Richard Honeck (1879-1976), an American murderer, served what was, at the time, the longest prison sentence ending in a prisoner’s release. Jailed in 1899 for the killing of a former school friend, Honeck was paroled from Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois on 20 December 1963, having served 64 years and one month of his life sentence. In the decades between his conviction and the time his case came to public notice again in August 1963, he received only a single letter – a four-line note from his brother in June 1904 – and two visitors: a friend in 1904, and a newspaper reporter in 1963.
My recent stumble across mention of this oddity in Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky’s incomparable The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p.1341, inspired a brief flurry of research in the online archives of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune – the magnificent repositories of which are now fully keyword searchable from their first issues to the present day. A quarter of an hour’s work was enough to flesh out a story easily bizarre enough to make the pages of a modern tabloid – a good example of just how quickly researchers can move in this digital age.
Honeck, a telegraph operator and son of a wealthy dealer in farm equipment, was 22 years old when he was arrested in Chicago in September 1899 for the killing of Walter F. Koeller. He and another man, Herman Hundhausen, had gone to Koeller’s room armed with an eight-inch bowie knife, a sixteen-inch bowie knife, a silver-plated case knife, a .44 caliber revolver, a .38 caliber revolver, a .22 caliber revolver, a club, and two belts of cartridges. They also carried a getaway kit: two satchels filled with dime novels, obscene etchings, and clothes from which the names had been cut (New York Times, 4+5 September 1899).
Koeller, who was later found by the police sitting in a chair stabbed in the back, had testified for the prosecution some years earlier when Honeck and Hundhausen were charged with setting a number of fires in their home town, Hermann, Missouri (New York Times, 5 September 1899). According to a confession made by Hundhausen, the two men had sworn revenge and had planned Koeller’s murder in considerable detail. Honeck, Hundhausen said, had stabbed the dead man with the eight inch bowie knife (Ibid and Chicago Tribune, 5 September, 22+25 October, 5 November 1899).
It was left to a latter-day Associated Press reporter, the memorably-named Bob Poos, to shine a spotlight on Honeck’s case in 1963 after seeing a reference to it in the Menard prison newspaper. Poos noted that after his initial article was published in the papers, the aged murderer received a mailbag of 2,000 letters, including a proposal of marriage from a woman in Germany, offers of employment, and gifts of money in sums ranging from $5 down to 25 cents. Honeck, who was permitted under prison rules to answer one letter per week, observed: “It’ll take a long time to deal with these.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August and 27 October 1963)
Honeck spent the first years of his sentence in Joliet Prison, where in 1912 he stabbed the assistant warden with a hand-crafted knife. He served 28 days in solitary confinement for that infraction, but had a clean record after moving to Menard, where he worked for 35 years in the prison bakery. “I guess I’d have to be pretty careful if I got paroled,” the old lag concluded when interviewed by Poos. “There must be an awful lot of traffic now, and people, compared with what I remember.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August 1963).
[Updates (July 2010 and August 2010)]: My thanks to a reader who points out that Honeck’s death – aged 97 – was reported by the St Petersburg Times for 30 December 1976. He had gone to live in Oregon with a niece, Mrs Clara Orth, after his release, and spent the last five years of his long life in a nursing home in that fair state.
Further articles concerning the Honeck case have been appearing online since I first wrote; the pair of mugshots above, showing Honeck at the start and the end of his incredible sentence, come from a clipping published in the Park City Daily News, 20 December 1963. In this clipping, Bob Poos follows up his original reports on the case and describes the 84-year-old, just-released murderer as “sprightly” and – in passages that perhaps smell slightly of reporters’ prose – delighting in the marvels of the modern world. “The old man,” Poos wrote, “was visibly amazed at the progress that had passed him by while he sat behind prison bars. During the car trip from Chester to St Louis [where he caught a plane to San Francisco to meet his niece], Honeck said, ‘Why, we must be going 35 miles an hour.’ The driver, Warden Ross Randolph, answered, ‘Actually, Richard, we’re going 65.’ Later, on the jet, Honeck remarked, ‘I travelled faster in that car today than I ever had in my life, and now we’re going almost 10 times that fast – and six miles up in the air, too.’”
Clara Orth – the daughter of Honeck’s sister, seen above left showing her uncle a scrapbook filled with clippings about him – was profiled, too, in a wire report published in somewhat different versions by the St Petersburg Evening Independent of 27 December 1963 and the Tuscaloosa News of 1 January 1964. She had quit her job to care for Honeck, it was reported, and sold her one-bedroom trailer home and bought another trailer with two bedrooms for them.
Orth had some family memories to recount as well. Her mother had died a couple of years after Honeck went to jail, and her widowed father sent her to Hermann to live with her grandfather, Honeck’s father, and an aunt. In six years in Missouri, Orth recalled, “Uncle Richard’s father and sister never once mentioned him.” Interviewed again at the time of Honeck’s death, Orth said that her uncle had slowly become senile and had to be placed in care. “He wasn’t bitter,” she added. “He decided long ago that if he had to be in prison that he would make the best of it. Since he got out he’s had a glorious time.”
[Afterword (29 August 2010):] Further research suggests that while the sentence served by Richard Honeck probably was unique in its day, his unwelcome record has since been exceeded in at least two known cases in the US alone, and by others in Australia. The US record holder – again probably, for, as we will see, it depends on one’s definition of incarceration – is Paul Geidel, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1911, served 68 years and 245 days in various New York state hospitals and prisons. He was only 17 when he broke into the apartment of the rumoured-to-be-wealthy William Jackson, 73, and killed his victim by choking him with a chloroform-soaked rag. It was harder than he expected – “The old man put up a fight,” he said – and he got away with nothing but $7 in cash, a watch and a stickpin in exchange for Jackson’s life.
