Many inmates were notorious in their time period but have since been forgotten. A few are well known in Idaho or the West, but perhaps not nationally. Harry Orchard received the most sensational and international press in his time. The following are just a few “infamous” inmates:
Henry ‘Bob’ Meeks was believed to be a member of Butch Cassidy’s gang which robbed a bank in Montpelier, Idaho. He was shot in the leg during an escape attempt, officials caught him, and doctors amputated his leg. He later climbed to the top of a cell house (with only one leg), jumped off, survived, and was sent to the asylum at Blackfoot.
Harry Orchard confessed to killing more than 17 people. Convicted in Canyon County for the murder of Frank Steunenberg (former governor of Idaho), Orchard claimed to be a hired assassin for the Western Federation of Miners. He testified against William “Big Bill” Haywood, in what many refer to as the “Trial of the Century”, which featured Clarence Darrow for the defense. Ethel Barrymore, of the famous Barrymore acting family, visited Orchard at the penitentiary during the trial.
Orchard eventually became a prison trusty. He started the shoe shop and a successful poultry farm at the penitentiary. He converted to the Seventh Day Adventist Church while incarcerated, oddly enough with the help of Steunenberg’s widow, and was baptized in the old plunge bath beneath the Dining Hall. Orchard eventually built and resided in a small cottage outside the prison walls. In 1954, at 88 years old, he died in the prison hospital.
“Diamondfield” Jack Davis got his nickname when he went west to Silver City, Idaho on the rumor of a diamond strike. After the failed prospecting attempt Davis began working for a cattle company to keep sheep off cattle ranges. When two sheepherders were killed in the area where he was working, Davis became the prime suspect for the killings. Sentenced to hang on June 4, 1897, two other men confessed and he was reprieved. In February 1899, Davis was transferred to the Idaho State Penitentiary where he stayed until December of that year. Davis was then transferred back to a cell in the Cassia County jail.
After Davis had exhausted his appeals another execution date was scheduled for July 3, 1901. By that time public opinion shifted in Jack’s favor mostly due to the confessions of James Bower and Jeff Gray and also to the easing of tension between sheep and cattle herders. The Board of Pardons extended the execution date to the July 17, much to the outrage of state prosecutor and future Idaho Senator William Borah. Three hours before Davis’ scheduled execution, word arrived to the Cassia County sheriff that his sentence had been changed to life imprisonment. Davis was moved back to the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho until he was finally pardoned on December 17, 1902 by Idaho Gov. Frank W. Hunt.
Many consider Lyda Southard the most infamous female inmate to serve time at the penitentiary. The state convicted Southard of the second degree murder of her fourth husband. Her three previous husbands, her brother-in-law, and her child all died under similar, suspicious circumstances. After the autopsy of her fourth husband found a lethal dose of arsenic in his system, the attending physicians of the other deaths agreed on similar circumstances. The prosecuting attorney believed Southard to be, “void of conscience; that she is an unmoral woman, and by that I do not mean immoral, but one void of faculty to discriminate between right and wrong. I do not believe her capable of remorse.” Sentence to ten years to life, Southard escaped when she was not granted a parole after a decade of imprisonment. Fifteen months later, she returned and served the longest combined sentence for a female at nineteen years and ten months. Southard was conditionally released in October 1941 and given a full pardon in April 1943.