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Escape from Shakopee State Reformatory for Women, 1949

Warning: This article mentions attempted suicide.
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Edna Larrabee and Beulah Brunelle

Edna Larrabee and Beulah Brunelle in 1948. Composite of photographs published in the Minneapolis Star, November 22, 1948.

Edna Larrabee and Beulah Brunelle (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) escaped from Shakopee State Reformatory for Women five times between 1946 and 1949. Though most of the breakouts ended in their recapture within a few days, their fourth escape, in 1949, led to eight months of freedom and allowed the two women to live together as a couple while traveling around the United States.

On April 29, 1946, a judge ordered twenty-five-year-old Edna Larrabee to serve time in Shakopee State Reformatory for committing grand larceny in the second degree (writing bad checks) in St. Paul. It was not her first time in the prison. She had served out a sentence for a separate larceny charge between 1940 and 1942, when she had attracted scrutiny for her “boyish mannerisms” and sexual relationships with other prisoners. Larrabee, staff reported disapprovingly, took “pride in having a problem which she believes is quite unusual” and criticized her parole board for focusing on her sexuality rather than her chances of release. One supervisor noted “she does not feel there was any reason for her being punished in the first place.”

When Larrabee began her second term in Shakopee in April 1946 she met Beulah Brunelle, a twenty-one-year-old Ojibwe woman also serving a sentence for grand larceny (in her case, stealing clothes, shoes, and a ring). They escaped together three times over the next two years. After the failure of the third escape on November 22, 1948, Larrabee attempted suicide but survived. The next morning, she tried again. She then turned her frustration on the institution that was confining her, flooding her cell with water from her toilet and using a mattress spring to break a window. Staff responded swiftly by transferring her to St. Peter State Hospital for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, also known as shock therapy) and a sixty-day psychiatric study.

Larrabee’s time at St. Peter led her and Brunelle to escape again. Disguised in overalls and farm jackets, they sneaked into the basement of Sanford Cottage on February 2, 1949, broke open a nailed-shut window, and fled. They hitchhiked west looking for jobs, introducing themselves as a married couple named Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Farrell.

Shakopee superintendent Clara Thune guessed that the pair was headed to California. After escaping in 1946 with her then-girlfriend, Larrabee had fled to San Diego. During World War II, moreover, she had worked as an arc welder for the Western Pipe and Steel Company in San Francisco. Thune wrote to four California sheriffs and police chiefs, asking them to look out for the fugitives. She stated that Larrabee was “acquainted with the colony of homo sexuals [sic] in Los Angeles” and likely to show up in that city.

Larrabee and Brunelle, however, were headed not to LA but to Sacramento, where Larrabee’s sister Vida took them in. After three months they hitchhiked to Seattle, Washington, and visited Larrabee’s parents; William Larrabee gave his daughter a black 1936 Plymouth coupe. The women then made moves to settle down, renting an apartment and opening a bank account together. To pay their rent, Larrabee ran a gas station and Brunelle sewed for a dress shop.

By the late summer they were traveling again and visited a friend from Minneapolis. Afterward, Brunelle brought Larrabee to meet her mother on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The Minneapolis friend, meanwhile, tipped off police, telling them to look for a black Plymouth coupe with a missing hubcap. Police recognized the car in Sioux City, Iowa, on October 3, seized the two women, and returned them to Shakopee. Their eight months of freedom were over.

Larrabee and Brunelle escaped together one final time late in 1949 but were found and returned to prison within days. They made no further attempts. By 1952 they were both paroled and starting new lives apart—Larrabee in Washington, Brunelle in Minnesota as the wife of a man named George Venne. Shakopee case files contain one final record of their relationship: a note stating that in 1953, Brunelle left her husband in St. Paul and drove for more than 1,600 miles to Seattle, where she and Larrabee reunited.

Editor's Note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741. Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) and the Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386) offer hotlines specifically for queer and trans people.

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“2 Women Inmates Escape 4th Time.” Minneapolis Tribune, February 3, 1949.

“3 Fugitives From Reformatory Jailed.” Minneapolis Star and Journal, November 21, 1946.

Case files of Edna Larrabee Schoenborn. Inmate case files, 1919–1977, Minnesota State Reformatory for Women. State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul. Used with the explicit permission of the Minnesota State Archives.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00813.xml

Daly, Thomas M. For the Good of the Women: A Short History of the Minnesota Correctional Facility Shakopee. Bloomington, MN: Daly Publishing, 2004.

“Escaped Women, Posing as Couple, To Be Returned.” Minneapolis Tribune, November 22, 1948.

Freedman, Estelle B. “The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915–1965.” Feminist Studies 22, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 397–423.