Geidel was released on May 7, 1980, at the age of 86. His case differed from Honeck’s in two key respects. Firstly, he was initially sentenced not to life imprisonment but to twenty years to life, but later declared insane, being incarcerated not in a prison but in a hospital for the criminally insane. Secondly, Geidel was offered parole at an earlier date than was Honeck – in 1974, when he had served only 62 years. Geidel had become institutionalized and declined release, voluntarily choosing to remain confined for an additional six years.
I take a special interest in his story because of a strange coincidence: Geidel’s crime took place in an apartment next door to the one owned by Charles Whitman, who was New York’s district attorney at the time. Whitman, it is reported, took a personal interest in the case and “extracted a confession or two.” This comes as no surprise to me, since Whitman was also the prosecutor responsible for the arrest and execution of Charles Becker, a corrupt New York cop found guilty of the murder of a gangster named Herman Rosenthal in two notorious trials of 1912 and 1914 largely as a result of Whitman’s politically-motivated determination to hound him to the electric chair. The Becker case and Whitman’s behaviour in it were the subject of my book Satan’s Circus.
The second case occurred in Chicago: William Heirens, the “Lipstick Killer,” confessed to three murders in the aftermath of World War II, and was convicted, sentenced to three life terms, and sent to prison on 5 September 1946. He exceeded Honeck’s record of time served in August 2010, dying, still incarcerated, on 5 March 2012. Heirens – who was born in 1928 – would have had to live until 9 May 2015 to beat the record set by Geidel.
Richard Honeck was the subject of significant press interest at the time of his parole. Below is a gallery of press photos released at that time. Click on any image to view it in higher resolution.
Afterword (8 April 2012):] Also worthy of note is the case of two imprisoned Black Panthers, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, who when their case was noted by the BBC, had spent 40 years in solitary confinement for the murder of a prison guard named Brent Miller in 1972. Both men – originally jailed for armed robbery – say that they joined the Panthers in an attempt to improve the appalling conditions in Louisiana State Penitentiary; aside from a brief spell in 2008 spent in a high security dormitory, they have spent 23 hours a day locked up alone for the whole of that time. They protest their innocence.
[Updates (5 October 2013 and 9 June 2015)] A federal court ordered that Herman Wallace be released from prison on 1 October 2013 after his 1974 murder conviction was reversed. He was suffering from liver cancer and died three days later.
Wallace told his lawyer George Kendall that solitary confinement – in a cell that, in his case, was six feet by nine feet (three metres by two) – “is the cruellest thing one man can do to another.” He had kept in shape using dumb-bells made of old newspapers which he had constructed himself. The evidence against the two Black Panthers’ involvement in Miller’s death, most sources report, was weak; there were no fingerprints at the scene and Miller’s wife has stated she had doubts about the conviction and hoped the pair would be fairly treated. The case was prosecuted twice and in both cases, convictions were overturned on appeal.
A Louisiana judge ordered the release of Wallace’s friend Albert Woodfox on 9 June 2015, by which point he had served in excess of 40 years in solitary confinement. The judge also banned prosecutors from attempting to try the 68-year-old prisoner for a third time, though the Louisiana attorney general announced that he planned an appeal in any case, “to make sure this murderer stays in prison and remains fully accountable for his actions.”
Their motto, Wallace said, was “always far apart, but never not together.” A BBC report on Woodfox’s impending release notes an intriguing bit of symbolism: Woodfox and Wallace, together with a third Black Panther, Robert King (who was not accused of involvement in the Miller murder, and who was released in 2001) were known as ‘The Angola 3’, because “the prison lies next to a former slave plantation called Angola.”
[Afterword (31 December 2012):] As noted below by commenters Edward Stengel and David Frigault, the current consensus seems to be that – if Geidel is excluded – the unwelcome record for the longest prison sentence served that ultimately ended in release is held by Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby (probably February 1886-18 May 1987), of Jefferson County, Kentucky. He was convicted of second degree murder in 1908 and eventually paroled from Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City in 1974, having served 66 years, four months and one day (24,228 days, allowing for leap years) of his life sentence. Grigsby had been 56 years into that stretch at the time that Honeck was paroled, and was 89 when he was freed. His sole possessions at that time were a well-thumbed Bible, three old watches, a bottle of foot spray, and a packet of tobacco.
Grigsby entered the pen as prisoner 4045 on 8 August 1908 – have travelled cross-country for several days in a horse and cart to get there – and was freed on 9 December 1974. He had been convicted of knifing one James Brown to death in a saloon in Anderson, IL, on 3 December 1907.
The fight broke out over a game of five card stud poker. As Grigsby remembered it, “I never should have been sentenced to [serve a term for] natural life because that murder was more suicide than murder… I was in this saloon, just mindin’ my business, and this fellow comes up to me. I always wore a big diamond in them days. And he seen that diamond. Come up and said, ‘Wanna play some cards?’
“I had an ace, king, jack and deuce in my hand when he stood up and came at me. I had this little deerfoot knife that I pulled out and just cut him on the shoulder. He was bleeding, but so drunk he wouldn’t see a doctor… Stayed at the bar like a crazy man or something ‘stead of gettin’ to a hospital. He was a fool, is what he was… Just kept saying, ‘I don’t need no help.’ We even got a doctor to his house, but he went to bed and didn’t want no doctor.”
