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Otto Wood

by Marshall Wyatt


On Sunday morning, May 11, 1924, Raleigh’s News & Observer ran a front page headline that was sure to grab the attention of readers: “Two Convicts Make Daring Escape From State Prison.” The instigator of the escape plot was convicted murderer Otto Wood, incarcerated at North Carolina’s Central Prison in Raleigh for the killing of a Greensboro pawnbroker. His accomplice was John Starnes, serving a 5-year stretch for larceny.

At 6:00 a.m. on May 10th, the two men overpowered the supervisor of the prison’s chair factory, D. A. Partin, took his pistol, and forced him behind the wheel of an automobile owned by the prison physician. With his own weapon pressed against his ribs, Partin drove the two convicts through the prison gates to freedom. The escapees released their hostage at the Seaboard rail yard, then drove to New Bern Avenue where they ditched the physician’s car and hijacked a truck from Sanderford’s sausage factory. When this vehicle broke down on the outskirts of Durham, the two men commandeered a Studebaker car at gunpoint and headed for Winston Salem, where they picked up Wood’s wife and 5-year-old daughter. The foursome continued to Roanoke, Virginia, and here they were apprehended by police, who promptly returned Wood and Starnes to the penitentiary in Raleigh. Their taste of freedom had lasted all of 48 hours.  

This might have been the end of Otto Wood’s notoriety, except for his incorrigible penchant for escape. Over the next six years, Wood continued to grab headlines with a string of sensational jail breaks that captured the public’s imagination, and earned him the nickname “Houdini of Cell Block A.” His self-penned Life History of Otto Wood, written from jail in 1926, promoted his status as a folk hero, and he inspired at least three ballads that romanticized his criminal exploits, including one recorded by Bob Cranford and A.P. Thompson in 1931:

Otto Wood Mug ShotOtto Wood we are told
Was mighty brave and bold
Who once was a brakeman on a train
But in a wreck one day
He lost his hand they say
And we feel so sorry for a man in pain

Otto Harrison Wood was born in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in 1894. His early years were consumed with wanderlust, petty crime, and periodic incarceration, including stints in the Wilkesboro jail. At age seventeen, Wood lost his left hand in a railroad accident while working as a fireman on the Norfolk & Western line. Apparently this physical handicap did nothing to impede Otto’s illegal activities. His next decade was a ceaseless blur of stolen cars, bootleg whiskey, gambling, paternity suits, shooting scrapes, and jail breaks. On November 3, 1923, Wood’s criminal career escalated when he pistol-whipped A.W. Kaplan, proprietor of a Greensboro pawn shop, following a dispute over a watch. After Kaplan died of his injuries two days later, Otto Wood hijacked an automobile and fled the jurisdiction.  Following a week-long manhunt, he was arrested in West Virginia and returned to Guilford County for trial. Convicted of second-degree murder, Otto drew a term of 22-30 years at the state penitentiary in Raleigh.

In a North Carolina town
He shot a merchant down
And swung into a car a-passing by
They went at his command
Outside the state and land
Then he put the driver out and passed him by.

He was captured after a while
And had to face his trial
To hear what the judge would have to say
His friends could do no good
To help poor Otto Wood
Twenty-two to thirty years you’ll have to pay.

In about a half a year
Obtained a gun we hear
And forced the guard to drive him from the pen.
But succeeded not they say
To make his getaway
But was captured and delivered back again.

NC State PenitentiaryAfter his initial two-day breakout in 1924, Otto waited 18 months before his next dash for freedom. On November 24, 1925, Wood hid inside of a freight car used to transport culverts made at the prison, and allowed himself to be locked in. Once outside the prison walls, he used a hammer to break through the wooden siding of the box car. This time Wood remained at large for two weeks before he was apprehended in Mooresville, North Carolina, and returned to his cell in Raleigh.

Otto Wood’s third escape occurred on November 22, 1926, when he slipped through a loose iron grate in the south gate of the penitentiary. After the getaway, two prison guards assigned to the gate were summarily dismissed. Now labeled a “one-man crime wave,” Otto was captured three months later after suffering a gunshot wound during a holdup attempt at a Terre Haute, Indiana, drug store. Arriving back at Central Prison, he was placed in solitary confinement on orders of North Carolina Governor A.W. McLean.

But they could not keep him there
Such confinement could not bear
He escaped from prison several times they say
He was known throughout the land
For he had one only hand
But in bravery journeyed on his merry way.