“Fugitive Surrenders.” Minneapolis Tribune, March 28, 1948.

“Hitchhikers Were Fugitives, Deputies Learn.” Minneapolis Star, January 7, 1948.

“Minnesota Women Fugitives Nabbed.” Daily Plainsman (Huron, SD), January 7, 1948.

“Officials Hunt Women Fugitives.” Minneapolis Star and Journal, November 19, 1946.

Oowah Nah Chasing Bear, et al. “Some Common Grievances: Glimpses of Subtle Discrimination.” Chapter nine in The American Indian in the White Man’s Prisons: A Story of Genocide, by Little Rock Reed et al., 179–217. Taos, NM: Uncompromising Books, 1993.
http://critcrim.org/files/lrr.pdf

Potter, Sarah. “‘Undesirable Relations’: Same-Sex Relationships and the Meaning of Sexual Desire at a Women’s Reformatory During the Progressive Era.” Feminist Studies 30, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 395–415.

“Prison Return Facing Woman.” Spokane Chronicle, January 23, 1956.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. “Prisons for Women, 1790–1980.” Crime and Justice 5 (1983): 129–81.

——— . “Gender, Prisons, and Prison History.” Social Science History 9, no. 3 (Summer 1985): 233–47.

“Reformatory Girls Seized After Escape.” Minneapolis Tribune, November 20, 1946.

“Shakopee Women Seized in Iowa.” Minneapolis Tribune, November 21, 1948.

“Third Woman Prisoner Flees: Shakopee Inmate Steals Car in Flight.” Minneapolis Tribune, January 6, 1948.

“Two Women Flee Shakopee Prison.” Minneapolis Tribune, November 17, 1948.

“Woman Is Released Only to be Seized.” Spokane Chronicle, January 20, 1956.

Related Images

Edna Larrabee and Beulah Brunelle
Edna Larrabee and Beulah Brunelle
Edna Larrabee
Edna Larrabee
State Reformatory for Women, Shakopee
State Reformatory for Women, Shakopee

Turning Point

On November 22 and 23, 1948, Larrabee attempts suicide. Staff grant her medical parole and transfer her from Shakopee to St. Peter State Hospital, where psychiatrists apply electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, also known as shock therapy) and keep her under observation for sixty days.

Chronology

1945

St. Paul police arrest Beulah Brunelle (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) for stealing dresses, shoes, and a ring from 1693 Orange Street. A judge orders her to serve out a sentence at Shakopee State Reformatory for Women.

1946

Edna Larrabee is sentenced to Shakopee for committing grand larceny (writing bad checks) in St. Paul. She has already served time at Shakopee for a different crime between 1940 and 1942.

1946

On November 18, Larrabee and Brunelle escape from Shakopee with Virginia DeRossier and hitchhike into the Twin Cities. Police find them in Des Moines, Iowa, two days later and return them to Shakopee.

1948

Police capture Larrabee and Brunelle after their third escape and return them to Shakopee on November 22. Later that day, Larrabee attempts suicide.

1948

Staff transfer Larrabee from Shakopee to St. Peter State Hospital on November 24.

1949

On February 2, Larrabee and Brunelle escape from Shakopee together for the fourth time. After spending time in Minneapolis, they hitchhike to Sacramento, California.

1949

On February 5, Shakopee superintendent Clara Thune asks the sheriff of Los Angeles County, the sheriff of San Francisco County, the San Francisco chief of police, and the Los Angeles chief of police to watch out for the fugitives.

1949

Larrabee and Brunelle leave Sacramento on May 1 and hitchhike to visit Larrabee’s parents in Seattle, Washington. Larrabee’s father gives them a car.

1949

On August 9, Larrabee and Brunelle stay at the home of Amelia Stadtherr in Minneapolis (1013 Fifth Street South). Stadtherr informs on them to the police, saying they are in Iowa driving a black 1936 Plymouth coupe with a missing hubcap.

1949

In late summer, Brunelle takes Larrabee to visit her mother on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

1949

On October 3, police capture Larrabee and Brunelle in Sioux City, Iowa, and return them to Shakopee.

1949

Larrabee and Brunelle escape together for the fifth and final time. Police capture them in Seattle on December 12 and return them to Shakopee.

1953

Larrabee is released from Shakopee on parole and moves to Washington state. Her parole is rescinded six months later for “commission of a new offense,” and she is sentenced in September to serve time in the Washington State Reformatory.

1953

Brunelle, now married to George Venne and living in St. Paul, drives to Washington state and reunites with Larrabee. The couple lives together there and, later, in Minneapolis.