The victim, who was white, was found lying dead on his blood-soaked mattress the next morning, Grigsby added, and the sheriff who arrested him told him: “You couldn’t have picked a better one there, Van Dyke. He was a mean S.O.B.” In this telling of the story, Grigsby owed his sentence mostly to the machinations of a prosecutor who was running for the senate and wanted to look tough on crime; as he saw it, he had the last laugh, because although the DA who convicted him won the election, he was “dead in a year.”
At other times, however, Grigsby – who was the son of freed slaves – said that things had gone down rather differently. Brown had had a knife, he told the Kokomo Tribune, and he had grabbed it from him during their fight; on another occasion, probably more accurately, he admitted that after the row erupted over the card table, he left the saloon and visited a pawn shop to redeem a knife that he had pledged there – thus establishing the premeditation necessary to justify a life sentence.
Research suggests that elements of all these various accounts combine to form the truth. Genealogist Reginald Pitts, who looked into the story and read the original sources, tells it this way: “According to the transcript of the trial, Mr Brown and Van were playing poker and started fighting. Curses and racial slurs were uttered, and Mr Brown pulled a knife on Van. Van left the bar, went home and got his own knife. Mr. Brown saw Van coming up the street back to the bar. He picked up a chair and threw it at Van, who dodged it, and then lunged at Mr Brown with his knife and stabbed him to death. Supposedly, the lawyer told Van to plead guilty to second degree murder in order to escape the electric chair.”
Grigsby seems to have been a model prisoner in the mould of the post-Joliet Richard Honeck. His main pass-times were reading the Bible (two of his three brothers were country preachers), an encyclopaedia and a dictionary. “That encyclopedia is an amazing book,” he said. “I read the whole thing from A to Z.” His other interest was boxing, and he reminisced frequently about the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries heavyweight title bout of 1910, although that had taken place a couple of years after he was imprisoned.
Like Paul Geidel, Grigsby became institutionalised during his long confinement, and spent a large part of his sentence under psychiatric observation – one source says nearly 50 years of it, another puts the time at 55 years. He found it difficult to adjust to freedom once it had been granted to him and he was sent to live in Woodview nursing home in Michigan City, where he kept mostly to himself and was described by staff as “moody” and friendless. He returned voluntarily to prison in 1976 after 17 months on the outside – a move he told one reporter he regretted – after complaining that life in his home was boring and that he had expected to be found a job “like being a porter in a barber shop… I could have done that, but there was no job. It was like being useless.”
The old-timer was put up in the prison hospital because guards felt that, at 90 years old, he would struggle in the hurly-burly of the chow line, and served a further several months there. His parole officer, John Rascka, said that Grigsby was a loner who preferred incarceration in the maximum security facility because it was all he knew and he was treated well. Most sources agree that he retained considerable vitality well into his 90s, maintaining physical fitness by dancing a “stiff-legged dance” of his own invention.
Grigsby remained “alert and reality-oriented”, the Bryan Times reported; added Jet: “He receives more attention than most inmates. The staff like him. He tells fabulous stories and they get a kick out of it.” Said one: “Van Dyke is just the sweetest old man, but he will use the ‘French language’ now and then.” And late in November of ’76, Grigsby left prison again, by now aged 91 and this time apparently for good. “I’ve been here too long. I’ll not be back,” he said as he was taken to the Marion County Home in Indianapolis. “I feel like I’ve been born again.”
Speaking in 1976, the old-timer said he had made 33 unsuccessful attempts to gain parole before finally being released. He added that he thought his sentence was cruel and sometimes wished the judge had sentenced him to hang, but added: “I’ve put all my trust in God. There’s got to be a meaning for this.”
Grigsby’s celebrity was such that Johnny Cash wrote a song about him entitled Michigan City Howdy Do and presented him with a colour television. Van Dyke’s last take on the justice system he was so intimately familiar with was: “Nobody likes it in prison. They make it as good as possible. Prison life is not really that bad. But nobody really wants to be here.” And his view of human nature was that little had changed in the course of his long stretch: “The people are the same. Just gettin’ you in trouble and all kinds of foolishness. Always gettin’ you in trouble. I keep to myself and don’t pay ’em no attention. Read my Bible. Why, that’s exactly what I do.”
The old man’s one other hobby, during his time in prison, was collecting keys – a habit that he kept up in his nursing home, and which Ebony journalist Hamilton J. Bims thought was significant: “The keys may be signs of his lingering conviction that he is still a kind of prisoner.” Ebony, Dec 1975; St Petersburg [FL] Evening Independent, 9 Sep 1976; Jet, 16 Sep 1975 + 6 Jan 1977; Bryan Times, 9 Aug 1976; Beaver County Times [PA], 25 Nov 1976; Kokomo Tribune, 28 Nov 1979.]