Two years later a newly-elected governor, O. Max Gardner, returned Wood to the general prison population as an “experiment in humanity.” Exhibiting model behavior, Otto became keeper of the prison canteen and Gardner awarded him honor-grade status, allowing him freedom of movement in the yard and a uniform without stripes. The Governor should have known better. On the afternoon of July 10, 1930, Otto vanished once again, to the bafflement of prison officials. Rumors of a female accomplice were never substantiated, and the method of his fourth escape remains a mystery to this day.

Otto Wood would never return to Central Prison. On December 31, 1930, the fugitive was confronted on East Innes Street in Salisbury, North Carolina, by Police Chief R.L. Rankin and Assistant Chief J.W. Kesler, acting on a tip from an alert citizen. Aware of Otto’s distinctive handicap, Rankin called out “Come here, buddy, let me see your hand.” Otto shouted “I’m Otto Wood, and here’s my hand!” as he whipped out his .45 caliber Smith & Wesson.

He was in a town one day
Walking on his way
When he heard a man say “Buddy come to me.”
R.L. Rankin was the man, 
A hero brave and grand,
Then Otto dared him move or dead would be.

Holding the officers at gunpoint, Otto forced them into the front seat of their own car while he took the back seat and ordered Rankin to drive away. Instead, Rankin swung open the door and ducked out of the car, drawing his pistol at the same time. Kesler followed suit, and gunfire erupted. Eleven shots were exchanged at close range in the battle that followed. Chief Rankin later gave his terse account of the final outcome: “I raised up from behind the radiator. I wanted to end it. As I raised up I fired. Otto fired. We both shot at the same time. Otto missed. My bullet went home.”

Then their guns began to roar
Through his windshield bullets tore
Eleven from revolvers it is said.
And the last from Rankin went
Into Otto it was sent
Then the news was heard that Otto Wood is dead.

Rankin’s fatal round struck Otto near the mouth and tore a shattering wound through the side of his head. North Carolina’s one-man crime wave had ended.


Wood, Otto, Life History of Otto Wood, 1926/1931

Wood’s original 1926 text comprises 34 pages. In 1931, an anonymous author added nine pages of text and six photographs that provide an update of Wood’s history, including details of the fatal shootout in Salisbury. There were at least three printings of the 1931 edition: one bearing no publisher’s imprint; one bearing the imprint of the Pee Dee Publishing Company of Wadesboro, NC; and one bearing the imprint of Press Printing Company of Albemarle, NC.

The News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina (no byline, except where noted)

May 11, 1924:   “Two Convicts Make Daring Escape From State Prison”
May 12, 1924:   “Escaped Prisoners Hold Up Durham Man; Get Car”
May 13, 1924:   “Escaped Convicts Caught By Police In Roanoke, Va.”
Nov. 25, 1925:   “Otto Wood Makes Second Escape From State Prison”
Nov. 23, 1926:   “C.H. “Otto” Wood Makes Third Escape From State’s Prison”
Nov. 24, 1926:   “Otto Wood Still Retains Freedom” and “Wife Of Wood Has Remarried”
July 11, 1930:   “Otto Wood Out Again After His Fourth Escape”
July 12, 1930:   “Otto’s Destiny Plotted, But Otto Isn’t Caught,” by Charles Parker
July 13, 1930:   “Tells Police Otto Held Trysts Outside Prison”
July 14, 1930:   “Police Seeking Woman Who Paid Otto Visits”
July 15, 1930:   “Otto Widely Reported, But Remains Uncaught”
January 1, 1931:   “Otto Wood Is Slain In Spectacular Gun Fight With Salisbury Police”
January 2, 1931:   “Mother Of Wood To Bury His Body”
January 3, 1931:   “Wood’s Slayers To Get Medals”
January 4, 1931:   “To Send Body Of Wood To Mother”


Otto Wood Discography

Otto Wood / Cranford and Thompson
Bob Cranford, vocal, harmonica/ A.P. Thompson, vocal, guitar/ January 27, 1931/ Richmond, IN/ Champion 16261 (17486)

Otto Wood, The Bandit / Slim Smith
Bernard “Slim” Smith, vocal, prob. guitar/ Benny “King” Nawahi, harmonica, steel guitar/ February 5, 1931/ New York, NY/ Victor 23526 (67436-1)

Otto Wood, The Bandit / Carolina Buddies
Walter Smith, vocal/ Odell Smith, fiddle/ Norman Woodlief, guitar/ February 24, 1931/ New York, NY/ Columbia 15652-D (151345-2)