In early November 1930, a hunting party in the Boreas River area split up to do what Adirondack hunters so often do: execute a deer drive. Among those taking part were Lew Buck, Leo Adams, Edward White, Murray Short, and Murray’s brother Herbert. Herb was a corrections officer who had recently been promoted and transferred to Auburn Prison from Clinton Prison in Dannemora. It was Dannemora that provided the link between him and the other men: Buck was the village’s former postmaster, White was a retired Clinton keeper, and his close friend Adams still worked there as a guard.
Concern mounted at day’s end when the men reassembled and Herbert was a no-show. But he was a very experienced woodsman, and the entire party was aware that a storm was moving into the area, so in that sense he was prepared for anything. His companions surmised he may have been turned around while trying to get back to camp before the snow fell. At that point, the explanations they considered carried reassurances that everything was OK, or soon would be.
And in most situations like that, which are the subject of many a hunting-camp tale, everything does turn out OK. So they waited a bit, and listened, and worried, and then took action. Darkness soon after enveloped the woods, but snow adds a certain brightness to the night, which made their flashlights and lanterns more effective. They fired shots into the air and reportedly heard a reply of gunfire, but efforts to locate the source were futile.
At least four inches of snow fell that night, further hampering their efforts, and likely masking any little-used trails that might have helped Short find his way out. The men were in a remote area, but as quickly as possible the next morning, word was sent to Newcomb, about eight miles west of their campsite. Area lawmen were notified that a corrections officer was lost in the woods.
Forest rangers, guides, and woodsmen dropped what they were doing and headed for the Boreas River, where they were joined by several state police officers from Troop B in Malone. The following day, ten more troopers joined the growing ranks of professional men and private citizens who understood the urgency of the situation. While they found nothing, hope remained strong that Short’s experience would win the day in spite of the cold temperatures and deep snow so common to Boreas country.
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One reason for optimism was that many searchers knew Herbert Short as a good man. He was raised on a farm in Ellenburg in northern Clinton County, where the wind blows strong (thus the modern wind farms found there today) and snowstorms are the stuff of local legends. Farmers there sometimes strung ropes from the house to the barn as a safety measure: while traveling from one building to the other, they slid one hand along the rope to avoid becoming lost in blizzard conditions. The danger was real. One year, during just such a storm, two young sisters died within shouting distance of their residence. Their brother, sister, and mother barely survived.
After earning a college degree to become a schoolteacher, Herb taught in area schools for several years. Following a farming stint, he became the Ellenburg postmaster, but by 1918, when he was 44, Herb was a guard at Clinton Prison, about twelve miles southeast of his home.
In 1920, he and wife Margaret endured a family tragedy when their fifteen-year-old son, a senior in high school, died in an accident. A loaded milk truck was passing by several students who were walking to school. As was common practice, several of them ran to jump onto the truck, but James Short fell shy of the mark and landed heavily, causing severe internal injuries. He died within a few hours.
At the prison, Herbert was known as a hard and enthusiastic worker, aware of the job’s dangers but brave in the face of volatile situations, which he proved time and again. Two instances at Dannemora stood out in particular. In 1923, two years after pulling off a spectacular escape from Sing Sing, Joseph Sorace tried it again at Dannemora. While riding in the back of a truck inside the prison, he pulled a knife and forced the driver (another inmate) to steer close to the main wall. Climbing atop the truck’s cab, he leapt to the barrier in full sight of armed guards and jumped 20 feet to the ground outside the prison. His partner was shot and injured during the attempt, but Sorace was off at a dead run. Short, aware of the breakout, had raced to the outside perimeter where, running directly towards the armed and dangerous inmate, he took Sorace down with a tackle, ending the escape attempt.
Six years later, in July 1929, a huge riot broke out at Clinton Prison and the inmates took control. During the chaos that ensued, they attempted to build human ladders and escape over the wall as guards fired live ammunition to suppress the rebellion. Among those inside was Herbert Short, doing all he could to subdue the rioters, who were attacking guards and making a break for freedom. When all the smoke had cleared — literally, for several buildings were set afire — control of the prison was reestablished, and Herb Short had earned the nickname “Dynamite” among the inmates. (Both the escape attempt and the riot stories are told in their entirety in Escape from Dannemora, by the author of this piece.)
Riots followed at Auburn Prison a week later, and again in December. In February 1930, when many new guards were hired and the prison system was revamped in the wake of so much unrest, Short was promoted to Sergeant of the Guard at Auburn. On July 1, he relocated the family to central New York State and settled into the new position.
Four months later, in early November, Herb returned to visit friends in Dannemora before embarking on a highly anticipated vacation — a hunting excursion to the Boreas River area.
Photos: headline, Auburn Citizen (1930); Boreas, “Greek god of the cold north wind and the bringer of winter” (Wikimedia); headline, Plattsburgh Daily Press (1930)
This story was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.