Notes on the longest known sentences served, by state
I discovered in the course of correcting my master listing of longest sentences served (below) that the state-by-state summary of record stretches that I’d used to compile parts of it has vanished utterly from internet view. Here in its stead is a series of mini-studies on the longest sentences served in various places:
Alabama. According to a newspaper article published in 2002, Alabama’s longest serving prisoner at that time was Roosevelt Youngblood, 61, who had been sent to prison – for life – for robbery in 1961, who had killed a total of three fellow inmates in the course of the 1960s and 1970s, and who was not due for parole until 2008. As Youngblood told it, responsibility for the murders he committed rested as much with the appalling Alabama prison regime as with him – he had killed simply to survive in a brutal, filthy and overcrowded penitentiary, run by a system so bad that it had to be taken over by the federal courts simply in order to ensure that inmates had access to things such as toothbrushes and flushing toilets. Being in prison in Alabama, he asserted was like “being out in the jungle with a bunch of cobra snakes.” Youngblood was not alone in this assessment: Alabama lawyer Alvin J. Bronstein describes Fountain, the facility he was held in as a place “shocking to to conscience,” where an average of 50 sexual assaults occurred each week, where “people were being raped, beaten, there was stealing and the guards were afraid to go in there and didn’t go in there.” If Youngblood was at Fountain in the 60s, Bronstein adds, “he would almost have [had] to [kill] to stay alive.” The Youngblood of 2002, however, was old for 61 – partially paralysed by a stroke, afflicted by cirrhosis of the liver (which sounds like a further indictment of the Alabama prison system) and suffering constant pain from a bullet lodged in his spine – an injury inflicted when he was shot by a guard for fighting with another inmate “who drew an ice pick on him.” He insisted on calling the other prisoners with whom he shared his time “associates”, not “friends” – which is perhaps not surprising when one considers that St Clair, the correctional facility where he was by then imprisoned, has been described by vice.com as one of the most dangerous lock-ups in the US, with five prisoner-on-prisoner killings in only 30 months, and “a toxic mix” of problems, which apparently included “overcrowding, a warden who doesn’t care what prisoners do to one another, and drug-dealing guards who sometimes order hits on inmates.” Youngblood slipped out of sight after featuring in that one report – published in the Tuscaloosa News, 12 May 2002 – and I have not been able to find any report of what happened to him subsequently. He is no longer incarcerated, and does not feature on the US Social Security Death Index. This implies parole, but – give our description of the frail and ailing prisoner of a dozen years ago – I still suspect that he may have died in prison. He had served 41 years at the time the News caught up with him.
- Arizona. Betty Smithey [above] was the longest-serving female prisoner in the US at the time of her 2012 parole. She had completed 49 years of a sentence for the murder of a 15-month-old girl whom she had been babysitting.
- Arizona. Louis Taylor served the longest sentence – 42 years – that I have record of for prisoners who had their sentence vacated or overturned. He had been found guilty of setting a fire in a Tuscon hotel that killed 29 people. Evidence suggested that, while he was at the scene, he had actually been helping guests to escape the flames. Although not formally cleared, he had always pleaded his innocence and was eventually released as part of a deal that saw him plead ‘no contest’ to avoid the delay and cost of a retrial.
- Australia. When Tony Rawlins died aged 82 in April 2010, he was Australia’s longest-serving prisoner. He had been imprisoned in 1956, aged 28, for the “Kissing Point mutilation murder” and was 54 years into his stretch when he died. Like several of the criminals on this list, Rawlins had killed a child, strangling a 12-year-old girl named Fiona Pronger with his belt after she rejected his advances.
- California. Booker T. Hillary, who remains in prison nearly 53 years after his conviction for murder, is serving time for the killing of a 15 year old girl, Marlene Miller, in 1962 and is California’s longest-serving male prisoner. Details of the case are contested. Hillary (who is black, while Miller was white) was convicted by an all-white jury and made extensive efforts between 1962 and 1985 to seek a retrial. Those who oppose his release point out that he was on parole for an earlier rape conviction at the time of the murder, and that at least one fellow inmate claims to have heard him confess to stabbing Miller.
Meanwhile, Betty Smithey’s release [above] leaves Manson Family members Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten as almost certainly the longest-serving women in the US prison system. The pair were convicted on 25 January 1971 and – after commutation of their death sentences to life terms – had, as of October 2015, both served in excess of 44 years in the California penal system for their parts in the Family’s murders. (Van Houten spent six months out of prison, on bail awaiting a retrial, in 1978. Denied parole, for a 20th time, at her most recent hearing in June 2013, she is next eligible for consideration for release midway through 2018, by which time she will be 68 years old.)
- Also worthy of mention is one old-timer, Charles “Old Fitz” Fitzgerald, a long-serving career criminal who was finally paroled from California’s Folsom Prison in 1971, at the age of 85. Fitzgerald was then the longest-serving inmate in the state, having first gone to the pen in 1908, aged 22. He served three years for burglary, and, after his release, killed a Montana deputy. That crime earned him a 100-year sentence, but he was paroled as a reformed character after only 11 of those years – only to kill again in 1926 while participating in a rum-running operation during Prohibition. “Old Fitz” served 45 years for that final crime, and survived his second parole by five years, dying aged 90 on 30 October 1976.
- Connecticut. Burglar Francis (Frank) Clifford Smith went to gaol for the murder of a nightwatchman during a break-in in Greenwich. Convicted on 7 July 1950, Smith is now 90 years old, in his 65th year inside, and the senior man, by time served, in the entire US prison system. He escaped briefly in 1967 and spent 11 days on the run before being recaptured.
- Eire. Jimmy Ennis has spent longer than any other prisoner in an Irish jail – 50 years for killing farmer George Applebe in the course of a robbery gone wrong. Ennis declined to seek parole for many years, and as of March 2013 was reported to be institutionalised and probably incapable of successfully adapting if released.
Florida. It seems that Gary Alvord – awarded the unwelcome soubriquet of “the man too crazy to be executed” by the Tampa Bay Times – holds the record for longest time spent on death row. He served 39 years for the 1973 killing of three women, seeing out eight presidents, nine Florida governors and two different death warrants before falling victim to a brain tumour in May 2013. Alvord, a schizophrenic from Michigan, was a prolific thief, molester and kidnapper on the run from a prison sentence for rape when he strangled Ann Herrmann – and then killed Herrmann’s mother and daughter – for the crime of overcharging a friend for a game of pool.
