Who Wants to Hear a Story? (or, The Things You Learn in a Cemetery)

Last year on Memorial Day weekend, my mother and I were touring the beautiful cemeteries of Butler County, Kansas, leaving flowers so that our dead folks wouldn’t be put to shame in front of the other dead folks. We have done this for almost all of my 44 years, and I assumed I had heard all the family stories there were to hear, so imagine my surprise when we were standing in front of the graves of my great-great aunt and uncle, Oda and Laurence Oliver, and Mom popped out with, “You know Aunt Oda was the one who hit an escaped convict in the head with a hammer.” 

No, Mom, I did not know that. Please tell me more.

Well, that was pretty much all Mom knew, so I pulled out my research skills to figure out what happened. Turns out Oda and Laurence lived outside Cañon City, Colorado, in 1947 when twelve prisoners broke out of the Colorado State Penitentiary. Werner Schwartzmiller (or Schwarzmiller?), who was the ringleader, broke into Oda and Laurence’s house and held them captive for several hours. He demanded that Oda “cook him food and lots of it” (according to Prisons of Cañon City, edited by Victoria Newman [link]–although Newman seems to have gotten his name hilariously wrong). Since Oda was allowed to be up and moving around, she hid a hammer under her apron and when she got the chance, she took it. Critically injured, Schwartzmiller was captured and recovered to finish serving his time, presumably with some extra tacked on.

Oda and Laurence are pictured in Prisons of Cañon City looking completely nonplussed. Laurence has the sweetest little plaid bow tie and Oda seems more or less done with the whole kerfluffle. There’s also a picture of Schwartzmiller after recapture with blood streaming down his face available through the Denver Library’s website (link).

A black-and-white photo of an older couple, my Great-Great Uncle Laurence and Aunt Oda. The man is slightly gaunt and appears frail. The woman is a bit heavier, with a short bob held off her face with a bobby pin.
Would you mess with her?

I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what Schwartzmiller did to get sent to prison in the first place, but he seems to have been pretty unpleasant. As far as I can tell from contemporaneous newspaper blurbs viewed through paywalls, he enjoyed robbing grocery stores and didn’t mind shooting people in the process. So if he had a bit of a headache after his encounter with Aunt Oda, well.

I get a couple of morals out of this story. First and foremost, aprons are good for more than just keeping your clothes clean. Second, old ladies don’t have much to lose. Watch yourself.

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