscribed: Jess Dunn, Warden. Driver’s licenses issued in 1938 and 1940 identify Jess F. Dunn, born March 18, 1892 as standing just over six feet tall and weighing just over 200 pounds.
The wallet contents make a long list of positions held by a man who served his community in both official and informal capacities. Dunn held an ID card from the State Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation and was a Deputy Sheriff of Oklahoma County. He also carried ID cards from the Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the American Prison Association.
Within his local community, which included several counties, Dunn was a member of the Chambers of Commerce in both Coal County and McAlester. His membership dues were paid through 1941 with the Elks Lodge #533, Bruce Lodge where he was Master Mason, with the (Scottish Rite) Indian Consistory, and the Shriners Bedouin Temple of Muskogee.
There are credit cards from Deep Rock Oil Company and Watson’s Service Station in McAlester, as well as business cards from a detective agency in the Cotton Exchange Building in Oklahoma City and The Silver Dollar (Dine and Dance) in Ada.
Odd bits of paper with handwritten notes take care of gun tracking. One note states that a gun was loaned to two named men “to go hunting–by order of Mr. Dunn”. Three other notes track the same state issue .38 caliber pistol given to one Burle Dunn in 1938 until its 1941 retrieval from a local pawn shop.
We see on the downtime side of Dunn’s life that he was a member of the Business and Professional Men’s Recreation Club in Antlers and an honorary member of the Vinita Roundup Club. He was a member of the Oklahoma Game Association and had bought hunting licenses and duck stamps in the fall of both 1939 and 1940. A McAlester fishing permit including his wife ran through the end of 1941. He also was holding an official pass to the National Semi-Pro Softball Tournament slated for August 15-27, 1941 in Wichita, Kansas.
The wallet and its contents make 41 objects. The number of cards issued for 1941 lends an eerie frozen in time feeling that begs the question: What happened to him? We have to leave the wallet to learn that. The warden never made it to Wichita.
On Sunday, August 10, 1941, Dunn was in the prison yard with J.H. Fentress, an electrician, and R. W. Murray, a contractor, and his 10 year old son. They were planning a prison communications upgrade when the group was overtaken by four inmates armed with homemade knives and razors. The leader of the four, Claude Beavers, held a razor to Dunn’s neck. The other three, Roy McGee, Bill Anderson, and Hiram Prather grabbed Fentress and ordered Murray and his son to leave. After seizing firearms from guards, the convicts with their two hostages, sped away in a prison employee’s car.
Local authorities, alerted to the escape, stopped the car not far away where a gun battle broke out. When the smoke had cleared Deputy Sheriff W.E. Alexander, a former guard, had fatally wounded Beavers, McGee, and Anderson. Prather survived his wounds only to be executed two years later. Deputy Sheriff W. A. Ford, another former guard, and Warden Dunn were both shot in the head by the convicts. Dunn had also been stabbed. Fentress, hands bound, was still in the car unharmed.
Ironically, the communications work being planned that morning was intended to prevent prison breaks. From the time Jess Dunn became warden in 1936, his order was to shoot to stop escapes even if he himself had a knife in his back. The tower guards acknowledged Dunn’s change of mind in order to protect Fentress, but Alexander stood true after seeing Dunn murdered.
Warden Dunn was described as hard as granite, but as kind a man as could be found. Convicts mourned his passing right along with the community outside the walls. He left behind a wife, Pearl and two sons, Jess, Jr. and Byrle. He is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Ardmore, Oklahoma. The minimum security correctional center near Taft, Muskogee County was named in Dunn’s honor in 1980.
Though we know it will never tell the whole story, I have to ask: what’s in your wallet that speaks of your character?