- France. Philippe El Shennawy, released from prison aged 59 in January 2014, was France’s longest-serving prisoner at that time. He had completed 38 years of a life sentence for armed robbery and taking hostages. Life sentences in France do not normally exceed 30 years, but El Shennawy had been returned to prison after breaking the conditions of the parole he was granted in 1990, and had subsequently made two successful escape attempts, in 1997 and 2004. While free, he committed several further armed robberies.
- Idaho. Sentenced to a short stretch in jail for robbery back in 1969, Robert Lee Macik was found guilty of killing a fellow inmate during a prison riot two years later. As of November 2014, he had completed 45 years for the two crimes, and continued to protest his innocence of the prison killing.
Illinois. William Heirens, of Chicago, was a 17-year-old “organised lust killer” when he went to jail for three murders on 5 September 1946; he died, still behind bars and insisting he was innocent, on 5 March 2012. Heirens earned the soubriquet “The Lipstick Killer” after scrawling the words “For heavens/sake catch me/before I kill more/I cannot control myself” onto the wall of his second victim’s apartment; his original story was that the crimes had been committed by his evil alternate personality, “George Murman.” He was highly intelligent and, having begun college in his home town at the age of 16, was consistently referred to in the press as the “University of Chicago brightboy.” Heirens fought a long battle for freedom, but by early 2011 – the Chicago Reader reported – things were going rapidly downhill for the country’s longest-serving inmate. He “can’t get out of bed or bathe himself,” a reporter wrote, “and his cataract-plagued eyes have left him unable to read. He has severe diabetes and gets shots of insulin twice a day, along with a cocktail of other medications. Nurses constantly change bandages on his legs, where diabetic sores weep fluids. They say he is beginning to show signs of dementia.”
- With Heirens dead, Illinois’s longest-serving prisoner is currently Chester Weger, the Starved Rock Murderer, who confessed in 1961 to the bludgeoning of Lillian Oetting and two other women the previous year.
- Japan. A one-time boxer named Iwao Hakamada was reportedly the world’s longest-serving prisoner on death row when he was released, in March 2014, after serving 48 years for the brutal murders of a family of four. He had maintained his innocence, and a reinvestigation concluded that the police had probably beaten the confession that he made from him, as well as fabricating evidence.
- Kentucky. 76-year-old Willie Gaines Smith was Kentucky’s longest-serving prisoner, having swapped an appointment with the electric chair for a life sentence for the murder of a store clerk during a robbery. Smith entered prison on 31 August 1960; his co-defendent was paroled in 1981, but he himself remained in prison as of 2014 despite being granted medical parole because he needed nursing care; no care home would agree to take him in. He died on 14 December 2014, midway though his fifty-fourth year of imprisonment.
- Louisiana. It’s hard to get accurate information out of the Louisiana prison system, but its longest-serving inmate looks likely to be Leotha Brown, who is now in his early 70s and went to prison there early in 1964 for robbing and shooting a bartender in a swing club. I’ve found no record of any parole, and Brown was certainly still in the state’s notorious Angola gaol as of 2011, when he featured, playing soprano saxophone, in a documentary on prison music. He appears to have become a model prisoner, running leadership courses, studying for college credits, and assisting at the Angola Bible College. If he is indeed still in jail, Brown is [October 2015] currently approaching the end of his 51st year inside.
Maine. Albert Paul, who was nearly 80 when his case was reported in 2013, is the oldest and the longest-serving prisoner in Maine. He first went to prison aged 18 in the early 1950s, and the state estimates that it has paid $1.5m to keep him incarcerated since that date. His current sentence, for murder, began in 1971, meaning that – as of November 2014 – Paul was 43 years into his latest stretch.
- Maryland. Charles Edret Ford, now 84 years old and placing ninth in the all-time list of time served after spending more than 63 years of his life inside, launched a highly unusual appeal against his conviction in July 2015 – unusual in that the prosecutor and all the witnesses who featured in his 1952 trial are long dead, there is no trial transcript, and almost all of the records relating to it were destroyed around 2009. Ford, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury of the shotgun murder of one Vincent Lewis (who had, in turn, apparently killed Ford’s brother), and his appeal was granted on the grounds that the defence attorney had failed to file an appeal after the original conviction, and had never even advised him that he had the right to appeal. He claims that he knows the identity of the real murderer, but declines to reveal it, and adds that both he and his girlfriend were coerced into making confessions by an officer who hit him in the face with his night stick. Ford has an alibi – he says he and his girlfriend were with another brother at a dance. There were also discrepancies in witnesses’ descriptions of the killer, one stating that he wore a light coat and dark trousers, another that the colours were the other way around. Commenting on the appeal, Maryland lawyer Tucker Clagett noted: “An appeal from 63 years ago is not something you see very often. In fact, I bet the ruling will itself be the subject of an appeal because it is so old. Appeals take years to work out. I wonder if they will expedite it for a man who is already 84 years old!” Certainly the whole appeal seems to be something of a race against time; Ford is suffering from cancer. One sidelight on the case is that the prisoner also accumulated an additional 10 year sentence for assault in 1975 while “out on some sort of family furlough program.” Another is that the publicity surrounding the appeal led Ford’s great-niece to surface and establish contact with him – shades of the Richard Honeck case.
Michigan. Armed robber Clarence Marshall was paroled on 27 January 2015, 64 years and two months into his jail sentence – edging out by about one month the time served by Richard Honeck, and making him the fifth longest-serving prisoner that I know of. For reasons that escape me, his case remains almost entirely obscure; despite searching, I have found no press coverage of either his conviction or of his release. What we do know is that Marshall received a sentence of life for two counts, one of armed robbery in September 1952 and another of an unarmed “assault with intent to rob and steal” in November 1950. He was born on 18 May 1930, making him 84 yeas old at the time of his parole.
