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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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The Waupun state penitentiary was the only place ex-convict Michael J. Harris felt he could truly call home.

Ex-prisoner trades solitary freedom for a home behind bars

When he reached his biblical allotment of three score and 10 years – age 70 – Michael J. Harris decided to go back to the cheeriest home he had ever known and spend whatever time he had left among old friends and familiar surroundings.

What made the story banner news 85 years ago was that the place for which the Milwaukee man pined was the state penitentiary in Waupun, where he had served 32 years – from 1884-1916 – of a life sentence for killing a man with an ax.

That happened on a farm in Waupaca County. Harris and Frederick Verkey were chopping wood, and got into an argument that ended when Harris chopped Verkey into kindling. At his trial he said he was drunk at the time and that Verkey had attacked him first with a chunk of wood. A jury decided otherwise, convicting Harris of first-degree murder.

For more than three decades he served his time quietly and without incident, working in the prison machine shop. According to one newspaper account, when Harris was paroled in 1916, it wasn't his idea. He moved to Milwaukee and lived by himself in a rented cottage at 815 W. Wright St. He worked a full-time job as a machinist and assembler at the Cutler-Hammer manufacturing plant, where his supervisors – who knew about his past – considered him an exemplary employee.

Harris lived a solitary life, and his only indulgences were the cigars and phonograph records he enjoyed by himself on Saturday evenings in the cottage he kept "clean as a Dutch housewife's." In the back of the place he had his own machine shop where he tinkered with inventions, including an idea for a new starter for Ford automobiles. With money he saved by such frugal living he bought two parcels of land in West Allis, and thought about operating a rooming house.

But his isolation increasingly gnawed at Harris, and it did nothing to allay his growing loneliness when he played over and over on his phonograph "The Prisoner's Song," a runaway hit record in the 1920s whose opening verse went:

Oh, I wish I had someone to love me/Someone to call me call me their own/Oh, I wish I had someone to live with/'Cause I'm tired of livin' alone.

Even the discovery that he had an adult nephew in town didn't buck him up, and after his 70th birthday in November 1926, Harris wrote to Warden Oscar Lee in Waupun for permission to return to the prison to live out his days.

Lee's response to the unheard-of request was to dispatch parole agent Joseph M. Seibel to Milwaukee to talk some sense into the old man. But Harris was adamant. "I was almost raised in Waupun penitentiary," he told Seibel. "I will feel at home there. I have never really felt at home on the outside. I have no friends to speak of. I know a lot of the old timers in prison. And I am getting old. I want to go back."

Even without an ax, he was a very persuasive fellow. On Nov. 29, the mailman who stopped at 815 W. Wright St. found a sign on the front door: "Postman – Do not deliver any more mail for M.J. Harris." The homesick con was headed back to a cell at Waupun.

"Harris was almost jubilant as he stopped to gaze about the once familiar walls," reported the page one homecoming story in The Milwaukee Journal – "at the courtyard where the prisoners exercise, at the cell houses and at all of the old places he had known so intimately ..."

Shaking hands with Warden Lee, Harris told him, "I know you think I'm foolish, but I believe that I had rather spend my old age here than alone in Milwaukee. It was pretty lonely for me there. I lived alone, did my own cooking and I didn't have any close friends. No one knew that I had been in prison, and as far as things went I guess I was fixed as well as any other lonely old man. But I don't like the life outside. It was the factory all day and then home alone at night, with no one to care what happened to me or where I went or what pleasure I had. Here in the prison I know I will find some who have the same things in common with me."

Lee wasn't thrilled about the homecoming, but he found a bright side.

"Those who are opposed to capital punishment ... find in the action of Harris an exemplification of the idea of why the state does not execute criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes," he said. "Wisconsin believes in the reformation of criminals."

Letting them check in and out of the gray-bar hotel whenever they felt like it was a different matter, though. "Warden Plans to Oust Lifer Who 'Crashed In," declared a headline in The Wisconsin News; the story quoted Deputy Warden Guy Taft as saying, "After (Harris) has been here a while we will get him a job someplace near the prison and make him leave again. He can come back and look at the place as often as he wants."

Editorial writers struck an elegiac tone. "Life is pretty hard on a friendless old man everywhere," said a Milwaukee Journal editorial titled "An Old Man Goes Home," "and when life's shadows begin to draw near us we all want to go to the place we have known as home, be it ever so humble as state's prison."

The Wisconsin News called it "the tragedy of a broken life," and likened Harris to "the old circus lion that crawled back, after a few hours of freedom, into the cage from which a train wreck had released him."

After only a couple months back behind bars, the old lion wanted out again. The ex-ex-con applied to Gov. Fred R. Zimmerman for a full pardon in February 1927. Harris also notified his nephew to pay his income tax, "or I will have a Milwaukee cop after me."

The pardon process took several months, and Gov. Zimmerman delivered the signed document to the state prison in person on August 25. The next day, Harris was back in Milwaukee, telling the Journal a different story about his decision to wear prison stripes again. "I didn't go back ... because I liked it so well," he said. "Nothing like that. I like my freedom as well as anyone else. I did it because I wanted to be given a permanent pardon, and for no other reason."

Since presumably he could've obtained a pardon without going to such lengths, Harris' explanation seemed a bit feeble. In a subsequent interview he allowed that he "didn't mind the prison life so much. It doesn't make much difference where I am as long as I've got a few friends and something to do. But I am glad to be free again."

The 71-year-old machinist got a hero's welcome at Cutler-Hammer when he resumed his old job in early September "with the enthusiasm of a child."

But now he had a hankering for a different kind of ball-and-chain.

"Just now I am satisfied here," he told a Journal reporter, "but later on I might like to settle down on a little farm when I am not so active as I am now. If I could get a little place where I could have a garden, cigars to smoke and a woman about my age to go along with me, I think that is what I'd do."

He had already received marriage offers in the mail, Harris said, but he wouldn't settle for just anyone.

"They'd have to have a little money. I'm not going to risk starvation in my old age as long as I can keep my job here. If the woman has a little farm and enough to live on, then I'll consider it."

Here the trail goes cold, although the 1933 City Directory lists a Michael Harris and wife Gladys residing at 3345 N. 9th St. If that was the peripatetic ax man, it wasn't long before Harris was gone again with no hope of coming back. The 1934 directory lists Gladys as a widow.


sandstorm | April 22, 2011 at 10:02 a.m. (report)

"Brooks was here"

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Red | April 21, 2011 at 10:49 a.m. (report)

"These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized ... They send you here for life, and that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway. "

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GeorgeWill | April 20, 2011 at 12:31 p.m. (report)

'a hero's welcome' - for a convict?

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