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The Infamous
East Texas Sewing Needle Jail Break

"John Henry was a steel-drivin' man"
by Norman Conquest
brick wall with hole
The Day After
The Night Before
TE photo
The Facts:

The facts are few; that is if there are any facts at all. A reader named Deborah from South Carolina thought since we're called Texas Escapes, we just might have heard about a legend that's been in her family for well over a hundred years. It seems that one John Henry Vaughn, aka W. F. Vaughn was being held up in an East Texas jail on unknown charges. Actually he was detained. Someone else might've been held up. Anyway, there was a successful escape, it involved a sewing needle, and included a man that when asked to write his "John Henry" actually wrote: John Henry.

Now Deborah knows that John Henry Vaughn Jr., son of the aforementioned, was born in 1906 in Panola County. He is known to have written about this escape, although it is not known where. Probably a newspaper fairly close to where the escape took place. Since jails (at least the brick ones) were usually in county seats, an educated guess would be somewhere around Center, Carthage or Henderson.

Vaughn's sister is thought to have been married to Frank and Jesse James' stepfather. Frank James (not known for an overly inventive imagination) sometimes used the name Joe Vaughn when he was visiting the area. It has been proven that Frank James did visit the area, signing the guest-book at the Collin County jail on at least one occasion.

Anyway, Deborah, like most of us, failed to take notes when the story was being retold. Advice to younger readers: pay attention and take notes! Texas Escapes wants every 10 year old to have a notepad and clipboard with them at all times.

What stands out in Deborah's mind is the following:

A crime of some sort was committed, and John Henry Vaughn was detained.

The charge may have been "misappropriation of an equine."

John Henry (when you have the name John Henry, no one simply calls you John) seems to have had a sewing needle secreted somewhere on his person. Times being what they were, steam-driven metal detectors were quite costly for East Texas city budgets. Maybe the needle was thrown through the jail window in the dead of night (hard to find), or maybe it was baked into an éclair (easier to find).

John Henry put that needle to good use. Without benefit of thimble or glove, he scratched away at the mortar that held the bricks and made good his escape. The needle was never much good after that for sewing. This is one of the reasons women are reluctant to loan their sewing tools. If you don't believe us, ask your wife for her sewing scissors.

Although there's no account of the next day's activities, it would be safe to assume that the jailers were shocked and saddened that John Henry wasn't there for breakfast. After eating John Henry's share of biscuits, the jailer sounded the alarm. A posse was rounded up and dogs were unleashed. No one is certain why the dogs were unleashed, but as soon as they were back on leashes, the manhunt was on.
The next part of the legend that has survived is that John Henry hid in a tree and dropped to the ground after the main body of searchers had passed under him. Another searcher, seeing John Henry asked if he had seen anything of himself. Unfortunately we have no record of his reply or facial expression.

So there it is. If you wanted a nice tied-up ending it's not here. It's like most things in life.

What it is, (depending on the meaning of the word 'is") is a great family yarn that Deborah can't quite knit a sweater from because of the loose ends.

If you're from East Texas and have some time on your hands, you might want to check the newspaper files of your hometown. Deborah would appreciate it, and we're always glad to write more about East Texas.

Deborah wrote that from John Henry and Mary Jane Vaughn's marriage, there came a total of 13 children. Two or three may have followed career paths that let's just say didn't include law enforcement.
Deborah's also trying to find out if her Grandmother, Mary Mae (May) Vaughn, who was born May 4th, 1905 does indeed hail from Winona. Any Smith County readers will be given a dinner-for-two if they can verify this. You don't even have to be from Smith County.

Our thanks to Deborah for submitting this story. You can almost smell the pines of East Texas.

Deborah can be Emailed at DebjohnB@aol.com.

March 2000
© John Troesser
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