- That leaves Sheldry Topp. After 52 years behind bars, he has only hazy memories of the day he stabbed an attorney named Charles Davies in the chest and neck while burglarising the man’s home back in 1962. Topp was 17 years old, and on the run from the state mental hospital at Pontiac, at the time. While he fled the house before his victim died, he had fatally exacerbated the situation by dismantling Davies’s phone at the start of the break-in, preventing the dying man from calling for help. Topp now claims to be remorseful – though he adds, “I never understood how people go about showing remorse. I could break down and cry and so forth. People say that’s crocodile tears. I could yell and scream, and people would say that’s putting on a show” – and eight of the 10 parole board members who heard his case in 2011 recommended him for release. His request was denied by Michigan’s governor, Jennifer Granholm.
- Mississippi. Richard Gerald Jordan, who in January 1976 murdered a woman he had kidnapped after demanding a $50,000 ransom for her, remains incarcerated at Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Farm facility after 39 years, most recently after a judge halted a further attempt to execute him in order to investigate whether death by lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment. As of October 2015, he was 69 and the longest-serving inmate on the state’s death row.
- Nebraska. Few of the killers on this list proved to be more desperate or dangerous than Jerry Lee Hansen, Nebraska’s longest serving inmate, who went to jail on 20 May 1965 for the triple shooting of his wife and her parents in Cedar Bluffs. Both in-laws were killed and his wife was maimed in the attack, which took place within a few hours of Hansen bring served with divorce papers. Allowed out of jail to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1973, Hansen persuaded his guard to let him call on his by then former wife. He then attacked the prison officer and tied him up before using the man’s gun to shoot his wife for a second time. This time Sandra Soderling was paralysed, and her ex-husband picked up a second 20 year sentence for wounding her, to add to the one he had been handed in 1965. As of October 2015, Hansen had been in jail for 50 years.
Nevada. Raymond L. Shuman, 23, was convicted of double murder on 13 June 1958 for his involvement in the robbery and killing of a truck driver and an electrician in the course of a “tri-state crime spree” that took place the previous December while he and an accomplice were both AWOL from the US Navy. Shuman and his fellow sailor Melvin Rowland (who actually pulled the trigger), got a pathetic $3 from the body of their second victim. He remains in prison with [October 2015] more than 57 years served, and has been no model prisoner. In 1973 he doused another inmate with lighter fluid and set him on fire in the course of a fight over whether or not a window near his cell should be open or closed.
Nevada’s second longest serving inmate was Jack Rainsberger, jailed in March 1959 for the murder of a Las Vegas woman, Erline Folker. He served 41 years and made 20 applications for parole before being released, aged 65 and by that time in a wheelchair, in September 2000. During his years in prison – the first 13 of them spent on Death Row, awaiting an appointment with the gas chamber – Rainsberger became a published poet. “You have two choices,” he told one newspaper in 1973. “You could look to be executed and live for that. Or you could go about your business as though the execution did not exist… I live as if I was going to continue to live. I adopted the Vandanta School of Hinduism. I studied.” None of this cut much mustard with Folker’s son, who campaigned for many years for his mother’s killer to remain behind bars for life.
New Hampshire. Axe murderer Walter H. Bourque Jr. was convicted in December 1955 of killing a four year old girl, Patricia Johnson, and sentenced to a term of 18 years to life. Bourque was 17 at the time, and was reported in 2004 to be institutionalised, having apparently never been enrolled on the sex offender programme he had been told in 1999 to complete before he could be considered for release. Bourque flirted with freedom on several occasions – in 1977 he was on some form of day-release from a minimum security unit when he was accused of “inappropriate conduct with minors” and returned to jail, and in 1978 or 1979 he was out again on a short-term pass, but caught stealing a cheque. I have been able to find no firm news of Bourque since his case was in the press in July 2004, at which point he had completed more than 49 years in jail, but the New Hampshire Department of Corrections Inmate Locator lists him as still incarcerated and due for release on or before 11 June 2054 – meaning he is scheduled to enter his sixtieth year in jail in December 2015.
- New Jersey. Howard Unruh died, aged 88, on 21 October 2009, 60 years and a little shy of two months after committing a major early mass shooting in the streets of Camden, New Jersey. He had planned the event for more than a year, and knew several of the five men, five women and three children whom he killed – being convinced, one obituary says, “that his neighbors were ridiculing him behind his back and plotting against him. He was also depressed about his homosexual liaisons in a Philadelphia movie theater.” Wartime tank gunner Unruh’s main target was actually his insurance salesman, but his spree was ultimately sparked by a distressingly prosaic incident – someone stole his front gate, sending him out into the streets armed with a Luger pistol (a souvenir of his war service) and 33 rounds of ammunition. His victims included a six-year-old boy, who was killed while sitting in a barbershop chair, and a young bride who had been married for only six weeks. Unruh – described as an introvert and “religious nut” – returned to his apartment after the shooting and barricaded himself in. He was captured by police who threw a tear gas canister through a window. Assessed as insane, he was incarcerated in New Jersey’s Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
- If one excludes Unruh – who was never tried or sent to jail – New Jersey’s longest-serving inmate seems to have been Thomas Trantino, convicted of the cold-blooded killing of two police officers – one of them unarmed – in what is described as “a dank and seamy roadhouse bar on Route 46’s Sin Strip.” The “Angel Lounge murders” were committed in August 1963, and Trantino was paroled on 11 February 2002 after serving 38 years. His case remains highly controversial. Trantino wrote poetry and painted while in jail, attracting patronage from the likes of radical writer Howard Zinn, but leading NJ Lawman magazine to publish an article demanding an end to the humanization of a “brutal double murderer”.
- New York. James Moore remains in prison in Rochester for the 1962 rape and murder of a 14 year old girl, Pamela Moss. According to contemporary newspapers, Moore also admitted the rape of a nine-year-old and 40 or 50 other instances of sexual assault. As of November 2014, he was about to begin his fifty-third year inside – putting him two years ahead, in time-served terms, of Winston Moseley, who killed Kitty Genovese outside her apartment building over a period of about half an hour in 1964. Moseley’s crime was noteworthy mostly for the fact that Genovese’s death was witnessed by 38 people, none of whom called the police; their apparent callousness features among the motives offered by Alan Moore’s comic book character Walter Kovacs (“Rorschach”) for donning a mask in the noted graphic novel Watchmen. Moore is also three ahead of Ricky Robles, jailed early in January 1966 for New York’s equally infamous “Career Girls Murders.”
- New Zealand. Alfred Vincent was jailed in 1964, aged 30, for indecent assault on five teenage boys, though he was suspected of having abused perhaps 95 more. Having failed the Kia Marama programme for the treatment of sex offenders on four occasions, he remains in prison. Vincent, who as of October 2015 had served 47 years, now has a glass eye, two hearing aids, and heart problems. Three of his four surviving victims support his release.
- North Carolina. Rapist John Phillips holds the record for this state, being now in his 63rd year of incarceration. But a second NC prisoner, cop killer Frank E. Wetzel [below] served 55 years for shooting two Highway Patrolmen, J.T. Brown and Wister Lee Reece, on 5 November 1957. The victims were shot in separate incidents, in two different counties, after pulling Wetzel over for speeding. Their killer was a career criminal with an IQ of 133. He had escaped from a New York mental hospital and was headed to Mississippi, apparently with the intention of breaking his brother out of death row. In 1982, a quarter of a century into a term of life without the possibility of parole, Wetzel married one Bianca Brown, who later claimed to have spent $100,000 on efforts to have him pardoned and freed on the grounds of mistaken identity. There do seem to have been oddities in the case; one witness said that Reese’s killer was “dark complexioned,” and possibly “Hispanic, Italian, American Indian, or black,” while Wetzel’s lawyer argued that it was “patently impossible” that one man could have have committed both murders in the 15 or 20 minutes that separated the two incidents; “he would have had to have averaged speeds of between 140mph and 190mph” on back country roads to have managed the feat, it was said. Once described by a North Carolina corrections officer as “the most potentially dangerous convict in the entire state prison system,” Wetzel died, aged 90, of Alzheimer’s Disease. His brother William, a “new York mobster” convicted of a prison murder, went to the gas chamber in Mississippi two months after the Reese-Brown killings.
- the 39 years that Ricky Jackson spent in the Ohio pen for a murder he did not commit. Jackson was sent to jail with two friends in 1975 after being found guilty of the killing of money order salesman Harold Franks in Cleveland. The main witness for the prosecution was a 13-year-old boy who was sitting on a school bus a block away from the incident, and who recanted his testimony years later. Jackson, who escaped execution only because of an error in the prison paperwork, was freed in November 2014 and awarded $1.08m in compensation. His two friends served 26 and 27 years respectively. Ohio. Among the longer terms served by prisoners who were eventually cleared of the crime for which they had been jailed was
- Pennsylvania. 15-year-old Joe Ligon was with five friends, drunk on two bottles of wine and prowling their way through South Philadelphia, when the group decided to carry out a series of robberies that left eight men stabbed, two of them fatally. That was in February 1953, and 62 years later, Ligon freely admits to being involved in the spree, and to stabbing one of the gang’s victims – though in his case the youth survived. There are, though, mitigating circumstances. Although undoubtedly boozy, aggressive, and guilty of a serious crime, Ligon was arrested some time before the evening ended, and was never placed at the scene of the two killings. Moreover he and his friends seem to have been the victim of some dubious media stereotyping – “They called us the ‘Headhunter Gang’ at the trial,” he now says, “but I was never in no gang” – and he was, like so many men featured in this listing, also black, poorly educated and poorly represented by a court-appointed attorney. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller sums things up, his lawyer instructed him to plead guilty to murder, presumably to avoid a death sentence, and the resultant trial – for all five defendants and all eight crimes – lasted under a day. Jailed for life without the possibility of parole at a younger age than any of the other inmates in this listing, still aged, in 2015, just 77, and “trim and fit,” albeit with “but six teeth left in my head,” Ligon seems more likely than anyone else to pass Geidel’s current all-time record of almost 69 years inside. That will happen, if he lives, in August 2021, and he will then be 83 years old.
- South Dakota. Howard Christensen served in excess of 64 years for the 1937 murder of schoolteacher Ada Carey. Extensive details of his case can be found in the comments section below.
Texas. Harvey Stewart, 83, who had specialised in robbing brothels, was paroled in very late in 2011 or early in 2012 after serving 60 years of a life sentence for murder. Stewart, a violent and apparently unrepentant career criminal, spent 16 months on parole during this time (1985-86) before being returned to jail for conspiracy to commit bank robbery, and as such doesn’t qualify to rank among the longest-serving prisoners. As of 2014, he was “confined by law to a nursing home” and still attempting to get his 1958 sentence overturned.
- UK. After the imminent release on parole of the notorious Harry Roberts, who completed 48 years of a life sentence for the shooting of three unarmed policemen, Britain’s longest-serving prisoner will be Sam Glass, who as of September 2014 was being considered for release after serving 47 years for child murder. UK prison costs appear to be many times higher per prisoner per year than Maine’s – it is estimated that Glass’s incarceration has cost the country £10 million to date. The UK’s all-time longest-serving prisoner seems to have been John Straffen, who died in November 2007, still imprisoned, after serving 55 years for three child murders, one of which he denied committing. Straffen was aged 77 when he expired. Robert Mone, the longest-serving prisoner in Scotland, is serving a sentence handed down in 1977 for his part in a breakout at a high security mental institution, Carstairs State Hospital.
- Vermont. The Green Mountain State locked up Roy Girouard in 1975 – and he’s still in prison there 40 years later, despite extensive legal wrangling over whether or not he qualifies for furlough. The state’s position is that he does not, since his sentence specified no minimum term. Girouard’s crime was to shoot dead another man outside a Burlington bar.
- Washington State. Robert Stroud – best remembered as “the Birdman of Alcatraz,” though his lengthy sentence took him to other outposts of the US prison system – served a total of 54 years for the murder of a Juneau, Alaska, bartender who had beaten a prostitute he pimped, and then a prison guard in 1916. Sentenced and first jailed in Washington because Alaska then had no independent judiciary, Stroud died, aged 73, in November 1963. The senior man in the Washington system today is Tony Wheat, jailed for the murder of three petrol station attendants in three different robberies. He went to prison in October 1965, escaped death by hanging, and is eligible for parole in November 2020. In the meantime, he serves on – now 50 years into his stretch. There are strange parallels between Wheat’s case and that of Nevada’s Richard Shuman; Wheat and his partner in crime, Arthur Aiken, were serving in the US Air Force when they set out on their criminal road-trip through the Pacific North-West.
West Virginia. Freeman Collins went to jail on 15 August 1930 for the axe murder of Perchie (or Percy) Jarrell, a man he claimed had killed his father 11 years earlier. Incarcerated in the West Virginia pen at Moundsville, he briefly escaped in 1965, was paroled in September 1972, and claimed a second victim, at the age of 78, when he stabbed his parole officer, Pauline McDowell Stuart, to death in August 1977 – apparently because she had refused to help him get to hospital after a motor accident. “He’s been a model inmate, but makes a lousy citizen,” was the verdict of warden Donald Bordenkircher. “He had a chance of freedom and went out and killed again.” Interviewed in 1986, nine years into his second stretch, Collins professed himself relatively content. His seniority had earned him the right to collect midnight snacks from the prison kitchen, and, he said, “I’ve got plenty of friends here, and we’ve got good doctors, good nurses, good guards and good food.” If freed, he added, he’d “go back into some coal hollow and build me a log cabin. I’d find me a woman who can cook cornbread, and I’d come to town only once a week.” He never got that opportunity. Collins served 42 years for the killing of Jarrell, and was 16 years into his sentence for the murder of Stuart when he died, at Pinecrest Sanitarium, Beckley, WVa, on 5 May 1994, at the age of 96. Together, then, his two killings cost him 58 years of his life.
[Summary (31 December 2012, 17 March 2013, 3 November 2014 & 15 October 2015):] Based on all the above, therefore, plus recent data on current inmates in US prisons released via freedom of information requests [survey of all states bar Virginia and Louisiana [seen December 2012, but no longer available online], plus material in the comments below, the ranking of time served looks like this, with all prisoners known to have served sentences in excess of 60 years included, a § denoting a prisoner who survived to be released, and figures based on the date of final release, whether or not parole was offered at an earlier date, and irrespective of whether the prisoner was held in a prison or a secure hospital; Howard Unruh, for example, never stood trial at all, having been diagnosed – controversially – with dementia praecox. In Unruh’s case, these proceedings reportedly took two months, so I have taken 6 November 1949 as the date of the start of his “sentence”. On that basis, Unruh died 16 days short of reaching 60 years inside, although he had actually been in custody for longer than my arbitrary cut-off.
As of March 2013 I have also added data on prisoners who remain incarcerated, denoted †. Clicking on names in mustard will link to further details of these cases. Readers will need to recalculate the time served by still living prisoners by adding in time elapsed since the most recent update.
The listing is probably incomplete; furthermore, since there are around 160,000 prisoners serving life sentences in the US, and since, as David Frigault points out below, 50,000 of them have been denied the possibility of parole – a sentence introduced in many states in the 1970s – it seems inevitable that these records will eventually be beaten. Indeed, if Francis Clifford Smith of Connecticut, handed a sentence of life without parole for murder on 7 June 1950, survives, Paul Geidel’s unwelcome milestone could be passed as early as 8 February 2019.
INMATES WITH IN EXCESS OF 60 YEARS SERVED, As of 5 October 2015:
 CHARLES FOSSARD (Aus). 70 years, 303 days (25,871 days)
 Paul Geidel (NY). 68 years, 245 days §
 Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby (IN). 66 years, 123 days §
 William Heirens (IL). 65 years, 181 days
 Francis Clifford Smith (CT). 65 years, 120 days †
 CLARENCE MARSHALL (MI). 64 YEARS, 70 DAYS §
 Richard Honeck (IL). 64 years, 30 days §
 HOWARD CHRISTENSEN (SD). 64 YEARS AND <30 DAYS §
 CHARLES FORD (MD). 63 years, 249 days †
 BILL WALLACE (Aus). 63 years, 148 days
 John Phillips (NC). 63 years, 79 days †
 JOE LIGON (PA). 62 years, 291 days †
 HUGH ALDERMAN (FL.) 62 YEARS, 192 DAYS